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Primary to Secondary Transition – Get it Right, from the Start

Transition from KS2 to KS3 isn’t made easier by underestimating – or mollycoddling – your new arrivals, insists Wonu Adedoyin-Salau...

  • Primary to Secondary Transition – Get it Right, from the Start

Every year, during the summer term, we host over 200 Year 6 pupils and induct them into what we affectionately call ‘The Bon’s Way’.

They are dropped off (sometimes reluctantly) by parents, guardians or elder siblings at the great bastion of the school gate.

You will see them fidget with shirts, fumble through the pockets of their backpacks and gape at the Nephilim-like creatures that tower over them in the basketball court (also known as the Year 10s).

This day is not only important to the incoming cohort and their parents, but for staff too.

No longer big fish in a primary school pond, it is imperative we recognise how vulnerable Year 7 pupils feel, and rightly so.

Transition day is swiftly followed by a flurry of curriculum planning and departmental meetings.

Exam classes are gone and data drops are almost complete. It is time for staff to take a breath and cast an eye on the importance of KS3 and the opportunity it poses for fun, engaging and fundamental learning.

Need to know

I (now) fondly remember sitting in such a meeting at the end of my second year teaching.

“Must they have a lesson on how to embed quotations?” asked one colleague while casually surveying the new programme of study.

They persisted, “I mean, surely they are taught this in primary school. These are the basics.”

As a nervy and newly appointed Key Stage 3 coordinator, this question prompted irritation and I was ready to refute the claim with a quick quip about them “not doing any of these things at all”.

Thankfully, I did not respond impulsively and instead went away to consider whether we as a team had any thorough knowledge of what happened in our local primary schools and how much of our curriculum was simply repetition rather than development.

Of course, it was great that we had already identified inconsistencies in our pupils’ ability to embed quotations seamlessly, and we acknowledged the need to tactically and proactively plan a curriculum that would address these concerns; but we could not do this alone.

Challenge and joy

Our first port of call was our local primary school feeders to take an inventory of what our students were already cognisant of.

Not only did this inform our expectations as teachers of what Year 7 pupils would be able to do, but it also allowed us to have a benchmark from which we could plan schemes of work that were academically rigorous and challenging.

The National Curriculum reforms and banishment of the old KS3 levels provided us with an opportunity to evaluate the content of our teaching and develop a programme of study that would equip students with the skills and knowledge to weather the transition from KS2 to KS3 most effectively.

Five years on and we have replaced the majority of our KS3 curriculum to ensure that we are planning for progress.

This has created more meaningful conversations about curriculum content and ensured that we as a team and school community are constantly considering the purpose of our teaching and learning choices.

Ofsted’s new framework similarly recognises the importance of purposeful curriculum planning – indeed, we have been given the alliterative ‘three Is’ to make it easy for us all to remember: Intent, Implementation and Impact.

Striking the balance between rigour and enjoyment is a constant battle for many teachers and some would argue that recent GCSE reforms have further exacerbated this issue.

However, in our quest to prepare our year 7s for the academic rigour of KS4, we should not forsake the importance of ensuring that it is still a time for creativity and joyfulness.

4 ideas for an easy-ish Year 7 transition

1 | Use what they know

They will come in with a schema of how school works and will be eager to compare things that are done in secondary to how things were done in their primary schools. This is natural, and should be encouraged. Hopefully, it will increase their willingness to adapt to some of the new practices and protocols that exist in secondary school. An example for English teacher colleagues – when teaching some of the more complex literary techniques such as allegory and motifs why not use a text they are already familiar with such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle or The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen?

2 | Exploit their enthusiasm

Year 7 students tend to be earnestly excited about learning and eager to share their ideas with you and their peers. Take advantage of this and don’t be afraid to introduce more challenging concepts to them. The likelihood is that they will rise to the challenge or at least have a good crack at doing so. Do not forget that they will have not long ago experienced one of the most academically challenging seasons of their lives – Year 6 SATs. Do not dumb things down for them or underestimate their ability to cope with an intellectually rigorous KS3 curriculum.

3 | Take time to know what is necessary and beneficial

You will no doubt have some students who come with a very complex primary school experience and home life. Any good teacher knows how external factors can help or hinder the academic and personal development of a child but it is important to also recognise the opportunity that secondary school offers for some of our most troubled young people. For some, this will be a chance to make a fresh start, reinvent themselves and carve out an identify free from the tainted perceptions of their primary school teachers and peers. Be sensitive to this and give them the liberty of being this new self. Treat the students who come with a mile-long rap sheet of trespasses with the same dignity you would treat any other student.

4 | Don’t let their cute little faces fool you

The beaming smiles, wide-eyed astonishment at every new facet of ‘big school’ and genuinely hopeful enquiring after homework are some of the most endearing (and short-lived) qualities of Year 7 students. However, it is the recognition of this inexperience that can lead us to want to mollycoddle them. Yes, this can be a scary time, but it is also important that we are focusing on building their resilience for life beyond the school gates. This means trying as much as possible to have a firm but fair approach to discipline and employing positive behaviour management strategies from the start of their secondary school experience.

Change can be as daunting as it is thrilling and there will no doubt be some students who are completely dreading this transition. However, the simple acknowledgement of this truth, that they will experience anxiety, can make a world of difference to the little people getting ready to join our school communities this term.

Wonu Adedoyin-Salau is head of English and assistant headteacher at St Bonaventure’s School in Newham.

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