The issue of transfer from primary to secondary school is one which has concerned educators, psychologists, parents and pupils for many years. It has been suggested that motivation and performance decline after the move to secondary, but there are few studies examining the impact of transfer itself on any changes that may occur in pupil behaviour or attitude towards school. In addition, there has been little investigation of children's feelings and general well-being during this critical time.
An interdisciplinary study at St Andrews University used a longitudinal design to examine the transfer process from the perspective of a group of 393 children (195 boys, 198 girls) as they moved from 19 primaries to four secondaries. Since there is no generally-accepted test or method of assessing the success of transfer, children's self-perceptions of school commitment, school belonging, school participation, self-esteem and well- being were evaluated four times over a 13-month period, twice before transfer in the final year of primary school and twice after transfer in the first year of secondary.
As well as measuring any change in school engagement, self-esteem and well-being, information was also collected about family and home life, emotions, lifestyle and school to see how far other elements in children's lives might influence changes in attitude towards school and education.
The data was analysed using multi-level modelling to assess how school engagement, self-esteem and well-being changed over the time of the study, and how they related to the additional information collected on school context and various other aspects of children's lives.
The most striking finding was that, contrary to expectations, children recorded an improvement in school commitment, school belonging, self- esteem and well-being immediately after moving to secondary school. Only school participation, describing involvement in class activities as well as in extra-curricular activities, showed a sharp decline at this time.
However, despite the evidence of an initial "honeymoon period" immediately after the move to secondary, by the final questionnaire visit children perceived certain aspects of school in a less positive light. Thus, some six months after transfer, there was a decline in all outcomes except for the perception of self-esteem, which continued to improve.
It is not clear whether this represents a return to a more realistic outlook, or if it signals the beginning of a more prolonged negative attitude towards school and education in general.
Explanatory variables were developed from the additional information pupils provided about families and friends, emotions, interests and perceptions of school characteristics. As expected, parental involvement in education and good parental relationships were particularly valuable in promoting positive attitudes. But it was considered especially useful to identify significant explanatory variables relating to the school itself, as there is some possibility that schools could address some of these for the benefit of all pupils.
Nearly 20 factors directly or indirectly related to school were found to have an effect on the five outcomes in this study. Some variables were important in several ways; others were influential in only one instance. The most frequent variable of significance was a sense of school community, which influenced all outcomes except well-being. Feeling a valued member of the school was also important.
Other positive school factors included a good classroom environment with teacher support, and good school discipline. Many children noted boredom as a problem, and this was associated with poor school commitment. Clearly, declining engagement and well-being is a problem for children in secondaries, and more research is required to give us a greater understanding of children's perceptions of the school environment.
Vivienne Horobin is a researcher at St Andrews University.