Children who are moving from primary to secondary school
The transition between primary and secondary school can be both an exciting and stressful time. It occurs at a developmentally sensitive period for children when they are seeking greater independence, are more inclined to look for approval and support from peers, and are beginning to explore who they are.
All pupils need some preparation for transitioning to secondary school. Most will negotiate this stage without problem, but some will need more intensive planning and support.
In different areas of the country there are systems of first, middle and secondary schools. There is also a significant transition for children who move from an infant to a junior school. Although the information in this section focuses on the primary to secondary transition, much of it will be relevant to the transitions between these different types of school too.
The differences between primary and secondary schools can be substantial and include:
- A new, larger school environment and new subjects.
- A broader network of peer relationships and new social hierarchies.
- Shifts from primary school classes with one main teacher, to an environment where teachers, classrooms and classmates are constantly changing.
- A change of teaching approaches that are less child-centred and more subject-based.
Studies regularly associate this important transition with an increased risk of poorer attendance, lower grades, school disengagement, reduced confidence and self-esteem, and increased symptoms of depression and anxiety. This can particularly be the case for some children with special educational needs or those facing multiple risks – especially if they have little support or little continuity of support.
Pupils concerns about transition to secondary school generally involve issues such as:
- Losing old friends.
- The size of their new school and getting lost.
- Rules, discipline and detention.
- Finding their way around.
Protective factors: what schools can do
- Notice and assess how easily children interact with staff and to what extent they feel a sense of belonging to school. Where school belonging is low, invest extra effort in liaising with the destination secondary school and families putting support in place.
- Studies show that children who recognise change as stressful, and who seek support and problem-solve, cope better with change than those who deny or avoid the emotional impact of a transition. PSHE lessons and curriculum approaches focused on helping children recognise and manage thoughts, feelings and emotions, problem-solve, and seek help when needed can help children with educational transitions. See, for example these modules on personal development and mutual understanding from Northern Ireland and these SEAL programmes.
- Good relationships between parents and staff can also increase the chances that children make effective transitions. Parents can support children during crucial primary to secondary transitions by:
- Making sure children have a quiet place to study.
- Tracking progress with attainment and homework on a regular basis.
- Showing an interest not just in how children are coping academically but checking in on how they are coping in terms of their wellbeing.
- Keeping an eye on who children are socialising with and promoting positive peer group networks.
- Being cyber-savvy and helping children learn important digital safety skills.
- Participating in activities that link parents and staff.
What else schools can do
Some more things that schools can do to help support pupils with the transition from primary to secondary school.
- Many schools form a cluster with other local feeder schools and secondary schools to jointly create a group strategy to plan and improve the management of transitions. This Australian website from the Victoria state government has a range of resources to help schools work collaboratively to create a transition plan.
- Establish joint social events between primary ‘feeder’ schools and secondary schools – including organising talks and Q&A sessions with children and with trained parents/carers who have already negotiated this transition.
- Work together with secondary schools to problem-solve and develop strategies for individual children who may struggle more with their transition.
- Consider the development of a peer support or buddy system. Pupils involved in peer support work need a clear brief and should be trained and supervised. See this toolkit (from Kent County Council) for ideas on how to encourage and develop such a scheme in secondary schools as part of your transition planning.
- If there are no area-wide planned secondary school visiting days, build-in familiarisation visits, taster days and induction processes for children and parents/carers to get to know new settings.
- Some local areas also have ‘transition councils’ which have pupil (including children/young people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and other BAME communities) as well as school staff representatives. These councils monitored and problem-solved difficulties emerging at the point of transition.
- In Australia, the state of Victoria has created a range of START PSHE resilience modules and resources focused on supporting transition. Sessions start in year 6 and continue in the first term of year 7.
- A 2018 Children’s Commissioner report suggests that entry into secondary school is when children experience a step change in pressures to become more involved in the use of social media. Any work on this area should not start suddenly at this age but should sit on a firm foundation of age-appropriate PSHE delivery, helping children value themselves and differences in others, understand healthy relationships and manage their digital safety effectively. See for example these PSHE lesson plans on personal development and mutual understanding, these SEAL resources; and these resources from the Safer Internet Centre.
- Work collaboratively with parents and carers to prepare children for the change of emphasis around the use of the internet and social media once they move to secondary school.
- Arrange for lesson swaps – get secondary school staff to teach a few lessons at primary school and for primary pupils to attend some secondary school lessons, particularly in topics such as science and technology where the equipment and facilities will be very different.