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Secondary school transition – Post-COVID, what support will your new Year 7s need?

Rhiannon Packer and Amanda Thomas explain how input from practitioners, parents and pupils can ensure a smooth transition for your incoming Y7s...

  • Secondary school transition – Post-COVID, what support will your new Year 7s need?

Transition is a complex process, regardless of age, and an experience common to us all. The move from primary into secondary school is seen as a significant rite of passage and a key element in the process of becoming an adult.

The transition process itself typically involves a number of stakeholders – Y6 pupils, practitioners from both primary and secondary settings and parents/caregivers – and entails both continuity and change.

Continuity in terms of the educational context (and perhaps a social one too), and change with respect to the student’s increased independence and responsibility, plus the expectations that will now be placed on them.

There’s a wealth of research available on the social, emotional and academic impact of transition on learners, and yet the voices of those most involved in the transition process – the students themselves – often aren’t heard. Both of us were greatly interested in hearing what those voices had to say about their experiences of leaving Y6 and entering Y7.

Student support

It’s worth first considering what precisely we mean by ‘transition’. Traditionally, transition used to be seen as a one-off event, with a visit to the new setting constituting, at best, a small part of the overall experience.

The modern transition process now tends to encompass far than this, with numerous transition events incorporated into the typical academic timetable.

This newer, more involved transition process can be seen as more of a bridge, with pillars of support either side for facilitating learners’ journey from A (the primary school) to B (the secondary school).

To extend the bridge analogy further, it’s important to recognise the potential potholes that might cause a learner’s traversal to stutter, stall or even fail completely. Typical concerns identified by pupils include the size of their new setting, a fear of getting lost, their ability to make new friends and whether they’ll be able to cope with the increased academic demands expected of them.

Parents and carers will have their own set of apprehensions concerning transition – particularly that the relationship they have with their child’s secondary school may be more distant compared with what they’ve been accustomed to from their (usually smaller) primary school setting.

Best practice for transition students – consistency and certainty

Our research has uncovered many examples of good practice in preparing learners for transition. These include organised visits to secondary schools prior to Y6 which don’t focus on transition, but rather aim to provide pupils with opportunities to familiarise themselves with the secondary setting.

We’ve also seen schools offer residential visits to their feeder primary schools, half-termly meetings between heads of Y7 and Y6, parents invited to contribute to transition/Y7 social media accounts, and organised visits by Y7 students to their respective feeder schools, where they present talks to Y6.

In one example, we saw generic transition events arranged across the academic year for pupils in Y6, alongside an offer of more tailored support for those pupils needing extra assurance. The latter would usually be arranged after meetings between practitioners, or at the request of parents or pupils.

From our conversations with pupils, parents and practitioners, it became clear to us that such events could have a significant impact upon the success of the transition process. Despite this evidence of good practice, however, it’s also apparent that such approaches aren’t consistent.

This has been a year of heightened uncertainty, which has at times compelled practitioners to adapt and amend their lesson plans, often with very little notice. Inevitably, this uncertainty has also impacted upon transition.

Transition challenges in Covid-19

One parent recently described to us how, aside from one virtual open day at her child’s new school, no other transition activities had been arranged. When she raised this with her child’s Y6 teacher, the response was that the school ‘Will look after him’.

The uncertainty this parent will already be feeling around their child’s forthcoming move is thus compounded by this lack of social interaction, and limited opportunity for them to discuss their feelings and thoughts with peers.

Social isolation, lack of peer support and disrupted school routines are all concerns that have been raised by practitioners. One noted to us that their school’s Y7 had settled in well, despite the disruption. They had, however, ensured that the year group in question spent an extended amount of time with their form tutors, and further acknowledged the value of having a strong pastoral team.

Form tutors and heads of year made regular wellbeing calls to check in on pupils, which strengthened relationships with parents and carers and led to positive outcomes amid a challenging time.

We heard another practitioner express concern that due to year group bubbles, it wasn’t possible to bring her school together as a whole. As a consequence, she felt the school had been unable to consolidate its community ethos, resulting in several bullying incidents of a type not seen at the school previously.

Primary and secondary collaboration is crucial

The school experience for current Y7 pupils has thus largely involved a mix of face-to-face and blended teaching, but schools have made a concerted effort throughout to ensure pupils feel settled and part of their new settings.

One pupil commented to us that while she valued the virtual transition week and opportunities she’d had to meet with staff and older pupils, the size of the school when she arrived in September was daunting, as she hadn’t had the chance before then to visit the school in person. Wearing masks during break times had also made making new friends challenging, yet despite this, she still felt excitement at leaving primary school and developing greater independence.

Our original research focused on listening to the voices of all involved in the transition process, and it was evident that their opinions had a direct influence on the organisation and effectiveness of the transition process. Collaboration between practitioners, and with learners and parents/carers, remains crucial in establishing a smooth transition process.

Given the challenges presented by COVID-19, it’s clearer now than ever that those voices from across your school community need to be heard and acted upon, if we’re to ensure that the transition from Y6 to Y7 is successful for all concerned.

Innovative transition ideas to try

The current Y7 cohort won’t have experienced the full transition programmes they could normally expect.

In place of such activities – full days at their new secondary school, extracurricular opportunities for parents to meet with staff – primary and secondary schools alike had to be creative in ensuring their pupils were prepared for transition:

  • Social media has played a key role in transition arrangements over the past year. Last summer, a number of primary schools organised leavers’ assemblies that included video clips of learners, practitioners’ reminisces about certain year groups and the issuing of yearbooks compiled from material submitted by parents.
  • Some secondary schools organised virtual school tours and ‘transition weeks,’ during which prospective pupils were set daily challenges via social media.
  • More traditional approaches have included video talks given by key members of staff, on how eager they are to meet the newest members of their school, and older pupils discussing key aspects of the school day.

These examples demonstrate the critical role of practitioners in facilitating the transition process – by fostering a sense of belonging, identifying concerns new pupils might have and addressing them directly, and outlining the new expectations that will be made of them.


Rhiannon Packer is a former secondary teacher and head of year, now based at Cardiff Metropolitan University; Amanda Thomas is a former primary teacher and FE practitioner, and currently a senior lecturer in early years education at the University of South Wales

Their book, All Change! – Best practice for educational transitions (Critical Publishing, £16.99), is co-authored with Catherine Jones and Philippa Watkins, and is available now.

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