Primary to secondary school transitions: systematic literature review

Impact of transitions and the factors that support or hinder a successful transition from primary to secondary school.

3. Conclusion and Recommendations

This chapter provides a summary of key findings emerging from this systematic literature review. The findings point to a number of important recommendations for educational policy and practice and these are also discussed in this chapter. The review highlighted important gaps and methodological limitations in existing literature on the primary to secondary school transition; the final section of this chapter provides a number of recommendations for future research exploring this topic.

3.1 Summary of Key Findings

What does the evidence from the UK and other countries suggest about the impact of the primary to secondary transition on educational outcomes and wellbeing?

  • There is fairly robust evidence that pupils' educational outcomes decline after they move to secondary school. However, it is not clear whether this decline is as a direct result of the transition to secondary school.
  • There was evidence of a decline in pupils' motivation, school engagement and attitudes, and an increase in absence and dropping out.
  • There is evidence of a negative impact of transitions on wellbeing, a decline in feelings of school belongingness and connectedness, poorer social and emotional health, and higher levels of depression and anxiety.
  • Therefore, evidence from the UK and other countries suggests that transition is associated with lower educational and wellbeing outcomes. However, we do not know the long-term impact or if these effects are sustained as most studies did not collect data beyond the immediate period of starting secondary school.
  • Positive relationships with teachers and peers was considered important for supporting a successful transition from primary to secondary.

What does the research suggest about the experiences of children and young people during their transition from primary to secondary?

  • There was more focus in literature on negative rather than positive transition experiences.
  • Pupils and parents are primarily concerned with changes in relationships during the transition from primary to secondary school.
  • Several studies have explored peer-related concerns, finding that whilst this is often a primary concern of pupils, the transition can also have a positive effect on opportunities for establishing new friendships.
  • Concerns relating to teacher relationships are also reported by pupils.
  • There is some evidence that a lack of fit between the pupils' developmental stage and the school environment may impact on how pupils experience the transition from primary to secondary.
  • There is some evidence that some pupils experience the changes around curriculum, homework and assessment as positive, whilst others find the volume of homework to be problematic.
  • Most studies suggest that pupils experience a dip in school engagement and motivation in secondary schools, however it is not clear whether this is due to the transition itself or other developmental changes.

What are the key factors that make a positive or negative contribution to the primary-secondary transition?

  • The key factors that make a positive or negative contribution are those situated within the pupil's ecological system, such as the pupil themselves, family, teachers, peers, and environmental and school factors.
  • The same factor can act as a protective and/or negative factor at different times, as well as at the same time.
  • However, there is no evidence of, if, and how, these factors interact with each other to make a positive or negative contribution.

What does the evidence suggest about the differential impact of transition on children facing additional educational barriers such as poverty or additional support needs?

  • There is little research on the differential impact of additional educational barriers on primary-secondary transitions.
  • There is some evidence that pupils with additional barriers benefit from differentiated support provided by schools for their transition to secondary school.

What does international evidence suggest about the characteristics of educational systems that support or hinder the transitional experience?

  • There is mixed, and at times inconclusive, international evidence about the characteristics of educational systems that support or hinder the transition experience.
  • Existing literature has explored: age at transition; impact of Independent vs public schools; size of school; the impact of through-schools versus schools requiring transition to secondary school; and the effect of one primary school or multiple primary schools feeding into a secondary school.
  • Regardless of these characteristics, a supportive and safe school environment which involved pupils in the transition process was important for smooth transitions.

3.2 Recommendations for Policy and Practice

Overall, the literature review found that there was robust evidence to indicate a decline in pupils' educational outcomes after they moved to secondary school, along with declines in motivation, school engagement and attitudes towards some subjects, and an increase in levels of school absence. Similarly, there was evidence of a negative impact on wellbeing, including poorer social and emotional health, and higher levels of depression and anxiety. However, whether this impact was as a result of the transition to secondary school and what proportion of pupils experienced this decline were less clear. Further, the link between educational and wellbeing outcomes is not clear.

Although the reviewed literature was primarily international with very few Scottish studies, it provided us with insights that should be helpful for supporting primary-secondary transitions in a Scottish context. Please note that these recommendations are based on existing literature and do not necessarily reflect current policy and practice across Scotland. They represent the views of the authors.

School belongingness, understood broadly as feeling included, respected and supported by others in the school, emerged as important to primary-secondary transition experience. There was evidence of a decline in the feeling of school belongingness following the transition to secondary school. However, promoting school belonging in primary school and facilitating a strong sense of belongingness in secondary school can have a positive impact on pupils' mental health and school engagement.

Recommendation 1: Schools transition practices should support the development of a sense of school belonging; this is important for pupils' educational and wellbeing outcomes. Exploring pupils' sense of school belonging in primary school before they transition to secondary school may help schools identify those who may experience more difficult transitions.

The literature review also revealed the importance of pupil and teacher relationships for both educational outcomes and wellbeing. Supportive and caring teachers have a positive impact on the experience of transitioning to secondary school.There was robust evidence that good relationships with peers, parents and teachers led to positive and good social integration which helped pupils to be resilient to the transition and accompanying changes. It is therefore important that pupils have multiple positive and stable relationships.

Recommendation 2: Both primary and secondary schools should support pupils in developing strong peer networksthrough planned activities, such as small group work and assigning peer buddies from secondary schools. They should be encouraged to join a range of activities and clubs in the community and in their schools. Further, it is important that pupils are put in the same secondary school classes with some of their peers from primary school so that they have an opportunity to make new friends.

Recommendation 3: Schools should provide opportunities which enable pupils to form secure attachments with a number of professionals in primary and secondary schools, such as teachers, pupil support workers and guidance staff. Familiarisation with new peers and teachers through organized visits to the new school should be enacted as early as possible, e.g., use of the swimming pool or other facilities in P5 or P6; secondary school staff visiting the primary school over a period of time; residential experience(s) with cluster school pupils (and those anticipated to move from outwith the cluster).

The review also found that there is lack of consistency in the pedagogical approaches used by primary and secondary school teachers. Further, it was reported that pupils believed there was a lack of communication between their secondary school teachers as they found the volume of homework to be a bigger problem than the level of difficulty, with some pupils favouring challenging homework.

Recommendation 4: Better ongoing dialogue is required between primary and secondary schools, as well as within secondary schools, to ensure that there is continuity of pedagogical approach. Primary and secondary school teachers should have opportunities to work in each other's classes so that they are able to understand each other's pedagogical approaches and introduce more consistency. Local authorities and initial teacher education programmes should facilitate opportunities for primary and secondary school teachers to collaborate.

The transition to secondary school often involves experiencing differences in the physical environment of the school. For example, pupils, especially those with ASN, reported feeling concerned about the larger environment of the secondary school. In addition, the transition often involves changes to the structure of the school day. In Scotland, pupils in primary schools tend to stay in one classroom and are taught by one teacher. When pupils move to secondary school, they are taught by multiple teachers and different classes. Overall, the findings about the impact of: the size of school; age at the time of transition to secondary school; through/nonthrough-school; and single/multiple primary moving to one secondary, were inconclusive.

Recommendation 5: It is important that there is a policy level overview of how schools in Scotland should be structured and what resources should be provided to schools to facilitate successful transitions. This could involve efforts to reduce the differences pupils experience between primary and secondary school. For example, pupils could be taught by a number of teachers in the final years of primary school, along with learning to move from one classroom to another.

The review also found that pupils are better able to have a successful transition if they are good at problem solving, can understand and manage their own and others' emotions, and are able to have stable friendships.

Recommendation 6: The school curriculum and teachers' pedagogical approach should encourage problem based learning and learning of emotional and social skills.

Further, it was found that pupils' expectations about transition to secondary school were related to how they then experience the transition. Pupils who expected a positive transition were more likely to have a positive transition. Research to date has primarily focused on the negative aspects of the transition to secondary school. This encourages a negative discourse around transitions with a focus on 'problems' rather than the benefits.

Recommendation 7: The discourse around primary-secondary transitions needs to change at a national level. It is important that at policy and practice level more emphasis is put on celebrating the positive experiences and outcomes as this could lessen the concerns of pupils prior to their transitions.

Parental involvement was found to improve educational outcomes as well as facilitating a successful transition. Parent-led transition processes or schools that had strong parent-teacher partnership approaches were found to be more successful in supporting pupils, especially those with ASN. However, parents were not always included in the transition process.

Recommendation 8: Parents should be involved as equal partners in transition planning and preparation.

Pupils with ASN may have particular needs during the transition to secondary school. For example, there was evidence of pupils with ASN having heightened anxiety during the transition, which then had a negative impact on their mental health and attainment. The anxiety levels increased when there was uncertainty. However, there was also evidence that some pupils with ASN preferred the more structured environment of the secondary school.

Recommendation 9: Schools should appropriately tailor their transition processes for pupils with additional support needs. Schools should also be aware that transitions can trigger additional support needs for some pupils who were previously not identified as having ASN.

However, prior to making policy level or practice changes, it is important that we learn from this systematic literature review and design a robust study to address gaps in our understanding of the primary-secondary transition in the Scottish context. This is the focus of the next section of this chapter.

3.3 Recommendations for Future Research

In this section, we detail key gaps in literature and make recommendations for future research. The literature review provides an insight into the most appropriate research design for a robust study of the impact of primary-secondary transitions.

Firstly, although all the studies collected data before and after the transition from primary to secondary school, only a limited number of studies used a longitudinal design that went beyond the initial period of starting secondary school. Therefore, whilst we understand the short-term transition experience we know less about the long-term impact and if these effects are sustained.

Recommendation 1: A longitudinal design should be used, ideally commencing when the pupils are in P6 and following them until the end of S2 with multiple data collection points over each year (e.g., twice per year towards the start and end of each school year, balanced with not leading to research fatigue for participants).

Most studies reported negative findings with few exploring the positive impact and experiences of transition. This provides an unbalanced picture of the transition to secondary school. It is important that future studies focus on what pupils are looking forward to, in addition to what is worrying them during the transition to secondary school. Further, none of the studies captured all four aspects that were found to play an important role in the experience of transitioning to secondary school, i.e., relationships with peers, parents and teachers; academic matters; engagement and motivation; and the physical environment. Therefore, currently it is difficult to understand how these aspects might interact with each other.

Recommendation 2: Research questions and data collection instruments should focus on both positive and negative aspects of transitions, with specific questions about relationships between the pupils and all significant others, academic matters, engagement and motivation, and the physical environment.

The literature review showed that there are multiple systems (i.e. collections of people and places) involved in supporting or hindering the transition to secondary school. This means that the transition to secondary school is not a straightforward area to research. Crucially, none of the studies collected data from all stakeholders within the child's ecological system. In addition, in the studies we reviewed, community was not mentioned as a protective or risk factor. Therefore, future research should aim to capture data from all people and places that influence children's development, including information about the role of the community. Robust research designs that collect data from all systems over time are required to fully understand how these systems influence the child's transition as well as how these systems interact with each other to support/hinder a successful transition.

Recommendation 3: Data should be collected from pupils, parents and siblings, significant others in the pupils' and schools' community and professionals.

Further, none of the studies captured data about significant others' transitions which again limits our understading of the interaction of transitions and impact it might have on an individual's transitions. It is important to bear in mind that pupils will be experiencing multiple transitions during the transition to secondary school and will trigger transitions for others such as parents, siblings and professionals (see Multiple and Multi-dimensional Transitions Theory, Jindal-Snape 2016).

Recommendation 4: The research questions in the study should focus on transitions of pupils as well as the transitions they might have triggered for others, and vice versa.

Finally, this literature review identified a number of gaps in the research evidence, including:

  • Only a limited number of studies focussed on the differential impact of transition to secondary school on pupils with ASN
  • Similarly, a limited number of studies focussed on how the characteristics of educational systems impact on the transition to secondary school
  • No study has comprehensively included data relating to pupil characteristics (e.g. ASN or typically developing); education system features; and geographical location (e.g. rural vs urban)
  • Only a limited number of studies have collected data from more than one stakeholder group, such as pupils and teachers

Recommendation 5: These gaps require further exploration in future research. In order to disentangle the impact of different factors on the transition to secondary school, research should explore the transition experience across a range of pupils and various education systems. Therefore, the demographics should include rural/urban schools, with (i) through-schools/not through-schools, (ii) different sizes of primary/secondary schools, (iii) moving from one primary to one secondary/several primary to one secondary school (iv) different socio-economic areas, and (v) sample of typically developing children/those with ASN and significant others, such as siblings, parents, teachers.

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