The problem of transition: why 'taster' days don't work

In the latest Tes Podagogy podcast, two experts argue that there's only one way to tackle the difficulties of transition

Jon Severs

How to help EAL pupils transition from primary to secondary school

Every teacher knows transition is an issue. Not just between primary and secondary but between phases, sectors or even year groups. 

And the research is clear that there is an issue, too. Problems of transition can completely derail a child’s education, according to Stan Tucker and Dave Trotman, both professors of education policy at Newman University, in Birmingham, and the guests on this week’s Tes Podagogy (listen below).

“For some of the most vulnerable, transition can be extremely difficult and they never recover from it,” says Trotman. 

But try as they might, schools don’t seem to be able to find a solution. And the topic of this week’s podcast is why that might be. 

Lost in transition

Both academics believe the problem is not down to schools not trying to bridge the gap, or not understanding the issue. They speak of the “great practice” many schools have adopted. But what these schools cannot change, they argue, is the fact that primary and secondary are fundamentally different systems of education. And it is this that causes the issues. 

“From the child’s point of view, that switch is enormous,” explains Tucker. “They have come from a place where education was not laid out in that way. The delivery of education is so different. The shift from primary to secondary is a group of children moving from what is essentially a caring relationship-based environment to a much bigger school where the whole pedagogical approach has changed… [it] is transmission rather than the discovery approaches in primary.”

Personal changes

This happens, says Trotman, at a time when the child is changing dramatically, too. 

“What gets eclipsed in the physical move from primary to secondary is the transition these young people are going through biologically, in terms of identity, friendships and social groups. They are moving from a relatively simple environment to a much more complex environment, right at the stage they are going through adolescence with the attendant pressures that brings and the expectations that suddenly get put upon them socially but also academically,” he says. 

Much of the efforts schools make, they say, cannot compensate for these huge structural differences. 

“We have had a potentially unique English problem of the ‘taster’ event at all areas of transition of this idea of ‘inoculation’”, says Trotman. 

Tucker explains: “There is this idea that if I spend a few days in the secondary school, somehow or other this will all work.”

Shifting expectations

It won’t work, they say, because it doesn't change the structural differences between the two environments. And it is very difficult for schools to try and impact those structural forces, according to Trotman.

“There are a different set of expectations both from government and parents about what these two environments do,” he says.

He adds that what you get alongside this is a gradual creeping up in expectations of young people and a narrowing of the parameters of success. So right at the moment when we put these children into a new environment, we up the expectations of what they should be achieving. 

And when these children struggle with transition, Trotman says, we blame them, not the system. 

“We find in our discussions with children in alternative provision [AP] that they actually have very refined ideas, entrepreneurial ideas, of what they want to do, and good self-management, and lots of excitement about work they can do to get there, but those opportunities simply do not exist for them to do that,” he explains.

“One of the challenges of taking children out of mainstream into AP is the model assumes that young people can be ‘repaired’ and put back into school, which places the responsibility of the behaviour on the child and not on the system."

Target group

Both academics argue that the increase in "performitivity" in schools is leading to “faster and bigger’ issues with transition. And not all those whom you may think are most vulnerable actually are, argues Trotman. 

“If you have a special education need you will likely find transition difficult. Numerous studies find issues for certain ethnicities, and there are issues for children who are more susceptible to the pressures put on them either from school or home or a combination. We are also seeing in the research that young women are particularly at risk,” he says.

What do they think could actually be done about the issues?

“We need a better understanding of the continuities needed in education,” argues Trotman. 

Tucker adds that “where we see well integrated, multi-professional approaches, that is when we are more likely to be able to resolve some of the difficulties around transition."

But, ultimately, we need to change how schools are structured, they believe. And they are optimistic that teachers support such a move.

“I am optimistic because we have a lot of teachers and headteachers who want to do something different and are desperately trying to answer the question of what that different thing might be," says Tucker. 

In the podcast, they also talk about home to EYFS transition, and transition from school to FE and HE. 

You can listen on the player above or by typing 'Tes - the education podcast' into your podcast platform

Professor Trotman is assisting with the BBC Bitesize’s Starting Secondary School campaign, aimed at 10- to 12-year-olds, their parents and teachers, and designed to help support the critical step of beginning secondary school. You can find out more here 

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Jon Severs

Jon Severs is editor of Tes

Find me on Twitter @jon_severs

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