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).

1 Introduction

1.1. Background

This report was commissioned by the Scottish Government to explore the impacts of the transition to secondary school for children and their families, and the factors that shape their transition experiences. It is intended to inform policy and practice relating to how best to support children in the transition to secondary school, seeking to ensure that this is a positive experience and improving related educational and wellbeing outcomes as a result. There is a policy imperative to understand what is happening in Scottish schools in order to ensure that, as the 2020 National Improvement Framework (NIF) and Improvement Plan states, "our schools are places that promote positive relationships and behaviour…" and "children and young people…thrive, regardless of their social circumstances or additional needs" (Scottish Government, 2019).

The report is based on analysis of data from the Growing up in Scotland (GUS) study. It draws on the findings and recommendations, including for further research/analysis, of a systematic literature review commissioned by Scottish Government (Jindal-Snape et al., 2019) and subsequent conversations with policy makers.

1.2. Summary of findings from the systematic review

The review of international empirical research covered the period 2008-2018 and was conducted to understand children's experiences of primary-secondary transitions, the impact of primary-secondary transition on children's educational and wellbeing outcomes, and factors that had an impact on experiences and outcomes (see Jindal-Snape, Cantali, MacGillivray & Hannah, 2019; Jindal-Snape, Hannah, Cantali, Barlow & MacGillivray, 2020).

Using the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre) approach (2010), 96 studies were included in the review. However, despite primary-secondary transitions being a much-researched area internationally (Jindal-Snape, 2016), there is a paucity of studies in Scotland (e.g. Hannah & Topping, 2012, 2013; Jindal-Snape & Foggie, 2008; Jindal-Snape & Cantali, 2019; West, Sweeting & Young, 2010; Zeedyk, Gallagher, Henderson, Hope, Husband & Lindsay, 2003). Only seven studies set in a Scottish context (out of 34 UK studies) were part of the review, because this was limited to the period between 2008 and 2018.

The literature review identified several evidence gaps, some of which are addressed in this report. These include lack of information about: the proportion of children experiencing positive or negative transitions; the impact of primary-secondary transitions; the differential impact of transitions on children with additional support needs and the association between household demographics, school characteristics, transition experiences and outcomes. Further, the review identified a lack of studies that collected data from pupils and all other stakeholders, and most were small scale. For example, only 18 of the 96 studies covered by the review had collected data from a sample of more than 1000 children and young people, only one study reported on data from more than 1000 parents and only a single study had data from teachers. The review also highlighted the paucity of secondary analysis of up-to-date datasets in general, and in Scotland in particular.

Primary-secondary transition is an ongoing process of psychological, social and educational adaptation over time, due to changes in context, interpersonal relationships and identity (Jindal-Snape, 2018). Further, Multiple and Multi-dimensional Transitions (MMT) Theory (Jindal-Snape, 2016, 2018) emphasises that children experience multiple transitions at the same time, in multiple domains (e.g. social, academic) and multiple contexts (e.g. school, home). These multiple transitions impact each other and can trigger transitions for other people (e.g. friends, parents, teachers) and vice versa, meaning that transition overall is a multidimensional process shared across individuals and contexts. The GUS data are well suited to use this conceptualisation and theoretical lens, as they include data collected directly from children, concerning different domains and contexts, as well as data collected from parents over time. The data can also provide some insight into how children's transitions may be related to transitions for parents.

Typically, the move to secondary school occurs around the period of adolescence, with concomitant physical and psychological changes (Ng-Knight, Shelton, Riglin, McManus, Frederickson, & Rice, 2016) as well as heightened anticipation and anxiety about moving to a new school. Therefore, using GUS data from when cohort children were in the second last year of primary school (Primary 6, or P6) and when they were in the second term of the first year of secondary school (Secondary 1, or S1), provides a better comparison of the impact of transitions than data collected immediately before or after starting secondary school.

Approximately 50,000 children started secondary school in Scotland in 2019; it is crucial that not only are they able to deal with transitions well, they should be supported to flourish. Moving up to secondary school is a marker of progression with increased choices and opportunities, including different subjects, better educational and sports facilities, and more opportunities to make friends and develop positive relationships with several teachers (Jindal-Snape & Cantali, 2019; Jindal-Snape & Foggie, 2008). However, the primary-secondary school transitions literature has predominantly reported the challenges associated with transition such as the negative impact on academic grades (Hopwood et al., 2016) and psychological wellbeing (Jackson & Schulenberg, 2013); and less positive attitudes towards subjects (e.g. Mathematics, García et al., 2016). Also, the literature reports on particular challenges faced by children and young people considered more vulnerable during transition, such as those with additional support needs (Mandy et al., 2016 a, b). This is concerning, as research suggests that the negative impacts of primary-secondary transition experiences can be long term and can lead to young people not completing high school (West et al, 2010) with ensuing implications for the workforce and the economy.

The findings about negative experiences and outcomes are surprising, as policy makers, practitioners and families have been trying to facilitate positive transitions for over five decades. Further, it is not clear whether this is due to transition practices not being effective or as a result of the limitations of the research studies. For instance, there is a dearth of studies that have used a robust long-term longitudinal design, large sample sizes, and/or reported the proportion of children who had negative outcomes and whether these changed over time. Additionally, only a limited number of studies have been carried out in Scotland. Therefore, undertaking an analysis of a longitudinal dataset like Growing Up in Scotland (GUS), with a relatively large sample size, becomes important for us to get a clear picture of primary-secondary transition outcomes in Scotland.

1.3. Report overview

This report presents analysis of recent data collected in Scotland including information that is crucial to understanding primary-secondary transitions in Scotland. As transitions are situated within the local educational, social, political and cultural context, analysis of data collected as part of the Growing Up in Scotland study (GUS) – a large-scale longitudinal study tracking the lives of thousands of children and their families across Scotland – is timely. With data from a little over 3000 parents and children, GUS has the potential to provide more robust findings and conclusions than those uncovered in the systematic review.

Recently, due to Covid-19, schools have been closed without children experiencing all transition practices of primary and secondary schools. Although the GUS data were collected prior to Covid-19, this report provides insights that would be relevant in such a situation, so that support can be provided virtually and through families. For instance, it highlights the children and families who will need even more support than usual.

Drawing on GUS data, this report aims to plug some of the evidence gaps identified by the systematic review. Specifically, the report draws on data collected around the time the study children were in the penultimate year of primary school (Primary 6) and when they were in their first year of secondary school (Secondary 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 experience 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.

These aspects are addressed in Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6. Details of our approach, including the data, are provided in Chapter 2. Finally, in Chapter 7 we summarise and discuss the study findings and set out recommendations for policy and practice.



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