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Primary to Secondary Transition: A Collaborative Affair

Primary to Secondary Transition A Collaborative Affair - Aidan Severs Consulting Ltd

Yesterday I gave a speech about transition from primary to secondary to a group of staff from both phases. Here's what I wrote in preparation:

Transition from primary to secondary is potentially a make or break time in a child's life.

All of a sudden they are plucked out of the relative safety of an environment where they have risen to the top, have become comfortable in and have had the blessing of spending the majority of the last year under the care of just one adult. They are then dropped into an environment that, in reality, bears very little resemblance to that which they have gotten used to. 

This new place is big, and they are at the bottom of the pile again. There are multiple teachers a day, and over the course of a week: even more. No one, despite their best efforts, knows them any more. All their safety nets - the sources of their confidence - are gone, and they feel like they are left to fend for themselves.

Parents become suddenly detached, and no number of pick ups, drop offs and afterschool conversations can make up for the fact that the environment in which their little 11 or 12 year old is spending around 25 hours of their week in is alien to them. No longer are the school gate relationships with other parents a thing - when their little one (and they are still little ones - please do remember this) makes new friends (and it’s always a massive relief when they do), and are invited to go to their house, parents send their child off to yet further unknown places.

The children themselves often show incredible levels of confidence - there is certainly excitement from many, even if tempered with some nervousness. We all know that familiar mix of emotions. Despite this confidence, children can pick up on the worries of everyone else. The well-intentioned transition meetings and days, the visits from secondary tutors in July, the parents fretting over travel arrangements and uniforms all have the potential of generating that worry as well as the enthusiasm. We’ve all made that transition. Many of us will have experienced it as parents. Most of us will have been some part of sending or receiving those year 6 slash 7 pupils.

I come to thinking about transition remembering my own experience. The 10-year-old Aidan, youngest in the year, barely containing his excitement as he is dropped off at secondary school on a beautiful summer’s day all those years ago. Blue skies and a searing heat which only served to heighten the anticipation and elation of that day. I loved primary school. LOVED it. But on that day I felt oh-so-ready to make that step. And the atmosphere around that school campus was charged - huge water fights broke out transforming an already thrilling day into something romantic, mythical - like a movie I’d not yet seen.

No doubt, this is an exciting time in a child’s life - even for those whose main feeling is trepidation, or even fear, it’s a hugely significant step to take. When you factor in the child’s age and the reality of the seismic change, it’s up there with the biggest steps a child takes. Secondary to sixth form to university seems like a bigger leap, but I’d contend that more young adults are emotionally ready for that move than young children are to leave primary school and enter their secondary school.

That being said, those new year 7s cope remarkably well on the whole. A combination of care from members of staff in both settings and an incredible amount of resilience on the part of the child, allows this to be the case. Many children are feeling ready for the change, and despite many concerns, feel positive and ready to make the move. Parents play a huge part in this readiness and resilience too.

I’ve now had two of my own children make that leap from primary to secondary, and I’m very thankful that they’ve both managed it well, although not without difficulties and a concerted effort to adjust to new requirements. I had the privilege of sending my children to a secondary school where I knew transition was taken seriously - a few years prior I had been part of a network of primary and secondary teachers who had come together to create a transition project which was started in the last half term in year 6 and finished in the first half term in year 7. Regardless of whether or not this project was still running, I knew the kind of place my children were about to be attending.

As a year 6 teacher of some years, I’ve also said goodbye to my fair share of cohorts as they’ve waved cheerio, always ready to welcome them back when they pop in to see their old primary teacher after a few weeks at secondary. The conversations then are telling. Whilst overwhelmingly positive about school, I've lost count of the number of now year 7s who wish they could come back to primary school - the familiarity, the familiy-ness, the relatively small number of children, the way lessons are taught. Again, this is said not to point an accusing finger at secondary schools - these children soon grow accustomed to the newness and most of their pining and harking back is simply nostalgia, nothing more.

However, they should prompt us to ask some questions, and seek some solutions, around how to make transition from primary to secondary school as effective as possible. Now, using the word ‘effective’ is dangerous as it could mean different things to different people, so let’s take a moment to create a shared definition of the word in the context of transition. What do we all - year 6 teachers, primary headteachers, year 7 tutors, secondary school leaders and so on - what do we all want for these pupils? 

We want them to:

  • settle in

  • adjust to the differences

  • be happy

  • feel safe

  • learn

  • take responsibility as they discover new levels of independence

And there are probably many more things, but what we see here is a holistic picture. If we, collectively, teachers from both phases, parents and pupils, only wanted them to settle in without the learning, we’d be missing the entire point. If we only wanted them to learn, but never allowed the development of independence, we’d be doing the children a disservice. 

The fact is that we want a whole host of things for these children who are moving from one school setting to another. We have a complex set of wishes for them which, in reality, is hard to meet, particularly where we are hoping for them to hit the ground running, for day one in year 7 to have met all that criteria.

And what is it that the children themselves want? Recent research from a UCL project which followed children from year 3 to year 7, interviewing them regularly about their experiences of school, found that pupils want three things when transitioning to secondary school: a sense of competence, a sense of agency and a sense of relatedness to others. It’s not really surprising that these three things came out of the research - they are the exact three things that Deci and Ryan, from their research, suggest are absolutely essential to a person’s wellbeing. It’s probably also worth asking your particular children what their hopes and fears are - that’s the only way you can begin to do anything about it.

My last school-based role was in an all-through school with provision from nursery-aged children all the way up to sixth form. As primary deputy and upper key stage phase lead it became my responsibility eventually to oversee the transition from the ‘primary side’ to the ‘secondary side’. Despite there only being a door separating us, shared facilities and even some specialist teaching from secondary teachers, there was still a gulf between the practice and pedagogy in the primary ‘side’ when compared to the secondary. This was still no easy step.

I say that this became my responsibility to oversee transition because it was one of the factors which had drawn me to the role in the first place. When I started providing leadership support to the school, the oldest children in the school were in year 4. Becoming deputy I then had the privilege of bringing these pupils through upper key stage two and into year 7. I was keen to take on the job, and to get my teeth intro transition in this fairly unique setting because in my previous school children typically transferred to around 18 different secondary schools, and this frustrated many attempts to secure a smooth transition and it felt like the summer term was spent in its entirety meeting with tutors from all the different secondary schools! Later on I realised how much harder it is for secondary school staff who can have pupils arriving from around 30 different feeder primary schools!

Coming back to the all-through school then: my role was not one-sided - I didn’t just have responsibility for the year 6s. I was also afforded the chance to work with leaders from the secondary phase to influence and shape the year 7 experience of our first year 6 leavers - not something most year 6 teachers get to do. This was really what I had been hoping for, and I was fortunate enough that the head of school at the time had a particular bug bear.

What was that bug bear? That, in her words, or at least to paraphrase her, pupils were starting year 7 bright and sparky, but by the end were switched off and weary. She wanted a change. She spent lots of time in our primary phase, and saw just what kind of children those year 6s were, and didn’t want them to change - she wanted those zippy, creative, confident and independent characters to transfer to her secondary teachers without losing any of those characteristics. But how? We’d seen it time and time again - pupils coming into year 7 feeling optimistic but leaving with that flame snuffed out. 

Now, I’m not here to suggest that this is your experience at all - I’m very sure there are a great number of secondary schools out there where year 7 pupils make it through the year not only intact, but also even more fired-up than when they started. If you do work at that secondary school a very sincere well-done is coupled with an equally sincere plea for you to share your excellent practice with others. If you truly do have pupils absolutely acing year 7 (albeit with some of the inevitable changes that accompany the approach to teenagehood), then there are many colleagues who will want to hear what you’ve done to achieve that.

For now, I’ll share a little about what we did, and what might be possible outside of an all-through setting.

The EEF, in their review of the research, identified three main challenges when thinking about successful transition, and none of them will surprise you:

Curriculum Continuity - the idea that primary and secondary curricula don’t always dovetail neatly

School routines and expectations - we’ve already mentioned how these can differ hugely from primary to secondary

Healthy peer networks - changes in relationships are inevitable - some of their primary friends go to different schools, or are put in different forms, and besides, there are so many new people to get to know!

Now, the EEF’s work only came after we’d begun to tackle transition based on our own perception of the challenges, but as you will see, we weren’t a million miles away!

I’m going to state right now that I think there are lots of things that primary schools can be doing to prepare children for year 7 and secondary school:

Teachers can explain timetables, room changes, the importance of pupils having their own equipment, the typical types of sanctions they can expect, the fact that the building is bigger, what lunchtimes might be like and the increase in independence that is required to tackle all these things. Primary teachers might even go so far as to reflect some of these aspects in their own practice. They will send them off to transition day, and set up opportunities for the children to meet members of staff from their secondary school within the primary setting. They will, to the best of their knowledge, teach lessons which attempt to help the children to be ready to tackle the key stage 3 curriculum, and not just enable them to pass the SATs. They will pass up information about any specific needs, and which friends might be a good match when it comes to allocating pupils to form groups.

However, beyond these attempts to make primary pupils secondary-ready, we also recognised the need to make our secondary provision ready for primary pupils.

Some of the next parts are taken from this blog post:

Primary teachers can do a really good job of ensuring that year 6 children are emotionally and mentally ready for the change but even the most well-prepared, excited, practically-minded, optimistic, confident 11-year-old can be flummoxed by which room they’re in next, where that room even is, who is teaching them, which equipment they need, and where on earth the toilets are en route to their next lesson. They may have moved up with a whole gang of their friends and feel super-secure in their relationships, but throw a load of new children into the mix – including great hulking year 11s, and that’s enough to throw anyone: even the most confident, friendly adult who walks into a brand new social situation can struggle.

Going one step further, as is sometimes the case, primary school staff can attempt to replicate as much of secondary school as possible during year 6: different teachers, different rooms, timetables, a change in pedagogy or classroom environment. However, with all the best will in the world there are many practical limitations to these efforts (building size, staffing, and so on) and the net result in reality is still this: they have not yet set foot in a secondary school and have not yet had to do full days, full weeks and full terms in what, to begin with, is an unfamiliar environment with potentially alien routines, systems and expectations. In a primary school where children are given something intending to represent a year 7 experience, there are still many aspects of primary life that will not replicate secondary life completely: lunchtimes are just one example.

Even transition days, which provide a chance for year 6 children to experience a real day in a secondary school, don’t fully prepare them for reality. On those days very few of the above expectations are in place: they don't have to pack a bag full of particular books, or bring the right equipment, or wear the right uniform, or find their way around the school using a timetable and a map. Perhaps transition days could expect more of the above, however doing that may serve to deepen anxieties around starting secondary schools rather than put minds at ease - which I do believe should be one of the main purposes of a transition day in the summer term of year 6.

Primary teachers can prepare the children and share information with secondary staff, but primary teachers can do very little to alter the actual secondary experience for year 7 children. Secondary schools have all the power to do so.

With a little thought, some willingness to change the status quo, and some collaborative working between primary and secondary staff, secondary schools could really make all the difference. No longer would they have to rely on a plethora of primary teachers to make a whole cohort of year 7 children secondary-ready. If year 7, and perhaps even beyond, was viewed as a time to gradually immerse children into the ways of secondary school, then that initial culture shock of moving from primary to secondary could be eradicated.

Once we embraced the idea that we could make our secondary school primary child-ready, we acknowledged another idea: that true transition began in September. That is, the September when those brand new year 7s step into their secondary classrooms.

I then shared the contents of this blog post with the group:

The question for schools is then: which aspects of secondary school life do we want to help acclimate year 7 children to first?

Each school will probably have a slightly different answer to that question depending on their context, although there are probably common answers: learning, routines for learning, and relationships might be some of those common answers, and ones which link back to those three challenges of transition.

At our all-through school we decided that we wanted to build relationships and ensure that learning was prioritised, and, as such our first project was to develop a new KS3 curriculum which in some ways reflected the style of curriculum year 7 and 8 children were used to at primary school. This was certainly an ambitious project. We also planned to make lots of logistical changes which supported these aims.

The changes that we made were consistent with the concept of reducing the cognitive load that comes from making the leap into secondary school, helping them to become secondary-ready over a longer period of time, accepting that much of secondary-readiness can be developed once they are actually at secondary school. Year 7 pupils don’t have to be mini-year 11s, they can just be year 7 pupils, fresh out of year 6 - year 6.5 as I’ve heard one secondary transition teacher refer to it as.

What we decided was that transition should involve more than a project a few weeks before and after the summer holidays; more than an open evening and a transition day; more than some data being handed from one school to another. We knew it would take a lot of time and effort but if it meant that year 7 children got a better deal, and that it had a long-lasting effect on their time at secondary school, we thought the extra work was worth it.

So, for the year before our first year 6 cohort transferred in year 7, we spent time developing a brand new curriculum. And then came COVID, lockdown, bubbles closing, isolation. Was this a case of all our best laid plans being torn to shreds? Actually, no, it wasn’t. 

The return to school in September after COVID brought with it some mandated changes, but ones which actually really supported the year 7 pupils as they settled in. Before I get back to the curriculum we developed, I’d like to share a little more about the things we considered changing in order to support year 7 pupils to settle in, and to have a transition year. After all, curriculum reform might be off the cards for you in your secondary school, but some of the following ideas might be practical although they may seem radical:

I then shared the ideas in this blog post:

Back to that curriculum then. Our secondary staff, after spending some time in primary lessons, recognised that not only was pedagogy different, but that the way the curriculum was structured was also at odds with how the key stage 3 curriculum was structured. Being honest, they identified that a GCSE model had been imputed onto the key stage 3 curriculum - and this to the point that the key stage 3 curriculum had effectively been reduced to just two years.

Before doing any work at all on the curriculum, we identified some key principles:

A Key Stage 3 Curriculum

  • Should be aspirational and supported in this by logistics

  • Should not focus solely on the learning of facts, but also on the organisation, use and application of facts

  • Provides an opportunity to extend aspects of the primary experience

Let’s briefly take each point and unpack it:

I then shared the contents of this blog post:

But curriculum reform, and logistical change might all be too much, particularly if you’re thinking about what you might do in the short term, for this year’s cohort of year 6 pupils going into year 7. What can you do for them in September 2024?

Although I didn’t make it this far in the time we had, I was also planning to share this article that I wrote for TES, which answers the above question:

I finished off with:

And if you’re sitting here and wondering, is he just letting primary teachers off the hook then? My answer to that is: no. All of the above should be, if possible, developed in partnership: year 6 teachers working with secondary staff to work out what would make year 7 the best transition year ever, and how the secondary school can be ready for the year 6 children who they so intimately know. Many primary teachers have spent plenty of time in the past working with secondary schools on how year 6 can change - what if we flipped it, and used that same time to look also at how year 7 could be different?

If you would like Aidan to work with you on developing your transition offer either at your primary school, secondary school, MAT or Local Authority, please visit his website at and get in touch via the contact details that can be found there.

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