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).

2 Methodology

2.1. About the Growing Up in Scotland study

GUS is a longitudinal research study which tracks the lives of thousands of children and their families in Scotland from the early years, through childhood and beyond. The main aim of the study is to provide new information to support policy-making in Scotland, but it is also intended to provide a resource for practitioners, academics, the voluntary sector and parents.

To date, the study has collected information about three nationally representative cohorts of children: a child cohort and two birth cohorts. Altogether, information has been collected on around 14,000 children and families in Scotland.

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 for this cohort[8]) and when they were in Secondary 1 (or 'S1', the first year of secondary school, 2016/17 and 2017/18 for this cohort).

BC1 is comprised of a nationally representative sample of 5217 children living in Scotland when they were 10 months old who were born between June 2004 and May 2005. These families first took part in the study in 2005/06 when the cohort children were just 10 months old. Since this time, data for these children and their families were collected annually until they were just under 6 years old, and then biennially at age 7-8, when the children were in P6 (age 10-11) and when the children were in S1 (age 12-13). At the time of writing (2020), the tenth sweep of face-to-face data collection with this cohort is underway. At this tenth sweep the cohort children are in their third year of secondary school (S3, age 14-15). In 2018, as part of the ninth sweep of fieldwork, an additional 502 families with a child in the same age range (i.e. born between June 2004 and May 2005) were recruited to the cohort[9].

2.2. Overview of data

As already noted, this report draws predominantly on data collected at the time the children were in the spring or summer terms of P6 and S1. As children in the cohort fall into two school year groups, fieldwork was phased over two years for each sweep to ensure all children were at the same school stage at the point of data collection. This means P6 data were collected in January to June of either 2015 or 2016 and S1 data were collected in January to June of either 2017 or 2018. Because the cohort is comprised of a nationally representative sample of children the results should be understood to broadly represent all children of the respective age and school stage living in Scotland at the time point in question. For example, the results presented for the GUS children at the time they were in S1 are roughly representative of all children in Scotland who started S1 in 2016 or 2017. The small number of children who were not in P6 and S1 at these sweeps (for example, because their entry to primary school was deferred or they repeated a year in early primary school) were excluded from the analysis.

For cross-sectional findings, all those who responded at the relevant sweep were included in the analyses. At sweep 8 (P6), the total number of child respondents was 3,104, in addition to 3,150 parent/carer respondents. At sweep 9 (S1), 3,290 children responded, in addition to 3,419 parents or carers. Longitudinal analyses, including the measure of transition experience, were only carried out on children who responded at both sweeps 8 and 9 (n=2,761). After accounting for item non-response on the items used to assess transition experience, a final sample of n=2,559 was used for the longitudinal analyses. Throughout the report, any analysis which combines data from multiple sweeps (such as the transition measure) is based on the longitudinal sample.

To date, the main data collection on GUS takes place through annual or biennial 'sweeps' of face-to-face interviews with children and parents in their homes. This report draws on data collected from both children and parents, as well as on objective measures of the child's language ability at the time the children were in Primary 6 and Secondary 1 (see details in sections 2.4, 2.5, 2.6 and 2.6.3). Full data documentation for all sweeps and variables are available online[10] [11].

2.3. Limitations of the analysis

GUS is a multidisciplinary, holistic study designed to capture information about the many circumstances and outcomes which occur in the lives of children and families and the characteristics and factors which may be associated with these. GUS was not specifically designed to measure the primary to secondary school transition. As such, certain compromises have been made, e.g. it was not possible to consider all possible child outcomes – either because data was not available or extended analysis was required which was beyond the scope of the work. As such, cognitive ability was selected as the outcome most suitable for use in this analysis given its robust, objective measurement and correlation with a range of other outcomes, rendering it a useful proxy of the child's general developmental health (Law et al., 2017). However, this does have limitations and may not be the most appropriate impact measure in specific contexts, such as looking at children with additional support needs.

A composite measure of transition experience was constructed using the best data available. A full description of how this measure was constructed is included in section 2.4. Although this involved creating a seven-point scale measuring more positive or negative transition experience, these were grouped to categorize transition experience as negative, moderately positive and positive. Grouping the data in this way was necessary because there was insufficient statistical power to individually consider each of the categories on the full scale variable. The thresholds were determined with the aim of demonstrating levels of difference between experiences which are meaningfully associated with a range of explanatory factors as one might expect. The thresholds are not intended to be reliable and absolute prevalence estimates of the experience of transition; they are effectively a relative measure of experience and how they are associated with the factors considered.

It is acknowledged that many of the characteristics and circumstances of children and families are inter-related. The multivariate analysis which is used controls for these underlying relationships. Where relevant, this has also been commented upon when interpreting the findings.

2.4. Measuring transition

For the initial analysis stage, positive and negative features associated with the transition to secondary school were examined using GUS data collected at both the P6 and S1 sweeps. The variables selected for this stage of the analysis are presented in Table 2‑1. Simple frequencies of all variables listed in the right-hand column were run to provide an initial understanding of the extent of positive and negative experiences of transition.

Following the descriptive analysis of comparable variables from primary and secondary school, some of these variables were then used in combination to construct a derived measure of 'positive/moderate/negative transition'. Some questions were only asked in the P6 interview, some only in the S1 interview and others at both time points. Thus, not all items had comparable data from both time points. The engagement and motivation questions were asked at both time points and presented the best opportunity to derive a coherent, longitudinal transition measure.

Data from P6 and S1 for each of the seven variables listed under the 'engagement and motivation' section in Table 2‑1 were used to construct this measure. For example, negative transitions would be indicated by an increase in school absences (truancy), a decline in positive attitudes towards studying and an increase in school related issues.

Table 2-1 List of variables used to understand transition experience[12]
Theme GUS variable label School year Respondent
Relationship with Peers Child has made new friends S1 Parent
How many of your friends from primary school are you still friendly with? S1 Child
Child misses old friends from primary school S1 Parent
How easy/difficult to make new friends at secondary school S1 Child
Child anxious about making new friends S1 Parent
How often do other children pick on you…? P6, S1 Child
How many of your friends from primary school are attending the same secondary school as you? S1 Child
Relationship with teachers My teacher(s) treat(s) me fairly P6, S1 Child
Learning How would you describe the work in your maths/English class at secondary school? P6, S1 Child
Child is coping well with school work S1 Parent
Thinking about an average week during term-time, how many hours do you usually spend doing homework? S1 Child
Child gets too much homework S1 Parent
How pressured do you feel by the schoolwork you have to do? S1 Child
Engagement and motivation (components of the composite transition measure) I look forward to going to school P6, S1 Child
I hate school P6, S1 Child
Have you ever skipped school when your parents didn't know even if only for a half day or a little while/single lesson? P6, S1 Child
How often do you try your best at school? P6, S1 Child
How much do you like reading/How much do you like English? P6, S1 Child
How much do you like doing number work/How much do you like maths? P6, S1 Child
Whether school has been in contact with parent regarding child's behaviour, attendance etc. P6, S1 Parent

For each of the seven engagement and motivation variables, a binary measure was constructed by grouping the response options into either positive or negative transitions between primary and secondary school[13]. Consistently positive (e.g. child 'always' or 'often' looked forward to going to school at both sweeps) as well as changes from negative responses in primary school to positive responses at secondary school (e.g. child 'sometimes' or 'never' looked forward to going to school in primary but 'always' or 'often' looked forward to school in secondary) were classified as a positive transition. Conversely, consistently negative responses across both waves or a change from a positive to a negative response across waves were classified as a negative transition. A negative transition for each variable was given a score of 0, while a positive transition was given a score of 1.

These binary measures were then summed to produce a combined measure with a low of 0 (indicating no positive change on any of the 7 items) and a high of 7 (indicating a positive change on all of the seven items).

To create broad categories of transition experience, we split the sample of children into 3 groups, according to their overall transition score. Those with scores between 0 and 3, comprising 22% of the sample, were considered to be experiencing broadly negative transition overall, although children in that group could have shown improvement on up to 3 of the items under the engagement and motivation theme. Scores of 6 and 7 were defined as indicative of a positive transition and comprised 36% of the sample. The remaining 42%, with scores of 4 or 5, were classified as experiencing a moderately positive transition.

The resulting proportions who experience positive or negative transitions via these cut offs are broadly in line with observations from previous studies (Waters et al, 2014a; Jindal-Snape and Cantali, 2019).

2.5. Factors associated with transition between primary and secondary school

Analysis for this section utilised the measure of positive/moderate/negative transition outlined in the previous section. A series of bivariate analyses were conducted of the transition measure by selected child characteristics, socioeconomic and demographic factors and measures related to school, family and peers. Further details on the variables included are provided in the following sections.

2.5.1. Socioeconomic, demographic and other child characteristics

Variables considered under this domain included:

  • Child's gender, ethnicity and religion
  • Socioeconomic background (household equivalised income, highest parent level of education)
  • Household composition (single vs couple parent household and whether there was an older sibling in household[14])
  • Area characteristics (level of deprivation and urban/rural classification of child's home address)

Area deprivation was assessed using quintiles of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD)[15]. Urban/rural classification used the Scottish Government's two-fold measure[16].

2.5.2. School, family and peer-related measures

Differences in the experience of transition were described according to:

  • Support from schools (parent reported communication from secondary school, parent satisfaction with support from primary and secondary schools; measured in S1)
  • Teacher relationships (whether child thinks teacher treats them fairly; measured in P6 and S1)
  • Child expectations of transition (whether child was looking forward to going to secondary school and whether going to secondary school of choice; measured in S1)
  • Perceptions of pace of school work (whether child is coping with schoolwork in S1; measured in S1)
  • Family relationships (quality of parent-child relationship; measured in P6 and S1)
  • Peer relationships (friendship quality and whether bullied; measured in P6 and S1)
  • Whether the child has been identified as having additional support needs (measured in P6 and S1)
  • Social networks and activities (whether any regular involvement in sports, youth groups or other activities; measured in S1)
  • School characteristics (urban/rural and school size; measured in P6 and S1)

To derive the measures for quality of parent-child relationships, a series of child report questions were used. Children were asked to respond to six statements for each parent or parent figure in their household[17] and say whether the statement is 'always true', 'often true', 'sometimes true' or 'never true'. Responses were given a numeric value. An average score for each child was then calculated and these average scores were subsequently grouped into 'excellent, 'good' and 'poor'.

Friendship quality was similarly assessed using six child response items.[18] Similar to the approach taken for the measure of parent-child relationship, responses were summed and grouped so that higher values indicated better quality relationships .

Child reports of bullying were collected in both P6 and S1. Three separate items[19] were combined to create an overall indicator of bullying at both time points. The Scottish Government's national approach to anti-bullying – Respect for All (Scottish Government, 2017) – defines bullying as both the behaviour itself and its impact. The GUS questionnaires, finalised before the national strategy was published, measured only experience of bullying behaviour and not impact. Nevertheless, the behaviours given as examples in the national strategy overlap with the behaviours measured in the GUS data.

Since the cohort children in GUS started school, at each sweep of data collection parents were asked whether the child had been identified by their school or any other professional as having any additional support needs. If so, they were asked which type of support need the child had. At subsequent data collection sweeps, for each additional support need recorded at an earlier sweep, parents were asked if the child still had this need. They were also asked if the child had any other (new) additional support needs not previously recorded.

The measures of school characteristics were derived from administrative records which were linked with the survey data using details of the child's school collected during the interview, Urban/rural classification of the child's school used the Scottish Government's two-fold measure (this was also used in relation to the child's home address, see above). School size was derived separately for P6 and S1, based on school roll data. The school roll measure was divided into quartiles, and schools in the lowest quartile (the smallest 25% of schools) were characterised as 'small', schools which fell into the middle two quartiles (between the 25th and 75th centiles) were classified as 'medium', and schools which fell into the highest quartile (above the 75th centile, the largest 25% of schools) were classified as 'large'. Classifications of school sizes are detailed in Appendix A.

2.6. Measuring the impact of transition on child and family outcomes

Child outcomes were measured using cognitive ability. Family outcomes were measured using parental working patterns and meeting the costs of secondary school. Further discussion on the range of outcomes which were relevant for consideration and decisions on why certain outcomes were selected is included in the corresponding sections of the report.

2.6.1. Child cognitive ability

Cognitive ability was measured using the Listening Comprehension subtest of the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test - Second UK Edition (WIAT-II UK). This subtest is part of a comprehensive individually administered test for assessing the achievement of children and adolescents aged between 4 years and 16 years and 11 months. WIAT is suitable for administration in a study like GUS, with the version used especially adapted for social surveys. For this report, Listening Comprehension scores obtained as part of the sweep 8 (P6) and sweep 9 (S1) data collection were used. Change in cognitive ability was calculated by subtracting the child's P6 standardised score from the S1 standardised score.

The change in cognitive ability measure was then entered as the dependent variable in a multivariate regression model with the transition measure as an independent variable. The model also controlled for gender and other selected social background variables. The full set of variables included in the model is as specified below:

  • Positive/moderate/negative transition
  • Gender
  • Socioeconomic status (household equivalised income, highest parental education)
  • Area characteristics of home address (area deprivation, urban/rural classification)
  • Whether child identified with any additional support needs at primary school or secondary school respectively
  • Child's social, emotional and behavioural development (measured using the 'total difficulties' score from the Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire)

2.6.2. Parental working patterns and meeting the costs of secondary school

To investigate the impact on families, two sets of measures were examined: one examining change in parental working patterns and the other exploring issues related to meeting the costs of secondary school. The data were taken from the S1 main carer questionnaire which included questions specifically aimed at measuring these issues. These included changes to parental working patterns, whether starting secondary school was associated with any extra costs and difficulties in meeting these costs. Univariate descriptive analyses were carried out for each of these variables. Bivariate analyses then explored the differences in impact across families in different circumstances, e.g. by lone/couple family household status and household income.

2.6.3. Other life events

The extent to which children experienced other developmental and life events between P6 and S1 was examined. Events of interest encompassed other important and influential areas of children's lives which may impact on their experience of the transition from primary to secondary school: their family/household situation; their peer relationships and their simultaneous experience of upsetting life events. The measures included were therefore:

  • change in parent relationship status (whether parent separated, re-partnered or if there was no reported change)
  • changes in experience of bullying between P6 and S1[20]
  • experience of other upsetting life events. GUS routinely collects data on a wide range of significant or upsetting life events[21] which have occurred in relation to the child or family in the period since the previous interview. S1 data were used to identify the number of such events which had occurred since the P6 interview.

Changes in bullying were assessed using the bullying measures already derived. These variables were recoded to identify whether the child experienced bullying in primary school only, secondary school only, primary and secondary or neither.

Bivariate analysis explored how the occurrence of these life events varied between children with different characteristics, using selected socioeconomic and demographic variables. Finally, each of these measures were added to the multivariate regression model (as detailed in the previous section) to examine the association between primary to secondary transition and child outcomes whilst controlling for selected other variables.

2.7. Analytical approach and presentation of findings

All analyses were undertaken with weighted data, using Stata v16, and take into account the complex clustered and stratified sample structures. The survey weights aim to ensure that any bias in the data which occurs from non-response or attrition is addressed and that findings are representative. Where confidence intervals are included in the text or tables, these indicate the degree of uncertainty of the coefficient estimate.

Only differences which are statistically significant at the 95% level are commented on in the text, unless otherwise specified. Full results are provided in Appendix B.

Throughout the report, references to primary school findings refer to data collected in P6, the penultimate year of primary school while references to secondary school findings refer to data collected at the time the children were in S1, the first year of secondary school.



Back to top