The signs are usually clear. The bored, sullen look, a lack of interest in everything linked to school, disruption in lessons and showing off in front of their peers. It may cause only low-level disruption, but for thousands of pupils disengagement in key stage 3 will lead to under-achievement, exclusion, poor job prospects and a life of crime.
There are many reasons pupils lose interest, and some are more susceptible than others to going off the rails. Research shows those from disadvantaged homes or whose parents have low academic achievement are more likely to opt out early on, as are those who have had their education disrupted by having to move schools several times. White working-class and Afro-Caribbean pupils - particularly boys - are also vulnerable.
A major study last year by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) found disengagement took many forms. While some may vent frustrations by disrupting lessons or truanting, others turn up to school and show no discipline problems, but play no real or active role in lessons. Such low motivation and aspiration will have a huge impact on their success at this stage in their school life.
At a time when hormones are starting to kick in, changes in the school environment can play havoc with emotions. The problems faced by this age group are, of course, not new. In 2000, the key stage 3 strategy sought to provide a bridge between the work done in primary schools with literacy and numeracy and the transfer to secondary.
Marion Morris, co-author of the NFER study*, found transition was a rite of passage that had affected at least one in 10 children by the end of Year 7.
"For some young people, particularly girls, a lack of friends, feelings of anonymity, and the restrictions that homework requirements placed on their social life appeared to compound concerns caused by finding the work in which they were engaged less demanding - or less stimulating - than they had thought it might be," she says.
Some may arrive at secondary with an expectation of failure, fuelled by poor scores in KS2 tests. Grouping by ability can exacerbate feelings of low self-esteem.
The national curriculum and teaching methods also have a big impact on motivation. Moving between classrooms for lessons led by different teachers can be disruptive. Pupils who don't understand why they need to learn maths or French, for example, are even less likely to want to try.
Home life is also crucial. Studies suggest Year 9 is one of the toughest. It coincides with a time when positive family relationships and parental involvement in education decreases. Researchers suggest boys, in particular, need extra support. How schools tackle this problem will depend on the pupils' particular problems. Schools might decide to use preventative or remedial strategies, or a combination of both.
Better transition arrangements can make the move from primary to secondary less stressful, while more positive feedback after KS2 and 11-plus tests can help pupils to focus on what they did right, rather than where they failed.
Generally, the NFER research suggests prevention is better than cure, and that schools need to be more creative with the curriculum and the teaching methods they use.
"Pupils are generally more motivated by activities that are useful, relevant, fun, collaborative, informal and active," Ms Morris says. These might include using assessment for learning, pupil voice, and learning mentors.
Certainly, the need to redesign the curriculum has been recognised by schools. This September, changes to GCSEs and the introduction of vocational diplomas are expected to address this issue, too.
Peggy Farrington, head of Hanham School, a performing arts college in Bristol, believes disengagement is caused largely by the early secondary years being taken up with preparation for KS3 tests. "It takes a courageous school to put the tests to one side and not worry about them," she says.
Hanham is reviewing the way it delivers the curriculum in Year 7. Rather than expecting pupils to change teachers and rooms for every subject, it is looking at ways to create a core of staff who will teach more than one subject.
"It may mean one teacher doing the humanities, and teaching history, geography and religious studies," she says. "We hope it will lead to less disruption for pupils who feel unsettled by the transition from primary and a greater awareness of the relevance of subjects and how they are linked to each other."
At Walton-le-Dale School in Lancashire, KS3 pupils focus on core skills. Tony Hill, the head, welcomes the curriculum changes coming later this year. "We have taken the plunge a bit earlier in redesigning the curriculum, but we wanted to make sure pupils are less passive learners and more engaged in lessons," he says. "It is in the students' best interests to have effective preventative measures, and to that end we also have a system of tracking pupils' progress as they go through school."
The need for prevention is borne out by the research, which suggests that strategies to entice pupils back to school tend to be less successful.
Ms Morris's study found local authority schemes had shown no blueprint for effective re-engagement, but support teams involving mentors, education welfare officers and police had in some cases led to the identification of children at risk.
She believes that it might be hard to shift some entrenched attitudes to school among young people.
"A more appreciative approach that questions what works for young people, rather than a deficit model that too often assumes that the problem lies with individual children and not the system in which they find themselves, might be a more effective way of addressing the issue," she says.
* Disengagement and re-engagement of young people in learning at KS3
For further details go to www.nfer.ac.ukresearch-areaswidening-participation?status=2
Why pupils' minds are on other things
- Transfer from primary to secondary - or even movement from one class to another - can lead to disruption in friendship groupings, making pupils feel irrelevant and anonymous.
- A new curriculum, with distinct lessons and teachers, can feel daunting and lead some pupils to feel unable to cope. Homework can have an impact on social and home life.
- Impact of exam failure. Pupils who performed poorly in their 11-plus exams or key stage 2 tests can sometimes lack confidence in their academic abilities.
- Classroom organisation. Grouping by ability makes those in average or low-achieving groups feel less motivated, which can lead to low self-esteem.
- Home life. Not all children are supported at home with their homework and studying. Not all parents value the importance of education.