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).

5 The impact of the transition to secondary school on child and family outcomes

5.1. Introduction

Child development outcomes can be measured across a wide range of domains including physical and mental health, cognitive ability, educational attainment and social, emotional and behavioural development. These outcomes are represented across the four capacities of the Curriculum for Excellence (Scottish Government, 2008). Whilst the rich data collected in GUS allows consideration of the impact of transition on many of these developmental outcomes, this was not possible within the scope of this work (see section 2.2 for limitations to the analysis). Instead a single measure of the child's cognitive ability was selected. The measure of cognitive ability is based on direct assessments of the child carried out in a standardised manner with validated measures used widely by educational psychologists specially adapted for use on social surveys (see section 2.3 for further details). Cognitive assessments have been used repeatedly on GUS since the study children were three years old and the data they produce has been extensively analysed and reported on (for example see Bradshaw, 2011; Bradshaw et al, 2014; Bradshaw et al 2016; Klein and Kuhirt, 2016; Knudsen et al, 2017; Sim et al, 2019; Knudsen et al, 2019).The measure offers a high level of objectivity, providing a robust outcome for analysis. Furthermore, cognitive ability has been shown to be correlated with a range of other outcomes and may therefore also be considered as a useful proxy of the child's general developmental health (Law et al., 2017). Nevertheless, it is acknowledged (see project limitations in section 2.2) that cognitive ability may not represent the most appropriate outcome for consideration of the impact of primary to secondary transitions on all children. However, the study advisory group agreed it was the best available measure for the purposes of this report.

This chapter begins by describing the association between changes in child cognitive ability, family characteristics and the experience of transition to secondary school

The core child outcome selected for analysis is child cognitive ability – assessed through the WIAT-II Listening Comprehension subtest (conducted when the children were in their penultimate year of primary school, P6, and again when they were in their first year of secondary school, S1). Changes in cognitive ability are further analysed to examine whether family characteristics might explain some of the differences observed in changes in cognitive scores during transition. Family outcomes related to parental working patterns and ability to meet costs of secondary school are then identified, with variation in outcomes being explored by socioeconomic and other characteristics.

5.1.1. Existing international research

Lofgran et al. (2015) highlight that children's cognitive ability increases as they move to secondary school, and this can enhance their academic and emotional abilities. Importantly, though, this increase is attributed to developmental reasons rather than being a result of the transition (Symonds & Hargreaves, 2016). In the main, existing international research in this area has focussed on educational outcomes rather than cognitive ability, with several studies highlighting a dip in attainment following transition to secondary school. However, only few studies quantify the proportion of children affected. One example is McIntosh et al. (2008) who found that one third of the children had poorer educational outcomes after they moved to secondary school. These findings are tentative, though, as poorer outcomes were measured by calculating how many pupils required additional support with their studies.

In terms of variations according to socioeconomic status, existing international research has suggested that children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds start secondary school with lower levels of cognitive ability, something which has also been found to be a predictor of lack of educational attainment and school dropout (for instance in Canada, Kingdon et al., 2017).

The conceptualisation of transitions based on MMT Theory (Jindal-Snape, 2016; 2018) – a conceptualisation which also underpins this study – highlights the importance of not only understanding the transitions of children but also the transitions they might have triggered for significant others such as their parents. Research undertaken with young adults with complex health conditions has pointed to changes in the working patterns of their parents and grandparents from an early stage of the children's life and school careers, including moves to part time employment or giving up work to become fulltime carers (Jindal-Snape et al., 2019).

5.2. Child cognitive ability

Notable (and statistically significant) differences between groups can be seen in children's cognitive ability score by their transition experience. These differences are illustrated in Figure 5‑1. The average (median[29]) cognitive ability score for each of the three groups (those with a positive, moderate and negative transition experience, respectively) is represented by the horizontal line that divides the box into two parts. Half the scores are greater than or equal to this value and half are less. The box for each transition group represents the middle 50% of scores for that group of children. The boxes and median lines allow us to compare average ability across the children with different transition experiences.

The lines extending above and below the boxes – the upper and lower 'whiskers' –represent the range of scores outside the middle 50%. That is, the highest point of the top whisker for each group represents the highest score for children in that particular group while the lowest point of the bottom whisker represents the lowest score for children in that particular group. This allows us to consider variations in the full range of ability within each group (for example, differences within the group of children with a negative transition experience) and not just differences in average scores.

As can be seen in the chart, children who go on to have a negative transition showed the widest range of cognitive scores while they were still in primary school. Additionally, this group also had the lowest 25th, 50th and 75th percentile scores. For example, the median (50th percentile) cognitive score in P6 for children who experienced a negative transition was 97 compared with 101 and 98 for those with a moderate and positive transition respectively. Similarly, the P6 25th percentile score for children who experienced a negative transition was 86 compared with 91 for those experiencing a moderate or positive transition. This would therefore suggest that those who go on to have a negative transition are already at a disadvantage compared with their peers who go on to have positive and moderate transitions to secondary school. Given that a clear pattern emerged in the previous chapter (section 4.2) regarding socioeconomic status, this is perhaps unsurprising, and could be the result of lower socioeconomic status and increased disadvantage being associated with both lower test scores and an increased likelihood of having a negative transition.

Figure 5‑1 Cognitive ability scores in primary (P6) and secondary (S1) by transition experience
This boxplot chart shows the median cognitive ability score in primary and secondary school by the transition experience (positive, moderate, negative) from primary to secondary school. The chart shows six boxplots, which feature the cognitive ability score of children in primary and secondary school in relation to their transition experience. For all groups, cognitive ability increased between primary and secondary school.

There was an increase in the average cognitive ability scores between primary and secondary school regardless of transition experience. However, a negative transition experience was associated with the smallest increase in scores (3.6 points on average), while the positive transition group had the largest increase in score (5.4 points on average, Table 9-6). Change in cognitive ability was also explored according to differences in a series of key demographic and other characteristics: gender, income, parent's level of education, urban/rural classification of child's home address, level of area deprivation of child's home address and Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) score[30]. No statistically significant differences in increase in cognitive scores were found across these variables (Table 9-6).

To explore the increase in scores further and account for other factors that may be driving any differences between transition groups, the increase in cognitive ability score was analysed through a series of hierarchical regression models. Without initially controlling for any other characteristics, transition experience was shown to be related to changes in cognitive ability. However, when added to the model, none of the additional variables were found to have any statistically significant association with the change in cognitive ability measure. This is as may be expected given no statistically significant differences were found in the earlier bivariate analysis. In contrast, the transition experience variable maintained its statistical significance in every model. This therefore indicates that experience of transition has an independent association with change in cognitive score which is not explained by sociodemographic characteristics or socioemotional health.

5.3. Parental working patterns

The majority of parents (93%) reported no change to their working patterns once their child started secondary school (Table 9‑8). Of the 7% who did report change, one third increased their hours and around a half had a different working pattern but the same amount of working hours.

Due to the small number of respondents who reported a change in their working patterns, there was a limited amount of data to be able to assess how work patterns changed by different family characteristics (Table 9‑9). However, changes to parental working patterns did not vary significantly by having a child with additional support needs, while single parent families were equally as likely to have their work patterns affected by the child's transition as couple family households.

5.4. Meeting the costs of secondary school

The majority (86%) of parents reported some form of increase in school related costs as a result of their child starting secondary school (Table 9‑11). These costs were most commonly related to school uniform, school lunches and school trips.

A weak association between income and increases in school costs was found, with lower income households being more likely to have additional school uniform costs (Table 9‑13). 36% of parents in the top income quintile reported having these additional costs, compared with 62% of those in the bottom income quintile. Single parent households (47%) and households with a younger sibling (51%) were also more likely to report additional uniform costs.

A weak relationship was also apparent between income and additional costs relating to travel to and from school (Table 9‑16). Overall, 21% in the bottom income quintile experienced extra travel costs at S1, compared with 15% in the top quintile. Similarly, 14% of households in the lowest deprivation quintile reported these costs compared to 26% in the most deprived quintile. Furthermore, 19% of non-rural households experienced additional travel costs compared with 10% of rural households. However, no other patterns emerged regarding the likelihood of additional school costs and family or demographic characteristics.

Socioeconomic status was also associated with the ease of paying any costs associated with school (Table 9‑22). This was the case for both household area disadvantage and equivalised household income (Figure 5‑2). As socioeconomic status increased, parent-reported ease of paying any school costs also increased; 4% of those in the lowest income quintile found it 'very easy' compared with just 36% of those in the highest.

Figure 5‑2 Parent reported ease of paying school costs by equivalised income
This chart shows how easy parents found paying school costs split by equivalised household income. The equivalised household income is grouped into quintiles, with the lowest quintile (1) with an income under £12,783 and the highest quintile (5) an income of over £37,857. Ease of paying school costs was measured based on five items; ‘very easy’, ‘easy’, ‘neither easy nor difficult’, ‘difficult’, and ‘very difficult’.  Only 4% of parents in quintile 1 reported that they found it ‘very easy’ to pay school costs, compared to 36% of parents in quintile 5. Similarly, 23% of parents in quintile 1 found it ‘difficult’ to pay school costs, whilst 1% of parents in quintile 5 reported that they found it ‘difficult’ to pay school costs.

Note. Data drawn from GUS sweep 9. Unweighted base: n=3,017. Percentages are weighted.



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