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.

Resources

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Transition to secondary school

Parent/carer guidance on supporting children with transition to secondary school.

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  • Oxfordshire County Council

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Peer mentoring toolkit

Peer mentoring toolkit

A peer mentoring toolkit.

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  • HeadStart Kent

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Transitioning in and out of primary

Article on helping families and children transition in and out of primary school.

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  • KidsMatter

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Supporting children with primary to secondary transitions: school staff

A newspaper article about the transition from primary to secondary school.

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  • The Guardian

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Childline: moving schools

Tips and advice for children on moving schools.

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Water Mill school: settling children with different languages

A summary of the learning Water Mill primary school (Birmingham) have built up supporting children...

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  • Water Mill primary school

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Supporting children with primary to secondary transitions: parents and carers

Newspaper feature on tips for helping children manage primary to secondary school transitions.

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  • The Guardian

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START PSHE

Developed by the state of Victoria, Australia, the Student Transition and Resilience Training...

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  • Victoria State Government

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