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The First Step To A Smooth Primary-To-Secondary Transition Is Understanding Pupils’ Feelings On It

"Between Years 7 and 9 the proportion of students who said they would rather be somewhere else than in school rose from 22% to 33%"

  • The First Step To A Smooth Primary-To-Secondary Transition Is Understanding Pupils’ Feelings On It

Much attention is paid to how children learn and on effective teaching strategies to help them achieve success. Not surprisingly, educationalists tend to focus on classroom strategies and practice when considering how best to raise standards or achievement.

But what is often overlooked as part of this overall goal is how children and young people respond to school and what is expected of them. Are they happy? What do they worry or stress about? How prepared are they to come into school to learn, and are there factors beyond the school gates that are creating obstacles to their success?

We already know from previous studies that engagement and motivation are vital, and that children who have a sense of self-worth and confidence are more likely to be successful. This is why at GL Assessment, we have published a study into this complex and challenging issue.

Our report, Pupil Attitudes to Self and School, published last year, took an in-depth look into what students think and how they feel, and tried to identify when their feelings might change. The study, which was based on data from more than 31,000 children from England and Wales who took our Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) attitudinal survey, was one of the largest of its kind ever undertaken.

Changing attitudes at transition

We have always been aware that the transition from primary to secondary can be difficult especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The prospect of moving to unfamiliar and larger buildings, with new teachers and an unknown set of classmates is daunting. But the report showed that the decrease in positive attitudes was as great, if not greater, between Years 7 and 8, as immediately after transition.

Of course, we cannot ignore the other factors that come into play during this time – such as creeping adolescence and hormones, having greater responsibility for self and changing friendships. But it does appear that the effects of transition continue well into Year 8 and often Year 9, too.

Sir John Dunford, the Chair of Whole Education and former National Pupil Premium Champion, and who contributed his expertise to the report, says transition could be a “major barrier to learning” for already vulnerable pupils, such as children from poorer backgrounds or who have mental health issues.

“Many schools have made transition a priority area for spending the pupil premium, so that children who do not have as much support from home are given the additional support that they need at this critical time,” he observes, adding that schools are increasingly using pupil surveys not only to garner information from their own pupils, but to have the findings standardised against a representative national sample of 600,000 students.

The key findings

While it was beyond the scope of this report to examine whether transition was a cause or consequence of changing attitudes, we need to understand what happens to children’s feelings of self-worth, confidence and work ethic when they move schools. How do they view their own learning skills at this stage in their education, and what can schools do to mitigate any problems?

The findings revealed that there were a number of factors behind their declining attitudes. These included feelings about school, attitudes to teachers and attendance, their confidence with challenging tasks and their self-regard as a learner. Their general work ethic, preparedness for learning and how positive they feel about their own capabilities also played a part.

The biggest decreases in positive attitudes were towards schools, teachers and attendance, with the proportion of children who felt positive about this falling from 94% in Year 3 to 84% by Year 9. Positive attitudes towards teachers fell from 93% to 84%, while feeling positive about attendance fell from 90% to 82% during the same period. In every case, the biggest decline came after Year 7.

The underlying questions behind these figures are enlightening. For example, 94% of Year 7 pupils believed school rules were fair but this went down to 86% by Year 9. Meanwhile, the proportion who said they are bored rose from 18% in Year 7 to 32% by Year 9. Between these school years there was also a 7 percentage point drop in those who said they like their teacher.

Attendance also became more of an issue the older pupils got. The proportion of students who said they would rather be somewhere else than in school rose from 22% to a third (33%) between Years 7 and 9.

Young people also appeared to show a decline in preparedness for learning from 92% in Year 7 to 87% in Year 9, while their perceived learning capacity dropped from 88% to 85%. Children’s confidence with challenging tasks also decreased from 83% to 78% between Years 7 and 9.

However, one positive attitudinal indicator increased over time and it is to do with increased curriculum demands. Students tended to respond well to increased curriculum demands; the proportion who rated it positively rose from primary to secondary – 76% in Year 3 to 79% in Year 9.

We noticed from the data that there were no gender variations in attitudes, or perceived difference between different regions.

Identifying potential problems

For schools, the PASS survey can be crucial in intercepting any potential problems before they take hold and disrupt learning. At Ashlawn School in Rugby, Warwickshire, staff use the findings for each pupil against a track record of their academic progress, as Paul Foxton, the assistant head, explains.

“We need a starting point when the pupils arrive in Year 7 to find out what they’re thinking and feeling,” Paul said. “We’ve found PASS incredibly useful, particularly with the new Progress 8 measures. Schools always know how their extremes in terms of high under and over performance are coping, however the students in the middle can easily be over looked. PASS helps us to identify those students who are not as engaged as they should be.

“The surveys also give students a voice and an opportunity to ask for help if they don’t otherwise feel brave enough to come forward. Too often in schools we are reactive to situations, but PASS allows us to be proactive in our pastoral support.”


Transition: 7 ways to make it easier

1.Listen to what pupils are saying during difficult transition periods and try to observe any changes to motivation and engagement
2.Ensure there is good communication between schools and home so you’re aware of any problems that might impact on learning
3.Set pupils personal goals that are attainable so they taste success and crave more
4.Give positive feedback where appropriate
5.Provide opportunities for praising pupils for their motivation and engagement, including any success they achieve out of school; this could be done in assemblies
6.Set up a support system which includes, for example, peer and staff mentors so students have someone to turn to when needed
7.Be a good role model in the classroom, and step outside of your comfort zone if you expect pupils to do the same

You can read the full report at gl-assessment.co.uk/pupilattitudes.


Greg Watson is chief executive at GL Assessment

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