How to ensure a smooth transition

8th March 2013 at 00:00
Moving from primary to secondary can be tricky, so follow these tips to help pupils start off on the right foot

It is one of those blowy September mornings when the scent of new pencil cases hangs in the air. Your 11-year-old daughter, slightly swamped by her new uniform, is at the front door. She holds the handle of her Hello Kitty suitcase in one hand and waves with the other. "Well, goodbye Mum, Dad," she says. "I'll miss you, although apparently my new family is going to be really exciting. I just hope I can find the toilets."

Of course, it is ridiculous to suggest that children swap families at puberty. But according to David Harris, principal of Nottingham University Samworth Academy and author of Are You Dropping the Baton?, that is what we are putting children through - in emotional terms, at least - when they change schools.

"Moving school as a rite of passage?" he says. "I don't buy that at all. In your family you don't have that, you have a continuum. Within it you may have small rites of passage - a child may move to a new bedroom or be able to go to the shop on their own - but it's about continuity, not separation."

In his previous job as head of Serlby Park Academy in Bircotes, Doncaster, Harris amalgamated an infant school of 250 pupils, a junior school of 300 pupils and a secondary of 650 pupils to create a 1,200-strong all-through school for three- to 18-year-olds. In the introduction to Are You Dropping the Baton? he states that he has no doubt transition is the biggest unsolved issue currently facing education. As he explains: "When we first started working on producing an all-age school I thought some things were quite different. I was wrong. Now a few years on I know most things are fundamentally different."

Speaking to TES, Harris points out that tackling these differences requires careful unpicking. "If you want to make transition fail," he says, "then put Year 6 and Year 7 teachers in a room and ask them to talk about levels. Talking about projects and learning is so much more vibrant. Create a relationship first, have understandings in place, then you can start to focus on the differences and things you disagree about."

It would seem that the simplest way to create a system where everyone works together is to create an all-through school where everyone is on the same team - but Harris is more cautious. There are no simplistic answers, he thinks: "It's horses for courses. Schools can share the same site but collaboration doesn't even go as far as sharing resources. It isn't about physical distance, it's about mental distance - seeing people as equals."

But even with strong relationships and collaboration in place, Harris does not think you can remove every bump from the transition - after all, school is just one aspect of a child's life. What if things are also going wrong at home?

Taking down unnecessary barriers

A 2004 study into progression in schools in Greenwich, South London, asked teachers to list reasons why they thought their pupils had not lived up to academic expectations by the end of Year 9. About 70 per cent said there were educational reasons - such as not being as able as their Year 6 results implied or having too many supply teachers - but 45 per cent also said that pupils' home lives was a factor.

Comments included: "Family break-up - he is full of angst and father is not real father." "Family is in crisis and mother has diagnosed mental health issues." "Forced out of home by father to his aunt's home." "Mother, single parent, is 'ill' and likes to have a child around in the day." "He was blinded in one eye in a Year 8 fight and he has a lot of anger about that."

"Secondaries do put up unnecessary barriers," Harris says. "Transition is about working to reduce those unnecessary barriers so kids understand what they are doing and why. So if moving school happens to coincide with problems in their home life it doesn't feel as if the whole world is falling apart."

Transition has been an issue for decades - in the 1960s, a study of more than 2,000 children in Scotland found that pupils who had problems adjusting to their new school did less well in their schoolwork. But how big is the problem? Between 1975 and 1980, the University of Leicester's Observational Research and Classroom Learning Evaluation (Oracle) programme found that nearly 40 per cent of the pupils made either losses or no gains in standardised tests of language, mathematics and reading between June in the final year before moving school and the June of the following year.

Improving transition was one of the reasons for introducing the national curriculum - to ensure curriculum continuity between primary and secondary. But a repeat of the Oracle project in 1995 still found that two out of five children were failing to make expected progress.

Four years later in 1999, another study, this time by academics from the University of Cambridge, found that there had been a marked improvement in making the move between schools less stressful, but it concluded that "many schools are still putting all their energy and money into efforts at smoothing the transfer process rather than ensuring that pupils' commitment to learning is sustained and their progress enhanced".

For John Tomsett, head of Huntington School in York, tackling transition has been transformative. He wrote on his blog "This Much I Know About": "Primary-secondary transfer is profoundly important; I know we all know this, but I have to admit it is only in the last three years that we have set up structures to enable us to prepare effective, targeted provision for our new Year 7s."

Relationships and communication

Taking transition seriously has paid off, Tomsett says. "We had never set it up systematically before, but a couple of years ago we went to the local authority and they gave me #163;20,000 a year for two years to put an assistant head in charge of transition - she spends one day a week in primary schools through the year so all the kids know her and we started getting all this great intelligence."

Working closely with the primaries, Huntington identified its "Golden 100" pupils - those with the weakest communication and numeracy skills in Years 5 and 6 - and could prepare the curriculum to meet their needs before they arrived. For example, instead of seven English lessons a fortnight, pupils working at level 3c or below had 11 lessons a fortnight in their new school, similar to the daily literacy hour in primary; they were also assigned some of the strongest English teachers.

Huntington School has five main feeder primaries, which produce 180 of its 240 Year 7 pupils. And last year it took in pupils from a further 27 schools.

"I put a significant amount of time throughout the year into visiting primaries and the relationship is from Year 4 onwards," says assistant head Gill Naish, who is in charge of transition. "It's about putting in the effort and time to build relationships with staff and pupils. So when I walk in the pupils say 'Hello, Mrs Naish' and see me as a member of staff rather than 'the lady who comes in the summer'.

"But it's not just me, the maths department do some team teaching, and we have just started a project where sixth-formers work with Year 4 children on music, drama and art.

"At the heart of it, our transition work is about relationships. We want to help children on their learning journey from Year 4 to Year 13 and beyond. To do that we need to pass information between us as effectively as possible to enable us to personalise the experience for children as much as possible. By the time they arrive, I pretty much know all their names."

Huntington's work chimes with recent findings on the best way to handle transition. A 2010 report by the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People's Services (C4EO) identified five key messages (see panel, page 5). It said to focus on the basics, such as school visits and primary-secondary staff visits, and to do a lot of it. It also recommended providing targeted support for those children thought to be most at risk. And it emphasised including parents in transition events and getting it right from the start - children's first experiences of moving school can affect how they feel about similar moves later on.

The report added that there are three key themes underpinning all successful transitions: good communication, induction strategies, and balancing continuity and change. Finally, it stressed that it is important to put children and young people at the centre of transition planning.

In 2008, academics from the University of Oxford looking into what makes transition successful found that three in 10 children experienced bullying and that this was more likely for children with special educational needs than those without.

But the study of 1,190 pupils also found that 84 per cent felt prepared on entry to secondary school - especially when they had a lot of help from their secondary. By the end of the first term, only 3 per cent were still worried or nervous.

Establishing continuity

Year 6 pupils are anxious about being parted from friends, and can be worried about making new friends or rumours about bullying. They may feel the work they are set is boring or be pleased that they can handle it easily, not realising they need to move forward. Or they may feel the work is too hard but be scared to speak up among unfamiliar classmates. They may also find it difficult to manage their learning and time. And because they are growing up, they will have expectations of being treated more like an adult.

Angie Wilcock is the author of The Transition Tightrope and used to work as a secondary teacher in Australia. "I think Year 7 teachers need to be particularly mindful of the fact that these pupils were the leaders in their schools as Year 6 pupils," she says. "This age group looks for independence, responsibility, to be acknowledged for their skills and capacities and to be challenged in their learning.

"Although they are now the youngest pupils in the secondary school environment, it is really important for Year 7 teachers to provide as many opportunities as possible to encourage that leadership and independent thinking."

Wilcock also wants schools to remember the other people affected by transition - the pupils' parents. "I am aware of several schools that offer regular 'mini-meets' with parents of all Year 7 pupils - these are only short, say 5- to 10-minute get-togethers with Year 7 staff who have been allocated a certain number of parents in the cohort," she explains.

"It's almost like a parent-teacher buddy system. Teachers gather any info from Year 7 subject teachers about their pupils and have it at the ready to discuss with parents.

"Parents come along with any concerns or questions they may have. These regular mini-meets run across the first term of Year 7. Every pupil is on the radar and every parent is informed, and positive relationships are established early."

Transition is not just about the first few weeks of Year 7. It stretches way back into primary and continues into Year 8 and beyond. For pupils and parents it is about separation but schools can help it to feel like a continuum - by working in a way that extends the child's "family" instead of changing it.


Delamont, S. and Galton, M. (1986) Inside the Secondary Classroom, (Routledge and Kegan Paul).

Evangelou, M., Taggart, B., Sylva, K. et al (2008) What Makes a Successful Transition from Primary to Secondary School? (Department for Children, Schools and Families).

Evans, K., George, N., White, K. et al (2010) Ensuring That All Children and Young People Make Sustained Progress and Remain Fully Engaged Through All Transitions Between Key Stages (C4EO).

Galton, M., Gray, J. and Ruddock, J. (1999) The Impact of School Transitions and Transfers on Pupil Progress and Attainment. (Department for Education and Employment).

Hayes, S.G and Clay, J. (2004) Progression from Key Stage 2 to 3. Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association conference.

Key messages

1. Universal strategies to improve transition are beneficial for all and are relatively inexpensive to implement.

These include staff visiting each other's classes, sharing information and records about children and young people, and enabling parents and children to visit their new schools and meet their new teachers.

2. The more you do, the better.

One piece of research from the US found that the more practices children were involved with, the better the outcome. This suggests that increasing the number of inexpensive, universal practices may have more impact on children and young people than investing in a single approach.

3. Vulnerable groups may need specific support.

This could include targeting at-risk pupils with specific courses aiming to help them develop the skills needed to make a successful transition.

4. Involve families and children and young people in transition practices.

The evidence confirms that it is good practice to involve parents and carers and suggests that parental involvement can be further enhanced by involving young people, too.

5. Intervention in the early years is important.

The evidence suggests that early transitions may be particularly important for children, because they help them to develop the social and emotional skills they need to cope with transition in the future. This reinforces the positive benefits of investing in support for children and families in the early years.

Source: Evans, K., George, N., White, K., et al (2010) Ensuring That All Children and Young People Make Sustained Progress and Remain Fully Engaged Through All Transitions Between Key Stages (C4EO)

Building links

What support do children get before the move?

82% attend open days

68% are visited by a Year 7 teacher who speaks to their Year 6 class

17% are visited by a Year 7 teacher who teaches their Year 6 class

12% are visited by a Year 7 teacher who speaks in assembly

81% make additional visits to their new school

17% have an older pupil assigned as a mentor

Source: Evangelou, M., Taggart, B., Sylva, K., et al (2008) What Makes a Successful Transition from Primary to Secondary School? (Department for Children, Schools and Families)

Case study: The Bridge

At President Kennedy school on the outskirts of Coventry, a project called the Bridge, a dedicated unit for Year 7, won praise from Ofsted just three months after it opened in September 2011.

"There is already evidence," inspectors said, "that (the Bridge) is having a significant impact on students' learning. The curriculum in the unit is carefully designed to develop students' skills, and the progress of every student is closely monitored."

The Bridge is a school within a school - a newly refurbished building that has the usual classrooms, office, reception and playing field of any small school with 200 pupils.

This is where Year 7 is based - not for all their lessons but for most of them. However, assistant head Chris Jupp, who was involved in developing the project, says that the Bridge is not just about the building. Having a separate block helps, but this is partly because it makes the idea behind the Bridge - that the school experience should be centred around the pupils - concrete. That is where the real strength lies.

This may sound like "eduspeak", but as Jupp explains: "The building helps but it is not the be all and end all. The point is that specialist staff transport themselves to the children."

From the child's point of view, walking from class to class is very different from primary. The change reinforces the feeling that this is a new school to which they do not yet belong.

But with their own designated block, the Year 7 pupils have somewhere they can belong in a similar way to primary school. And when teachers come to them, this strengthens the feeling of belonging to the Bridge while linking them to the rest of the school.

Like any school, the Bridge has its own leadership team, which is held accountable for results. With detailed knowledge from feeder schools, the staff personalise provision so that even the most able pupils have their needs met, or those who are struggling.

Apart from specialist literacy staff, the teachers work across the school, but the Year 7 curriculum has been changed so that the children work with fewer teachers than older pupils do. They learn English, maths, PE, ICT and modern foreign languages, and then do two projects that cover the rest of the curriculum.

Jupp, a geography specialist, is currently teaching Year 7 a project on the Arab-Israeli conflict, which covers geography, RE and literacy. "I love it," he says. "It has been one of the most liberating experiences of my teaching career and I think the quality of teaching has improved hugely through doing these projects."

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