Tackling Transition: lessons from the research.

20 Jan 2017



“I want to emphasise to you, Mr President-elect, that we now are going to do everything we can to help you succeed because if you succeed, then the country succeeds,” Barack Obama

“Doing my best to disregard the many inflammatory President O statements and roadblocks. Thought it was going to be a smooth transition – NOT!” Donald Trump

This has been a week of obsessing about transitions. A deadline for an Med in Educational research on primary to secondary transition has gone head to head with Trump and Obama. Neither, in all honest, has given me a huge amount of pleasure this week. Mostly the transition obsession has generated long nights and stress induced data battles (still not entirely sure if I have the difference between quantitative and qualitative research nailed yet!) Glimmers of joy have appeared in the data darkness and Obama melancholy. This interview with Obama, in which he highlights how vital reading was in surviving eight years in office is hugely inspiring and a great one to share with students; devouring Blake’s poetry has also been delightfully salacious in the early hours (the A-Z of literature challenge continues)!

My own interest in the primary transition process comes from a number of factors (not just from the fact that my mother is a wonderful primary teacher and my father a splendid secondary teacher!) In my NQT year I taught a top set Year 7 group, most of whom came from Fox Primary School in Kensington and Chelsea, regularly named as one of the best performing primary schools in the country. Stumbling into lesson one with this group on ‘Animal Farm’ was certainly an eye opener: I have to confess to quickly scrapping my animal themed games! “Teaching” this group for a year re-evaluated everything I thought possible for an eleven year old to achieve.  I spent the whole year fretting about the sub standard offering I was giving them in terms of academic challenge. I also spent the year experimenting with the scope of what they were capable of: extended essays on the allegorical significance of the novel? No problem. Learning an extensive range of quotations? Done. Drawling parallels with ‘1984’ extracts? Easy. Their voracious desire for learning was such a delight to begin teaching with.

I was hugely privileged to teach this group for four years, and take them through their English Literature GCSE.  Luckily they ended up doing fairly well but I often think that had I been empowered with a true conception of their level of ability when they entered secondary school, their progress could have been rapidly accelerated. Seeing what those young people were capable of at that stage has given me a model for what Year 7 can achieve in terms of academic rigour and a desire not to be guilty of causing what the research refers to as the “learning dip” again!

Having the pleasure of watching a Year 6 English lesson in a feeder primary school last year was also hugely enabling in reminding me of the inevitability of overly nurturing Year 7 students upon entry to secondary school: the rigour, the knowledge, the pace – all still  below the level of expectation I have for my own Year 7 lessons. So I am using the opportunity to write a masters dissertation to explore the continuity of academic transition from primary to secondary school, looking at the various factors that can inhibit this. There are numerous issues to explore within this and if this wets your appetite feel free to have a perusal of the full research evolution and proposal here: Transition research proposal. When I generically mention “evidence suggests” in the below points, the references are all within this document.

So after a month of reading as much research as possible about primary to secondary transition, what are the resonating messages? One clear message is there can be no successful academic transition (by this I would surmise as the continual upward trajectory of achievement) without emotional security. Young people making the gigantic leap from Year 6 into Year 7 will not be able to make academic progress unless they are secure and happy in their environment. And the leap is giant – it is the complete uprooting of one conventionally smaller facility to a gargantuan one. It requires challenging adaptations for pupils, not only in forming new relationships, but also in adapting to new structures and new expectations.  So the messages for effective transition (Trump I am sure will be listening carefully):

Trump listening






This interesting research interviewed a significant range of Year 6 students to ascertain their fears and questions about starting secondary school. Uncertainty dominated the responses offered by the students. Research has also shown that cultural differences between school settings and institutional adjustment is one of the most significant factors in causing new students anxiety. To ameliorate this and to allow for a confident and purposeful start to secondary school the following steps are clearly hugely empowering:

  1. Having the opportunity to spend some time in the secondary school environment is so important and reassuring for young people. Schools have so many creative and interesting ways to make this possible – but the closer the links and the more time spent in the secondary school, the easier the process becomes for young people.
  2. The opportunity to meet with teachers is also one that students value hugely, particularly given the fact that all of a sudden they are faced with a wide range of teachers. Lots of schools are now using transition coordinators to support with this process, all very helpful for the young people involved. Familiar faces will help alleviate stress.
  3. Lots of research mentioned the clarity of expectations also – the fact that students have had the vision and notions behind the school clearly communicated to them helps immeasurably in allowing them to settle in. This is not about lowering expectations for Year 6 students – it is just about making sure they are completely care to reduce stress.
  4. Upon arrival in secondary school it is about quickly fostering positive relationships between staff and students. The quicker the student can feel emotionally secure with staff and each other the more receptive they will be to continuing to learn.
  5. There should be various moments in Year 7 offered to assess student well being and to ensure that students are building these positive relationships. Parental engagement is absolutely vital in this: regularly checking in with parents to ensure students are settled will help to quickly solve issues.
  6. Early intervention: there needs to be very early and timely support for students upon entry to secondary school to prevent issues escalating.


The principal reason for what is referred this learning dip as students enter Year 7 is a result of a lack of rigour in Key Stage Three curriculum and overly nurturing Year 7 students as they enter secondary school (a quick read of the delightfully inflammatory entitled Ofsted document ‘The Wasted Years’ will reaffirm this). There needs to be, clearly, a balance between the pastoral focus and the academic achievement – neglecting either one will have detrimental consequences.  There is also, still, a distinct lack of understanding about what Year 6 students are covering in their curriculums. Clarity of communication is everything:

  1. Trust in the data that is being shared. This is clearly an issue and secondary schools are wasting key learning opportunities by retesting Year 7 students upon entry to Secondary school in order to discern ‘accurate’ levels.
  2. Workbook sharing. This is a stand out feature of effective transition. A logistical nightmare perhaps, but there is nothing more empowering for a new classroom teacher to see the work that a Year 6 student has been completing. I had the chance to do this in my visit to a primary school last year, and the scope of writing students were completing and their grammatical knowledge has informed a lot of work with my Year 7 class this year.
  3. Close collaboration between Year 6 and Year 7 teachers: the more information that is shared the better. Pastoral information is vital but this also relates to academic information and sharing of schemes of work.
  4. Opportunities to observe lessons: Nothing will open our minds more to the academic potential of new Year 7 students than having the privilege of watching a lesson.
  5. Teaching to the top. The curriculum offered to Year 7 students needs to be rigorous. For English it needs to involve challenging texts, extensive writing and high expectations of the quality of writing students can achive.
  6. Curriculum continuity: the work needs to build on what students have completed in primary school. The rigour also needs to be balanced with engagement: Year 7 students should be widely excited about whatever the subject is going to offer them, this cannot be a moment in which we allow them to drift from the excitement and urgency of learning. Student voice is important in this respect – Year 7 students need to be regularly questioned about the standard of work they are completing.
  7. Academic independence: Year 6 students are expected to be independent and to manage a range of different areas of the curriculum. There is evidence to suggest this dips significantly upon entry to secondary school. Continuing to push students in this regard has to be a focus. This is also related to expectations regarding homework, lots of evidence points to a significant reduction upon entry to secondary school.

The resonating message from evaluating research is about opening up lines of communication. It is about school’s opening up doors and windows and allowing opportunities to work proactively in conjunction. The consequence of this is a more informed understanding of academic potential, emotional security and the opportunity for young people to continue to achieve.  Obama would agree – he loves a good share! Thank you for reading.





Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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