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With more than 3,400 secondary schools in England, it can be a hard decision when it comes to selecting the right school for a child. The transition to secondary school is one of the most pivotal changes that a child will experience in their young life, and given that a parent or carer in England can only apply to up to six secondary schools, choosing the right school can become a heavy process.
A Scottish study notes that there can be negative associations with the transition to secondary school, including a dip in enthusiasm and engagement, though many students report that they enjoyed the challenge of more rigorous work. Whilst they require a degree of consistency and stability to aid their development, transitions for children aren’t infrequent. They shift between different stages of their life quite rapidly as they develop, whether it is joining primary school, the arrival of a new sibling, moving house, or familial changes. Thus, children are known to be particularly resilient. Still, every transition has an emotional, physical and psychological impact.
What is the transition to secondary school?
The transition to secondary school refers to the time in which a child makes the educational shift from ending their final year at primary school, to settling into a new stage of their life in Year 7. Not only is this an educational change from a Key Stage 2 curriculum to a Key Stage 3 curriculum, but social, environmental and sometimes geographical factors change too, sometimes drastically. This can be a very exciting period of time for children and their families, but it can also be challenging for many families, especially in cases where a child has particular attachments and needs. It can raise feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and insecurity for many children and their families, due to the challenges that may come with making new friends, children becoming more independent, entering a new curriculum stage and meeting new teachers.
Whilst children may not always air their concerns, the prospect of transitioning to secondary school may stir feelings of separation anxiety from their current group of friends, teachers they have grown attached to and routines that they are familiar with. The transition to secondary school from primary school also coincides with the onset of puberty for many young people, meaning that a large number of children are experiencing hormonal changes simultaneously.
A successful transition to secondary school can have a wholly positive impact on a child’s experience of school and learning for many years to come, whilst a transition with many obstacles can negatively affect the way a child and their family view schooling. For many reasons, including concerns about life at secondary school, some parents decide to home-school their child. Of course, this decision comes with its own advantages and disadvantages.
Why is the transition from primary to secondary school important?
The transition from primary school to secondary school is not just important for the child’s first term, or even their first year at school. The impact of their school transition transcends throughout their school life, and leaves a lasting impression for many years to come. A small interaction with a teacher, a subject or another student can influence the child’s opinion of school life and education right into adulthood. Many parents of children who have negative experiences of school also report negative experiences of school when they were children.
Given the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on schooling, the transition to secondary school is more important than ever. Most children starting secondary school will have missed out on the better part of two years of consistent socialising at school, impacting their social development. Anxiety about the transition is also bound to prevail.
What is different about secondary school?
There are major differences between the experience of secondary school, compared to primary school:
- Educational shift: Children in secondary school meet a more rigorous curriculum, where many new skills need to be fostered to engage with it. Additionally, children in secondary school are typically given homework for each subject that they study on a weekly basis.
- Organisational shift: Children in secondary school have different teachers for different subjects, and are usually taught in different classrooms for each subject. They will be given an exercise book and textbook for their individual subjects, and are expected to remember to bring the correct books to the correct lessons. The school day looks quite different, with just a few minutes to get between lessons and sanctions given for lateness. After school and weekends can look quite different to primary school, as children will have to manage their homework schedule and independent study time. In Year 7, children face many organisational challenges, and progress towards greater independence.
- Social shift: Children who are transitioning to secondary school will be immersed into a new social world, where they may not be with many or even any of their close friends. They will have the opportunity to make new friends or establish a social group in some way. They may be spoken to differently by teachers, who aim to foster a sense of maturity in each child.
- Cultural shift: Children will wear a brand new school uniform, and have to understand a new set of rules and a new school ethos.
- Geographical shift: Not only is the building a completely different layout, but their new school may be in an entirely different geographical location. They may have to learn new transport routes, travel alone and acquire a certain level of street safety awareness.
- Biological shift: As children transition to secondary school, they are often experiencing the changes of puberty in their bodies. Some children are not affected by the challenges of puberty during this period of time, but many experience changes in their personalities whilst they are working out how to fit in or stand out. This can be in conjunction with emotional changes, changes to their physical appearance and a heightened sense of self-awareness. This can make the process of transitioning to a new environment more challenging.
What makes a successful transition from primary to secondary school?
Whilst the transition can be daunting for some families, there are many things that can be done to ease the initial shift, making the transition to secondary school a successful one.
- It is important that the child has some familiarity with the school prior to the start of term. Of course, all schools offer open days, either face-to-face or virtually. Bringing the child along to an open day brings many more benefits than attending without the child, as the perception of the school may then be left to the child’s imagination. Open days are a good opportunity to connect with other parents and children who will be attending the secondary school.
- Gathering information about the topics that will be studied in their first term could be useful so that the child can ‘get ahead’. By doing this, the work they will be given may be less daunting as they will have encountered it in some way before.
- Many schools now offer a transition week during the summer holidays, prior to the start of term. The children who participate in this are given a great opportunity to establish the foundations of new friendships in their year group whilst getting to know their teachers.
- Ensuring that the child is in a good homework routine at the end of primary school will ease the transition to a bigger workload. Giving the child more opportunities to be responsible for their own organisation, punctuality and reliability will set them in good stead for the increased independence they will experience at the beginning of secondary school.
- Practising how they might travel to school, by making the journey by themselves a few times before the start of term, is useful for the child to become familiar with their route and routine.
- Parents should be prepared to see a change in their child as they start their life in secondary school. Being exposed to different interactions with children, and more mature conversations and topics, parents should expect their attitudes and opinions to change. It may be surprising how quickly they change, so figuring out how to deal with these changes before they arise can help for a smooth shift not only into secondary school, but into adolescence as well.
- Parents should help children to develop a healthy relationship with their mobile phones, if they have one. Parents should remain contactable, but should not be consistently checking up on their child, as this may be distracting and slow their process of independence.
- Schools sometimes assign the new secondary school children with a ‘buddy’ in an older year. This can be a helpful strategy to help the child feel at ease as they start.
What are some of the impacts of school transition?
Transitioning into secondary school can have many impacts, and many are positive. There are challenges too, some of which have already been mentioned.
Some positive impacts of the school transition on a child can include:
- An increased sense of independence and accountability, which is demonstrated at home and at school.
- A feeling of pride in their work and achievements.
- Good bonds between peers and teachers which aids other aspects of the transition.
- A positive change in personality and a chance to reinvent themselves.
- A love of learning due to the new, in-depth and dynamic lessons with subject experts.
Negative impacts can include:
- Decreased attendance.
- Lack of engagement and/or disruption due to finding the work too challenging.
- Anxiety about going to school.
- Low self-esteem.
- Missing their primary school friends.
- Not enjoying lessons due to poor behaviour.
- Getting lost in the new building.
- Not being able to keep up with homework deadlines.
- Parental distress at their child’s unhappiness/lack of academic achievement/bullying.
What hinders a successful transition to secondary school?
A difficult transition to secondary school can negatively impact the mental wellbeing of the child, and the parents, affecting the child’s academic achievement, motivation, attendance and engagement.
Obstacles to a successful secondary school transition could be:
- A lack of preparation from parents. Whilst children are resilient, they cannot be expected to understand the changes that are about to happen without having a conversation about it.
- A lack of preparation from the school. The school should ensure that all communications are made in a timely manner. If a child has particular needs, the school’s SEN department should make contact with the family prior to the start of term to discuss their care plan.
- Harsh expectations. Teachers must try to build a positive rapport with students, and keep in mind that they are new to the school, the rules and the expectations. Whilst it can be a good idea to set expectations early by setting sanctions for organisational mishaps, such as bringing the wrong book to a lesson, praise should be given at every opportunity, more so than sanctions.
- Bullying. Schools should have a robust anti-bullying policy in place, and deal with instances of bullying and discrimination immediately. Many parents choose to withdraw their children from schools in the first term due to bullying, which leads to further academic disruption for the child.
- Weak friendship ties. Many children who have a negative experience in starting secondary school struggle to make friends or find their social circle. Whilst this can take time, it can be very unsettling and cause huge concern for both the child and the family. The child may not enjoy going to school.
- Lack of consistency at home. Settling into the routine of secondary school requires organisation and accountability. Children should come home to an environment where they are assured that they will have dinner prepared for them and a quiet place to work, with a set place for their belongings. If a child lives between two homes, both parents/carers should remind them of the things that they need to take with them. A chaotic and disruptive home life negatively impacts the child’s ability to concentrate and remain organised.
- Poor behaviour in the classroom. Some children when they start secondary school, report feelings of shock when they witness how some of their peers speak to teachers, or treat other students. This can be unsettling and disruptive, impacting their enjoyment and feeling of security in the school environment.
How to help children transition to secondary school
There are many things that parents can do to help their child and themselves with the school transition. They can try to learn and understand the processes of the school, including going through the behaviour policies, the times of the school day, and speaking to their child’s new Head of Year about what to expect. Some transition activities may include helping children with routines at home, such as creating checklists for packing their bag each day. From a social perspective, they can connect with parents who are also sending their child to the school, and create opportunities for the children to interact. However, they should ensure that the friendship is not too dependent, otherwise they may not make an effort to make new friendships.
Parents should also ask their children how their day was each day, and try to foster an open and honest relationship, where their child will tell them the truth. At the same time, parents should avoid being overly inquisitive, as naturally, preadolescent children don’t always want to share every detail of their day. Parents and teachers should encourage resilience, and remind the child that this is a change that all children experience. Reports of unhappiness or negative experiences should not be ignored, but the responsible adults should encourage the child to find a solution to minor concerns where appropriate. Children should be told that it is okay to get some things wrong as they make this shift, as it is all part of the learning process.
Teachers should pay close attention to pastoral issues in the first few months, and ensure that any reports of bullying or discontent are investigated. They should also bear in mind that children just starting secondary school have not yet acquired the social skills, maturity and resilience of those in the older years.
The Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families provide advice for supporting children through their transition between primary and secondary school. The UK Government, alongside teachers, have also developed a free lesson plan which can help children in primary school to prepare for the change.