Change can be a difficult process if it is not prepared for and handled well, for children and adults alike. Schools recognise this and endeavour to provide the necessary support to pupils during their transition between key stages. COVID-19 has significantly disrupted this process; pupils will have already faced a great deal of change in the last few weeks and will now begin to return to school for the summer term with the prospect of transitioning to their next stage of education looming.
Premier Advisory Group has previously undertaken qualitative research for local authorities on effective practice for primary to secondary school transition. Our findings and recommendations from this research have informed transition programmes that aim to support pupils to move smoothly between key stages and avoid the ‘dip’ in attainment associated with the jump from primary to secondary school. With the prospect of children returning to school in June after missing key transition activities, schools will need to adapt their practice in order to deliver the most effective programmes of transition possible, in light of the current situation.
What does successful transition look like?
A UK study on transition from primary school to secondary school (Lyons and Wood, 2012) reported that 25-30% of children experience problematic transitions and that these problems persist for 10% of those children. Similarly, Chung et al (1998) and Waters et al (2012) have demonstrated that transitions can play a role in long-term mental health.
During PAG’s transition research project, a review of the literature identified several issues that can arise when children transition from primary to secondary school. These include decreases in academic attainment (often referred to as a ‘dip’ in attainment), increased stress and anxiety, a lack of continuity between the KS2 and KS3 curriculum, inconsistent expectations and some secondary schools’ disregard of prior achievement. Additional problems can arise for those pupils lacking parental support, pupils that do not fit in to the majority culture and if pupils with SEND or individual needs do not have personalised transition support in place.
Successful transitions are those that are bespoke to the needs of children and families and are linked to an alignment of practice, so that change is built on what has gone before. One of the key recommendations in the Hundred Review (Early Education, 2017) concerned transition and promoted the view that: ‘In order to establish an effective transition into YR, it was strongly believed that this was best viewed as a process that emphasised continuity rather than a single event.’ This can of course be applied to any stage of transition during education and encourages continuity between each key stage’s curriculum, alongside the notion that transition activities should begin as early as possible. Many schools will have begun the transition process for their year 6 pupils long before COVID -19 came along, with transition activities taking place for some as early as year 3 and 4.
As well as beginning the transition process early, findings from PAG’s research shows that schools benefit from having a smooth process in place to transfer information, for example, through a ‘common transfer form’ or similar that ensures secondary schools can receive the necessary information about each pupil in a consistent format. The qualitative research also found that a key factor in successful transition is the involvement of parents/carers in the pupil’s transition, including seeking their feedback on the process and acting upon this.
Many schools in the study found it beneficial to establish a transition lead or ‘champion’ within their staff to promote these activities and noted the need for more cohesion between KS2 and KS3 staff. Keeping in mind that capacity and resources may be limited for some schools, one of the suggestions made was to do this through the use of appropriate technology, which would be more pertinent now than ever since releasing staff to visit other schools to observe or team-teach, or for joint curriculum mapping and work scrutiny across key stages will not be possible.
Another significant contributing factor to successful transition is the pastoral and wellbeing support given to pupils throughout the transition process and as they progress into the new stage of education. Parental and pupil feedback from PAG’s study shows that schools that focused on the wellbeing of the whole student and promoting activities to build resilience and life-skills played a positive role in building pupils’ confidence and increasing engagement, potentially mitigating or reducing the negative effects on long-term mental health that transition can cause.
What transition challenges are schools currently facing?
The latest government guidance proposes that from 1st June, children should begin to return to nursery settings, Reception, and year 6 classes. In secondary schools, educators should prepare for the return of those pupils due to sit exams next year i.e. year 10 and year 12. Whilst this guidance prioritises primary school pupils at key transition stages of their education, these pupils will have missed many planned transition activities that are part of regular practice, as well as national tests and a large chunk of their academic year. Some parents/carers may also choose to keep their children at home until they feel it is safe to send them back to school. This raises the question: how can schools compensate for this missing time in order to ensure pupils make the transition between key stages with minimum disruption?
Considering that it is not unusual for some children and young people to struggle with moving from EYFS into Y1, KS2 to KS3 and into Post-16 provision under normal circumstances, it is not hard to imagine how difficult this may be for them to adjust having been away from school for so long. There will also be the added difficulty of children returning to school who may have done very little in the way of ‘school type’ activities, or experienced trauma at home or even bereavement. It will be a hugely important task to make sure these children are nurtured and settled in before any major changes in pedagogy or practice hit them.
The majority of transition planning focuses on pupils attending events, such as meetings with new teachers, visiting secondary schools for transition days or weeks or KS2 pupils taking part in activities such as sports or practical science at secondary schools. Less time is usually spent on aligning practice, and with these events unable to take place this year, this will need to be considered now more than ever if pupils are to feel safe and secure in their new environment.
School leaders may feel under pressure to try and make up for lost time by focusing quickly on educational outcomes, in an effort to help catch pupils up, but in reality, the more confident and reassured a child is the more quickly and easily they will settle into school and the more quickly they will be able to fully access the learning opportunities. It is also worth noting that the more vulnerable and disadvantaged a child is the greater difficulty they will have adapting to new relationships and surroundings, acting as a barrier to engagement and learning.
What can schools do now to promote successful transition?
Educators will need to find creative ways to ensure their pupils are receiving a similar level of support as they would have been receiving in normal circumstances. Some schools will have already prepared welcome letters to their prospective year 6 pupils or introductory videos from teachers to ensure pupils are familiar with them. Pupils will need to be made aware of the differences between primary and secondary school, such as movement between lessons and having different teachers for each subject. Teachers could do this through video conferencing or by providing lists for parents/carers to go through with their children at home. As well as this, schools may wish to provide activities for pupils to practise organisational skills that they will need for the next stage of their education, such as packing their bag or budgeting for lunch. The Maidstone Specialist Teaching and Learning Service has some great ideas for activities and resources to promote transition here.
It will be beneficial to pupils to have an indication of how learning will take place at their new school. This could be done through teachers recording a sample lesson or getting pupils to complete mini projects while at home. With classes returning proposed to be no larger than 15 pupils, some pupils may need to remain at home at certain times, and this could be something for these pupils to focus on during that time. However, it is important to consider that such an approach may overwhelm some pupils, and so these could be done in a specific subject or area rather than all subjects.
PAG’s research found that mentoring or ‘buddy’ schemes worked well in reducing the anxiety of some pupils and their parents/carers around transition. Although ‘buddies’ will not be able to meet before September, there is the potential for secondary pupils who are not yet returning to school, for example those in year 7, to provide some form of support to current year 6 pupils remotely.
Pupils transitioning from nursery, reception or year 6 will need to be familiar with their new teachers. This could be done through providing pictures of key faces and a summary of what staff do, such as class teachers, heads of year, form tutors, designated safeguarding leads (DSLs) and special educational needs and disabilities co-ordinators (SENDCOs). These staff could also record videos to introduce themselves to pupils, which may provide reassurance to parents/carers and pupils. Additionally, pupils will need to become familiar with their surroundings, as they may not have the opportunity to visit before September. This could be done through pictures of classrooms, virtual tours of the school or virtual open days, which could be sent out through email or posted on the school’s website.
Pupils with SEND or individual needs
Pupils with SEND or additional needs often require a more tailored and enhanced approach to transition, even in normal circumstances. Communication between primary and secondary SENDCos is vital for the successful transition of these pupils, who may find change even more disruptive and challenging. SENDCos between key stages will therefore need to find a way to discuss individual pupils’ EHCPs and other needs; with face-to-face meeting not possible, this will need to take place via video conference, or on the phone if staff do not have access to a fully secure video-conferencing facility.
Additionally, SENDCos should aim to find out which pupils will not have had their annual review meetings because of the COVID -19, so that they can support these pupils appropriately. Although face-to-face meetings with parents/carers cannot take place, SENDCos should aim to be discussing (via secure video conference or phone) what would usually be covered in an introduction meeting, plus information about the pupil’s situation during lockdown. This could include how the parent/carer and their child are coping during lockdown, what their concerns might be and what the priorities might for the pupil in the autumn term.
DSLs will have a similar issue in communicating with each other the circumstances of vulnerable pupils. DSLs should arrange a secure process for transferring any necessary documents during lockdown e.g. online through a secure platform. They should ensure that the DSL at the school which the pupil is transitioning to is aware of any difficulties at home before the pupil starts. Again, where possible, these conversations should take place over secure video call or on the phone, in order to ensure they are heard and there is an opportunity for either party to ask any necessary questions.
To introduce themselves and their interests, pupils could complete profiles about themselves to share with their new teachers and support staff that highlight their strengths, areas for development, and ways they like to be helped.
Considering what children will have missed, where their starting points may be and how to gently integrate them back into a system that puts their wellbeing at the heart of all transitioning activities, should be the highest priority for schools and settings. Taking the time to plan processes and activities with individual needs in mind and building confidence and resilience through introducing change gradually will be the key to success.