When moving to secondary school is a step too far

The transition from primary to secondary is a big one. For many, it happens seamlessly. However, for some children, it is terrifying. How can we help them?

Colin Harris

Girl taking big steps

The summer term is on the downward stretch now. Sats results are in, sports days dominate and perhaps an end-of-year concert lies in wait. 

And every 11-year-old in the country is preoccupied with moving from their beloved primary to that large school in the distance. For some, these thoughts are exciting, but for many, they are terrifying.

The last year at primary should be about combining the academic skill set the child has already been taught with the resilience and confidence needed to tackle secondary school. Instead, however, the year is dominated with endless academic practice, culminating in the dreaded Sats papers.

Stressful process

There is transitional work between primary and secondary schools, but the length and quality of this varies from school to school. There is certainly no commonality of provision. For some schools, transition visits last just one or two days, while others get a full week, or maybe even two. 

Though conversations take place between primary and secondary schools, most are on a superficial level, with little thought to how stressful the process is for the pupils.

We all know that the transition from primary to secondary is a big one, and it is pleasing that, for so many, this transition happens seamlessly. 

However, for far too many children, it is one step too far. They have neither the resilience nor the maturity to make the transition, and this is reflected negatively in the huge numbers excluded or offloaded in the first months of secondary school.

Is the fault with the primaries for not preparing the pupils well enough, or with the secondaries for not having the systems or structures in place to deal with the range of issues presented to them?

Successful transition package

We all seek that successful transition package. This can be recognised in the following way:

  • Children quickly develop new friendships and improve both their self-esteem and confidence.
  • Children settle quickly into secondary life and cause little concern for their parents.
  • Children show an increased interest in school and school work.
  • They also show an acceptance of new routines and organisation...
  • …while experiencing continuity across the curriculum.

Each of these elements requires primary and secondary schools to work together to achieve the cohesion necessary, and there is no one-size-fits-all model. Some children will need support beyond the norm, because of emotional or academic needs. 

Familiar face

The best transition experience my children had was when a secondary colleague was attached to my school for half a day a week for the whole of Year 6. By the end of the year, this teacher knew the children well emotionally and academically. She knew their strengths and weaknesses, and had even met their parents. 

When the children moved on to secondary school they had a familiar face immediately to hand. This was an expensive but creative transition approach, the success of which was reflected in how smoothly pupils settled into Year 7.

Expensive, yes, but we do need to address the importance of this transition and not just leave it to chance.

Colin Harris led a school in a deprived area of Portsmouth for more than two decades. His last two Ofsted reports were "outstanding" across all categories

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