How to ensure a smooth transition

15th 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. Helen Ward reports

It is one of those sunny August 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 with her Hello Kitty suitcase in one hand and waving with the other. "Well, goodbye Mum, Dad," she says. "I'll miss you, although apparently my new family is going to be really exciting."

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, Mr Harris amalgamated an infant school of 250 students, a junior school of 300 and a secondary of 650 to create a 1,200-strong all-through school for three- to 18-year-olds. In the introduction to his book, he says he has no doubt transition is the biggest unsolved issue currently facing education: "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."

Tackling these differences requires careful unpicking, he says. "If you want to make transition fail," he says, "then put Year 6 (the final year of primary in England) and Year 7 (S1) 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 Mr Harris is more cautious. "It's horses for courses," he says. "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."

Taking down unnecessary barriers

A 2004 study into progression in schools in Greenwich, South London, asked teachers why they thought their students 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 - but 45 per cent also said students' home lives was a factor.

"Transition is about working to reduce those unnecessary barriers so children understand what they are doing and why," Mr Harris says. "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 students who had problems adjusting to their new school did less well in their schoolwork. 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 students made either losses or no gains in standardised tests of language, mathematics and reading between June in the final year before moving school and June of the following year.

Improving transition was one reason for introducing the national curriculum in England (and 5-14 curriculum in Scotland) - to ensure continuity between primary and secondary.

But a repeat of the Oracle project in 1995 still found that two out of five children failed to make expected progress.

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

Relationships and communication

For John Tomsett, head of Huntington School in York, tackling transition has been transformative. "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," he says.

Working closely with the primaries, Huntington identified its "Golden 100" students - 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. Instead of seven English lessons a fortnight, students working at a low level had 11 lessons a fortnight in their new school and were assigned some of the strongest English teachers.

Huntington School has five main feeder primaries, which produce 180 of its 240 first-year 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. "So when I walk in, students 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 a project where sixth-formers work with Year 4 children on music, drama and art. 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 so, 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."

A 2010 report by the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People's Services (C4EO) identified five key messages on handling transition (see panel, page 26): focus on the basics, such as school visits and primary-secondary staff visits; do a lot of it; provide targeted support for those children most at risk; include parents in transition events; and get it right from the start.

It said three key themes underpinned all successful transitions: good communication; induction strategies, and balancing continuity and change. Finally, it stressed that it is important to put children 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, particularly children with special educational needs. But the study of 1,190 students 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

Students leaving primary are anxious about being parted from friends, and can be worried about making new friends. 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, author of The Transition Tightrope, says: "I think Year 7 (S1) teachers need to be particularly mindful of the fact that these students were the leaders in their schools as Year 6 students. 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 students 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."

Ms Wilcock wants schools to remember the other people affected by transition - the students' parents. "I am aware of several schools that offer regular 'mini-meets' with parents of all Year 7 students - 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 students 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."


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 than investing in a single approach.

3. Vulnerable groups may need specific support. This could include targeting at-risk students with specific courses to help them develop the skills needed to make a successful transition.

4. Involve families and children 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).

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