This article was written for SecEd Magazine
The adverse effects of transition
In 2019, the Scottish government published a literature review on the subject of primary to secondary school transition. The review concluded that there was “fairly robust evidence that pupils’ educational outcomes decline after they move to secondary school.”
The report found “evidence of a decline in pupils’ motivation, school engagement and attitudes, and an increase in absence and dropping out,” as well as “evidence of a negative impact of transitions on wellbeing, a decline in feelings of school belongingness and connectedness, poorer social and emotional health, and higher levels of depression and anxiety.”
In my 2016 book, Making Key Stage 3 Count, I reported similar findings and argued that, often, this decline – both academic and pastoral in nature – was the result of insufficient or ineffective communication between primary and secondary schools which had several harmful consequences:
• Firstly, secondary school teachers have a weak understanding of the curriculum content that precedes what they personally teach whilst primary school teachers have a weak understanding of the curriculum that succeeds their own.
• Secondly, assessment practices in the two phases are inconsistent and therefore there is little correlation between Year 6 and 7 data.
• Thirdly, there is often a weak understanding in Year 7 of what pupils can achieve and therefore insufficient challenge in the curriculum.
Of course, it’s not just about schools talking to each other more often and more effectively, important though that is. Rather, there are many factors outside a school’s control that impact on a pupil’s ability to adjust to secondary school life, including their own social and emotional development.
Covid and transition
Whatever the cause of this perennial decline in both academic performance and pupil wellbeing immediately following a change of schools, the Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly compounded the problem this year.
Various reports claim devastating impacts of Covid-19 on pupils’ learning and longer-term prospects.
For example, a joint study by the Nuffield Foundation and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published in September 2020 had this somewhat damning conclusion: “Nearly all teachers estimate that their pupils are behind in their curriculum learning, with the average estimate being three months behind. Over half of teachers estimate that the learning gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has widened.”
The report also found that teachers in the most deprived schools were over three times more likely to report that their pupils were four months or more behind in their curriculum learning than teachers in the least deprived schools.
A DfE report published in January 2021 entitled ‘Understanding progress in the 2020/21 academic year’, found that all year groups had experienced a learning loss in reading. In primary schools these were typically between 1.7 and 2.0 months. Schools with high levels of disadvantage had experienced higher levels of loss than other schools, particularly in secondary (2.2 months in schools with high rates of free school meal eligibility and 1.5 months in schools with low rates of free school meal eligibility).
And a report by Rising Stars called ‘The impact of school closures on autumn 2020 attainment’, published in February 2021, claimed that, at the end of the 2020 autumn term, there were measurable declines in attainment compared to the previous year across virtually all subjects and year groups. The Year 6 Pupil Premium group were estimated to be around 7 months behind the non-Pupil Premium group in Maths, a widening of 2 months since 2019.
So, what can schools do to ensure a smooth transition for new Year 7 pupils this September? Here are my 10 top tips…
Ten top tips for transition this year
Top tip 1: Avoid a deficit model; focus on the future…
Although pupils may have ‘lost’ a few months of ‘normal’ classroom teaching and therefore they might not have been taught parts of the planned curriculum, and home-schooling experiences will undoubtedly have been varied, but does this equate to ‘lost learning’? And do we actually mean ‘lost learning’ at all? Pupils will not have lost very much learning during lockdown. Rather, their prior knowledge will have decayed slightly and will therefore require some retrieval practice to dust it down but with practice they could find themselves back on the same trajectory pretty quickly. What’s more, lockdown may actually have served to incubate their learning, helping pupils forge new connections and develop more schemata, or at least provided some time for reflection.
Top tip 2: Attend to pupil wellbeing first and foremost…
As above, to help our pupils get back on track this September, therefore, I think we should eschew formal assessments (which, as I argue here, is never a good way to start Year 7) and instead make sure our pupils feel welcomed and safe; we should attend to safeguarding and mental health concerns and help foster a sense of belonging…
A report by the British Psychological Society entitled ‘A resilience and coping framework for supporting transitions back to school’ (2020) also says “It is worth highlighting the importance of a sense of belonging to promote resilience at times of transition.”
The BPS report goes on to say that “There is a risk that the narrative around school transition and the experiences of children becomes dominated by the language of risk, trauma, damage, or illness. To adopt an approach that promotes resilience is not to ignore the potential for trauma or harm, rather resilience models emphasize positive influences without discounting risks and vulnerabilities. This means that there is space for a narrative that explores assets, strengths, hope and coping.”
Top tip 3: Invest in quality first teaching…
After attending to pupil wellbeing, I think we should invest in quality first teaching: through good teaching, formative assessments can identify any academic concerns. And quality first teaching should focus on pupils’ literacy skills first and foremost – developing their oracy and reading comprehension.
Professor Daniel Muijis, former Ofsted director and now Dean of the School of Education and Society at Academica in the Netherlands, argues that any attempts to address learning loss must put the teacher at the core.
Writing on the university’s website in April 2021, he said: “Notwithstanding some controversy around the term, the evidence that learning loss has arisen as a result of the pandemic is overwhelming, as is the fact that the gap is greatest among pupils from families with the lowest levels of education.
Citing reports by Engzell, Frey & Verhagen (2020) and the NFER (2021), Muijis argues that “effective interventions need to put the teacher at the heart of the approach, and primarily encourage high quality teaching.”
“We know that short-term interventions such as one-off add-on courses are less effective than a coherent approach that is implemented across the school and aligns with the school vision.”
Muijis believes the effective quality first teaching is anchored in mastery learning: “To help all pupils catch up, it is helpful to build on the principles of mastery learning [which] means that we don’t leave anyone behind, and provide support for students who are at risk of failing. To do this we need to know our pupils’ starting points, which we can do through formative diagnostic assessment. In our teaching approaches, we need to continue to use effective strategies suggested by research on learning such as retrieval practice, and what we know about explicit teaching from teacher effectiveness research.”
Top tip 4: Arrange virtual visits in the summer term…
…in which secondary school teachers talk to Year 6 about life in ‘big school’ and, perhaps an even more impactful strategy, in which current Year 7 pupils talk to Year 6 to share their experiences of the transition process and of life after transition. Pupils are more likely to listen to their peers than they are to their teachers and will be relieved to hear from pupils in the year above them that life in ‘big school’ isn’t quite as daunting as they think.
and hold a virtual parents’ evening in the summer term…
…to welcome new parents and answer questions about the transition and induction process, and a further virtual event early in the autumn term for ‘settling in’ discussions.
Top tip 5: Invest some time in the summer term in teachers from primary and secondary schools talking to each other and sharing their plans.
For example, a teacher within the English department of a secondary school could make it their mission to know as much as possible about the primary English curriculum and could map what is taught at primary to the Key Stage 3 curriculum. They could ensure that what is taught in Year 7 represents a natural progression from what is taught in Year 6, and that it consolidates and extends prior learning. They could also ensure that the language of learning used in Years 6 and 7 is consistent – both in terms of the technical language pupils know and use (for example, using the word ‘conjunction’ rather than ‘connective’ to describe ‘and’), and the language teachers use to describe aspects of pedagogy and practice (for example, WAGOLL and WABOLL).
Top tip 6: Ensure that transition days – whether virtual or in person – strike the right balance…
…between enthusing pupils about what delights await them in September (and allaying their fears) and not over-selling the secondary experience. We want the event to be fun and engaging, to make pupils excited about starting their new school, but we don’t want to give the false impression that every science lesson, say, is a veritable firework display or that every day is full of fun, because the reality will only prove disappointing by contrast and pupils will feel cheated.
Top tip 7: Ask Year 6 pupils to produce a Pupil Passport or portfolio…
…during the summer term which contains examples of their best work and information about how they like to learn and about what motivates them. This puts some ownership of the transition process into pupils’ hands, thus engaging them as active participants in the process rather just passive recipients whereby transition is done to them by others.
Top tip 8: Run a staggered start in September…
…so that new Year 7 pupils can acclimatise to their new environment and navigate around the site without the looming presence of older, bigger students. This might extend into staggered breaks and lunches for the first week so that new Year 7 pupils can experience lunch in the canteen without vying for position with older pupils and can enjoy the playgrounds, and make new friends, without fear.
Top tip 9: Establish a peer mentoring scheme…
Although research recommends that a reading mentor be at least two years older (and have a reading age at least two years greater) than the mentee, there is much to be said for enlisting current Year 7 pupils as mentors for new Year 7s. These pupils have more recently experienced transition and settling in arrangements and during the pandemic, and thus are better placed to offer relevant advice and guidance. Being closer in age and experience, they are also better placed to communicate and understand how a Year 7 pupil is feeling. The mentoring could start whilst the mentees are in Year 6 and the mentors in Year 7 (on transition days, for example) and continue after the summer of transfer.
Top tip 10:. Create a ‘bridging unit’…
…which pupils begin working on at the end of Year 6, continue working on over the summer holidays and complete at the start of Year 7. Bridging units enable pupils to produce good work to take with them to secondary school which shows their new teachers what they’re capable of achieving. They also allay some of pupils’ natural apprehensions about the kind of work they’ll be expected to do in secondary school. And bridging units help pupils to see the natural links between the primary and secondary curricula, and to understand that secondary education is about progression not about starting again. Of course, extra consideration will be needed for those pupils who do not have supportive homes and who will therefore be placed at a disadvantage when continuing their work over the summer holidays. To resolve this, it may be advisable to run a ‘summer school’ which enables pupils to access help and support in school. Although discrete summer schools funding has been scrapped, it is a good use of Pupil Premium funding and the literacy and numeracy catch-up funding.