On my first day of secondary school, I got the uniform wrong. The differences in what I wore and what the cooler kids wore were tiny – too many buttons here, a tie too long there – but those differences mattered because they were one more thing standing between me and the ultimate goal of fitting in at big school.
The anxieties that children face about the move from primary to secondary school will more often than not be of the kind that I experienced: small and easy to fix (by begging a parent to buy a new pair of school shoes, for example). But for pupils who are already vulnerable because they have special educational needs or disabilities, do not speak English as a first language, or come from an economically disadvantaged household, transition can pose far bigger challenges.
Last year, researchers from Sheffield Hallam University set out to identify the challenges that vulnerable children face during transition and to trial solutions that might help these pupils to overcome their additional hurdles.
“We wanted to look at the impact of transition, particularly on children who receive pupil premium,” says Jill Collins, senior lecturer and project manager at Sheffield Hallam University, who led the project.
Collins and her team worked with two Sheffield secondary schools and their feeder primaries. These schools were already piloting a Sheffield City Council scheme called Early Risers, in which all pupils start the new academic year three weeks before the end of the summer term. This means that Year 6 pupils move up to secondary school in July and have time to acclimatise to the new environment before their summer break, when they have a chance to process the transition.
“Pupils get to know their timetable, the staff and the building, as well as the school’s expectations of them, all before the summer,” says Matthew Wainwright, associate senior leader for pupil experience at Sheffield Park Academy, one of the secondary schools involved in the project. “The early transition gives us a chance to sort all the admin stuff and means that everyone can hit the ground running when they come back in September.”
But Wainwright and his colleagues recognised that an early start to the new academic year was not enough to make the transition smooth for more vulnerable groups of children, such as those who receive pupil premium, all by itself. This is where the Sheffield Hallam team came in. Working in collaboration with the schools, it put several interventions in place.
“The first step was to ask these pupils what worried them most about moving up to big school,” Collins says. “We were expecting them to come out with all sorts of high-level worries, but what we found was that their concerns were largely the same as anyone would have in that situation. Things like getting lost, not knowing anyone and being bullied.”
However, speaking to the children’s teachers revealed a slightly different picture. Those who received pupil premium were seen to be more at risk of being negatively influenced by older secondary pupils, whom they knew socially outside of school and who might encourage them to engage in poor behaviour, such as non-attendance. Teachers were worried about how these children would manage that situation once they were removed from their tried and tested support networks.
“There was a real frustration among primary staff that they are working hard to keep these children in school, only for all that hard work to fall apart once the children move up to secondary school,” Collins says.
Wainwright believes that the shift in routines that occurs in transition is at the root of these problems. “Going from a place where they are comfortable to somewhere that is unfamiliar, where they don’t know the routines, can be really hard for vulnerable children,” he says. “The support needs to be in place to make sure that those who are likely to struggle are aware of the channels available to them in the new school. They need to know who to reach out to for help. Building relationships is key, as is strengthening direct links with primary schools. If we can get that right, we can ease the transition for those likely to struggle.”
Many of the interventions put in place as part of the project are designed to tackle those feelings of unfamiliarity and create reassurance about the new routines that pupils will face. Here are some of strategies that have been implemented.
1 Mapping the school
Small groups of Year 6 pupils from the feeder primaries are sent on a recce to the secondary school with the task of creating a map of the building. When they return to school, they will report their findings and share the map with the rest of their class.
2 Staff interviews
Ahead of transition, primary pupils are invited to interview members of staff at their new secondary school. These might be senior leaders or other people that new pupils are likely to encounter, such as members of the pastoral team. This is an opportunity for pupils to meet the people who will be there to support them, to ask questions and raise concerns.
3 Supported visits
During visits to the secondary school, vulnerable children are accompanied by members of staff from their primary school. These familiar faces will be there to offer reassurance and to support children through these first visits.
4 Parent and carer meetings
When anxious parents pass their worries about “big school” on to their children, this can make the transition experience even more difficult for vulnerable pupils. But by inviting parents to visit the secondary for a meeting ahead of their child’s transition, staff can put parents’ minds at ease and prevent them from communicating extra anxieties to their children.
Collins admits that these interventions are too new for the team to have gathered much data to support their effectiveness, but Wainwright is convinced that they are having an impact.
“All the feedback from parents and pupils has been overwhelmingly positive,” he says. “And while the interventions are aimed at vulnerable children, I’m sure that they have made transition easier for all pupils.”
Helen Amass is editorial content manager for TES and a former teacher @Helen_Amass