Primary to secondary school transitions: analysis

Analysis of experiences relating to the transition from primary to secondary school using data collected from Growing up in Scotland (GUS).

Executive summary

Overview and objectives

Moving from primary to secondary school is an important marker of progression in children's lives, with increased choices and opportunities. To ensure children are well supported, it is crucial to get a better understanding of their primary-secondary transition experiences. A recent literature review commissioned by the Scottish Government (Jindal-Snape et al., 2019) identified important gaps in our knowledge about transitions, including lack of longitudinal dataset analysis, in a Scottish context. Drawing on data from the Growing Up in Scotland Study (GUS) – a large-scale longitudinal cohort study tracking thousands of children and their families across Scotland – this report aims to plug some of these gaps. Specifically, the report draws on data collected around the time the children were in the penultimate year of primary school (Primary 6) and when they were in their first year of secondary school (Secondary 1)[1].

The report addresses four key aspects of the transition experience:

  • it identifies features of positive and negative experiences of the transition to secondary school;
  • it explores differences in the transition experiences for children in different contexts and with different characteristics;
  • it analyses the impact of the transition to secondary school on outcomes for children and their families;
  • it explores other developmental and life events and how these may influence cognitive ability.


This report draws on data collected at the time children in the first GUS birth cohort (Birth Cohort 1 or BC1) were in Primary 6 (or 'P6', the penultimate year of primary school in Scotland, academic years 2014/15 and 2015/16[2]) and when they were in Secondary 1 (or 'S1', the first year of secondary school, 2016/17 and 2017/18).

Data used were gathered from both children and parents. Primary 6 data are reported from 3,104 children and S1 data are reported from 3,290 children. The measure of transition experience used longitudinal data from 2,559 children who responded at both school stages and had complete data.

Transition experiences cover a number of elements including relationships with peers and teachers, academic matters and levels of school engagement and motivation. Seven variables linked to engagement and motivation – all measured in both P6 and S1 - were used in combination to construct a derived measure of 'positive/moderate/negative transition' (see section 2.4 for more detail on this measure).[3]

The report includes analysis of some of the individual elements of the transition experience, as well as findings using the composite measure described above. Only differences which are statistically significant at the 95% level are commented on in the text, unless otherwise specified.

Findings: the transition experience

Using the composite measure, for over one third (36%) of children, moving to secondary school was a positive experience. Nevertheless, a notable minority of children (22%) were categorised as having a negative transition experience. A further 42% reported a moderate transition experience, indicative of minor changes in some aspects of engagement and motivation once they entered secondary school.

In relation to enjoyment, engagement and motivation, children reported hating school more often (15% hating it 'often' or 'always') and were less likely to look forward to going to school (46% 'never' or 'sometimes'), compared with when they were in primary school (10% and 42% respectively). Reports of liking subjects such as English and maths were also lower in secondary school (39% and 36% liked English and maths 'a lot' in secondary school compared with 51% and 47% in primary school). However, it is important to recognise that overall levels of engagement and motivation were high during primary and secondary school, and the overall persistence of the majority of these positive attitudes was indicative of a positive or moderate transition for many children.

Moving to secondary school, 63% of children were still friendly with most or all of their primary school friends and 85% found it easy to make new friends. Levels of bullying were also generally lower in secondary school compared to primary school. For example, at primary school 53% of children had never been made fun of or called names, compared with 57% at secondary school. Even so, 15% of children found it difficult to make new friends, after moving to secondary school, suggesting that establishing good peer relationships may be a concerning aspect of the transition experience for a minority of children.

Most children felt the level of difficulty of schoolwork in secondary school was appropriate with over three-quarters for both maths (78%) and English (79%) saying the work was neither too hard or too easy. After moving to secondary school, 14% of children reported feeling pressured by school work 'quite a lot' or 'a lot' of the time. The majority of children felt that their teachers always or often treated them fairly, although the proportion who felt their teachers always treated them fairly fell sharply in the first year of secondary school compared to primary (44% compared with 76% respectively).

Findings: differences in the transition experience

The report identifies notable differences in the transition experience according to a range of factors. In particular, the following were associated with a higher risk of experiencing a negative transition and a lower chance of experiencing a positive one:

  • being socioeconomically disadvantaged (living in lower income household - 30% of children in the lowest income group experienced a negative transition compared with 15% in the highest income group); in areas with a higher level of deprivation (28% of children living in the most deprived 20% of areas compared with 15% living in the least deprived 20% of areas); lower level of parental education (44% of children whose parents had no qualifications compared with 16% whose parents were degree educated);
  • lower child expectations of secondary school - e.g. 42% of children who were not at all looking forward to going to secondary school experienced a negative transition compared with 15% who looked forward to secondary school a lot;
  • lower levels of parental satisfaction with the support provided by the child's primary or secondary school (41% of children whose parents were very unsatisfied with the support offered experienced a negative transition compared with 19% whose parents were very satisfied), and less frequent contact from the secondary school.

Boys (25% compared with 18% of girls), children with additional support needs[4] (32% compared with 19% of children with no additional support needs), children living in single parent households (28% compared with 20% in couple households) and children with older siblings (24% compared with 19% of children with no older siblings) were also more likely to experience a negative transition.

Children experiencing a negative transition were more likely to find it difficult to make new friends (28% found it very hard compared with 22% of children who experienced a positive transition) and reported lower friendship quality (37% of children who experienced a negative transition reported poor friendship quality compared with 26% who experienced a positive transition). They were also more likely to feel pressured by school work in secondary school (58% felt pressured a lot compared with 17% who experienced a positive transition) and less likely to have regular involvement in sports, youth groups and other activities (20% compared with 37% who experienced a positive transition). Children with a negative transition experience also reported less positive relationships with their parents. This relationship was particularly notable after the children had moved to secondary school when 39% of children who experienced a negative transition had a poor relationship with their parents compared with 18% of children who experienced a positive transition.

Children moving from a large primary school to a large secondary school were more likely to experience a positive transition (40%) than those moving from a small primary to a small secondary school (28%).

Findings: impacts of the transition

All children increased their cognitive development score when moving from primary to secondary school, though the extent of change varied by their experience of transition. Children who had a positive transition experience (using the composite measure) demonstrated, on average, higher levels of improvement in their language development than children with a moderate or negative transition experience. Children with a negative transition experience showed an average increase of 3.6 points while those with a positive transition experience showed an increase of 5.4 points. This relationship remained even when taking into account other differences such as gender, income, level of area deprivation and levels of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, indicating an independent relationship between transition experience and cognitive development that was not explained by any of these factors.

The move to secondary school creates two notable changes which may affect parental working patterns: a different school location – potentially requiring a change to arrangements for travel to and from school – and a longer school day. Only a very small minority of parents (7%) had changed their working hours as a result of their child moving to secondary school. Of these, a third increased their hours while around half changed their working pattern but maintained the number of working hours.

A majority of parents (86%) reported increased costs in relation to the child starting secondary school. Predominantly, these are costs associated with school uniforms and travel to school. Around one in four of those in the lowest income households found it 'difficult' or 'very difficult' to meet costs associated with their child's schooling despite financial help being provided through measures such as free school meals and the school clothing grant[5]. Unsurprisingly, families on higher incomes found it easier to meet the cost of school.

Findings: developmental and life events

During the transition period considered, only a small minority of children (7%) experienced events such as their parents separating or re-partnering. While 54% of children experienced at least one or more upsetting life event (e.g. death of a parent or other close family member, parental conflict) over this period, those in less advantaged socioeconomic circumstances were more likely to experience these events.

In the penultimate year of primary school, 14% of children were reported by their parents to have one or more additional support need. Towards the end of their first year of secondary school, this figure was 15%. Not all children with an additional support need reported by parents at P6 also had an additional support need reported at S1 and vice versa. Overall, 20% of children had some additional support needs at either P6 or S1 or both. In line with previous research, children with additional support needs at either of the time points were less likely to have a positive transition and more likely to have a negative transition than their peers who did not have any additional support needs at either time points. Of those who had additional support needs at either of the time points considered, 26% experienced a positive and 32% a negative transition. This compares with 39% and 19% respectively, of children who did not have additional support needs.

Two in ten children reported being bullied[6] in both primary and secondary school, and five in ten were not bullied at either time point. Experiencing bullying at both time points was more common amongst those in less advantaged socioeconomic circumstances, while for the minority of children who were bullied in secondary but not in primary schools, this was a little more common amongst the more advantaged children[7].

The research showed that, once the experience of transition was taken into account, there was no independent relationship between any of these developmental and life events – experiencing parental separation or re-partnering; experiencing one or more upsetting life events; experiencing increased levels of bullying or having an additional support need – and changes in their cognitive development during the transition period considered. This further supports the finding that there appears to be an independent relationship between transition experience and changes in the child's cognitive ability, even when taking into account a range of other factors present in children's lives, including various life events occurring alongside the transition.

Recommendations for policy and practice

At an overall level, the findings suggest that support for transition needs to acknowledge the myriad factors occurring alongside and potentially influencing a child's transition process. Where possible, schools and parents need to provide the support necessary to mitigate against negative impacts and ensure each child has a successful transition.

More specifically, based on the full findings from the research, the report provides a number of recommendations for policy and practice to help improve children's transition experiences:

  • Similar to activities already being undertaken in relation to the Scottish Attainment Challenge, there may be benefit in targeting children from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds in order to provide more tailored transition support, however further research is needed.
  • Reflecting existing legislative requirements, children with additional support needs already receive individualised transition support, both in primary and secondary school. However, with some of these children continuing to report poorer transitions, there may be some benefit in a review of the mode and content of this transition support to better meet the needs of these children.
  • Ensure steps are taken to promote positive relationships with peers and teachers in children's first year at secondary school.
  • Address any anxieties and misconceptions about secondary school while children are still in primary school, including more familiarization with the secondary school environment, both physical and human.
  • Identify what factors are at play in terms of decline in positive attitudes towards English and maths so that schools can effectively meet the needs of their pupils in relation to these aspects of the curriculum. Review their attitudes over time.
  • Schools should continue to implement the national approach to anti-bullying in Scotland and share good practices where anti-bullying activity means that bullying is less prevalent.
  • Ensure that relevant sports, youth groups and other activities – in particular, those related to the transition itself – are available and accessible to children, both at school and in the wider community.
  • Foster and maintain good school-parent relationships through timely and relevant communication, to ensure parents are fully supported to help their child with the transition.
  • Ensure work in this area is evidence based and incorporates pedagogical approaches that enhance children and young people's learning experience in school.

Recommendations for further research

This research provides new, unique and important evidence to help understand primary to secondary transitions. It also raises a number of further questions, including:

  • Why are children from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds more likely to experience negative transitions, and what measures might be particularly useful to support these children?
  • What might explain the relationship identified between children's transition experience and changes in their cognitive ability?
  • Are the differences in transition experiences identified here inter-related with each other, and does this explain some of the relationships identified in this report (e.g. differences between boys and girls)?



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