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).

7 Discussion, Conclusions And Recommendations

7.1. Introduction

In this chapter we summarise and discuss the findings outlined in Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6 and set out some recommendations for policy and practice. We also propose avenues for further research.

7.2. Experience of transition to secondary school

At an overall level – based on measures of children's motivation and engagement before and after moving to secondary school – just under four in ten (36%) children were characterised as having a positive transition experience, whilst 42% were characterised as having had a moderate transition experience. Thus, the majority of children had either a positive or a moderate transition experience – at least up until the point measured here, namely when they were in their second term of their first year of secondary school. Nevertheless, a significant minority, over one in five children (22%), experienced a negative transition.

As discussed in the introductory chapter to this report, the transition experience is made up of a number of different elements and in this study we examined a range of factors such as children's relationships with peers and teachers and academic matters. In the following we highlight and discuss the key findings in each of these areas.

The findings show that the majority of children moved to secondary schools with their primary school friends. Not all children chose to remain friends with their primary school friends, though, perhaps due to a wish to change their identities in the new educational setting and create new friendship groups (Farmer et al., 2011). Unlike what has been found elsewhere (e.g. Hammond, 2016), most children were confident about making new friends and overall had a positive peer-related transition experience. Notwithstanding that the measure of bullying used here does not fully encompass the definition set out in the Scottish Government's national strategy, the findings also show a reduction in bullying at secondary school, with less frequent reporting of 'being left out of games' and 'being shoved, pushed and hit' than in primary school.

Despite the vast majority of children reporting that they often or always felt treated fairly by their teachers both before and after moving to secondary school, the results showed a notable decline in the proportion of children who reported that their teachers always treated them fairly. This may be explained to some extent by children's experience of moving from having just one teacher in primary school, with whom they had more time to build a relationship, to having multiple teachers in secondary school, with less time to build relationships. Nevertheless, a perception of lack of fairness from teachers may have a detrimental impact on child-teacher relationships. This is of concern given that having good relationships with teachers has been found to be highly predictive of positive student wellbeing (Wolters et al. 2012).

In terms of learning – in relation to English and maths specifically – children and parents reported that the level of difficulty in secondary school was neither too hard nor too easy. Furthermore, the majority of children felt only 'a little' or 'not at all' pressured by school work. Even so, children reported liking English and maths less at secondary school. Also, despite overall motivation to do their best at school remained high, similar to what has been found in previous research (Benner & Graham, 2009; Deieso & Fraser, 2018), children generally reported lower levels of enjoyment and engagement. This included more frequent reporting of things like hating school and not looking forward to going to school.

This presents a complex picture of children's transition experiences. Academic work in English and maths appeared to be at an appropriate level, however children appeared to be enjoying these subjects less. Similarly, with the findings showing a reduction in bullying in secondary school and most children finding it easy to make friends, why were children more likely to hate secondary school and less likely to want to go to school?

As data were collected during the second term of the children's first year of secondary school – at least five months after the move – these increases in negative experiences (or decreases in positive experiences) cannot wholly be attributed to the stresses of adapting to a new context, such as starting secondary school.

Furthermore, despite these increases in negative experiences – a worsening of teacher-child relationships, not liking English and maths, increase in hating school and not looking forward to going to school – the overwhelming majority of children at both time points reported positive engagement and motivation towards school. Therefore, the majority of children seemed to have an overall positive or at least moderate transition experience. Drawing on existing international research, it may be that good peer relationships (Hammond, 2016; Tso & Strnadova, 2017), a decline in bullying (Kingery et al., 2011) and the maintenance of high levels of overall motivation for school work acted as a buffer against the decline in relationships with teachers, the more negative attitudes towards English and maths and school in general, and the decline in engagement and enjoyment. It is also possible that there are other complex factors at play which were not considered here. For example, any changes in pedagogical approaches between primary and secondary, including the 'fit' of such approaches with children's developmental stage.

7.3. Factors associated with differences in experience of the transition to secondary school

Having understood more about the range of transition experiences, it is important to consider the factors that might have led to those different experiences, and how these experiences differ for different groups of children.

Our analysis showed notable differences in transition outcomes by levels of socioeconomic disadvantage. Children in the lower income groups were less likely to have positive and more likely to have negative transitions than those in the higher income groups. This was also the case in relation to area deprivation where children in the more deprived areas had poorer transition experiences than those in less deprived areas. Further, children whose parents had lower levels of educational qualifications were more likely to have a negative transition experience than those whose parents had higher levels of qualifications.

In terms of gender, girls tended to have more positive transitions than boys, with a higher proportion of boys experiencing negative transitions. Other studies that looked at educational outcomes found that girls tended to have good academic transitions but were more anxious during this period (Benner & Graham, 2009). Worryingly, Benner and colleagues' other research found that boys could develop depressive symptoms during the transition to secondary school (Benner et al., 2017). Therefore, further analysis of GUS data to explore the relationship between transition and wellbeing, as well as the relationship with gender, would be warranted, including looking at how these relationships may change as children move through secondary school.

In terms of family and household composition, a higher proportion of children from single parent households had a negative transition compared with children from couple family households. Contrary to previous research which found the presence of an older sibling to be a positive factor and a source of support during transitions (Jindal-Snape & Cantali, 2019; Mackenzie et al., 2012), in this study we found that children with an older sibling were, in fact, more likely to have a negative transition experience. Neither aspect of household composition was associated with differences in either positive or moderate transitions.

Previous research has not specifically looked at the relationship between family religion and transition experiences. In this study we saw some minor differences – non-Catholic Christian children had better transition experiences than children with no religious affiliation, although no link was found for other religions. In relation to ethnicity, contrary to previous research, there were some indications – although findings were not statistically significant – that children from a white background may be less likely to have had a positive transition than children from other ethnic backgrounds.

Similar to findings from existing research in Scotland and Australia (Jindal-Snape & Cantali, 2019; Waters et al., 2014a), children's anticipated experience of secondary school to a large extent matched their transition experiences: those who reported looking forward to starting secondary school 'a lot' had a more positive transition than those who were not looking forward to it 'at all'. However, it is not clear whether expectations led to reality or, rather, whether those who expected to have negative experiences were already experiencing problems before starting secondary school. In addition, as the question was asked retrospectively, children may not have accurately recalled how they felt ahead of their transition.

In terms of links with pressure by schoolwork, while most children did not report often feeling pressured by school work, those who felt pressured 'a lot' were more likely to experience a negative transition than those who did not feel pressured 'at all'.

Good parent-school communication and parents feeling supported by the primary and secondary school were both linked to positive transitions – this is similar to what has been found elsewhere (e.g. Davis et al., 2015). A good parent-child relationship – especially when the child had started secondary school – was also found to be positively associated with a positive transition experience. Again, this is similar to what has been found elsewhere (e.g. Benner & Graham, 2009; Waters et al., 2014b). Furthermore – and in line with research by findings by Hammond (2016) and by Tso and Strnadova (2017) – good peer relationships and ease of making friends also seemed to play a role in positive transition experiences. In addition, those who regularly took part in sports, youth groups and other activities at secondary school had a more positive transition experience than those who did not. This might be explained by Newman and Blackburn's (2002) assertion that such participation enhances self-esteem which in turn improves resilience.

Although only a minority of children did not go to a school of their choice, almost half of those had a negative transition experience. Whilst the reasons for this were not explored in this research, it is possible that those children who did not go to their preferred school were separated from their primary school friends and experienced uncertainty about secondary school for a period of time. If the secondary school was not part of their 'cluster', it is also possible that these children did not have access to the transition preparation for that school.

Existing international research has suggested that children with educational support needs (defined in different ways according to where the research was undertaken) are less likely to have a positive transition (Hannah & Topping, 2012, 2013; Mandy et al., 2016a, b; Peters & Brooks, 2016; Makin et al, 2017). In the main, these previous studies relied on small sample sizes and drew only on data collected from children with support needs – i.e. there was no comparison with children who did not have any support needs. In this study, drawing on data collected from a large sample of children with and without any additional support needs, we found that children with additional support needs were less likely to have a positive transition and more likely to have a negative transition than their peers.

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

Previous studies have highlighted that children's cognitive ability increases as they move to secondary school (Lofgran et al, 2015) and that this is a developmental change rather than something which occurs as a result of transitions (Symonds & Hargreaves, 2016). In this study, although cognitive ability increased for all children, children with negative transitions had relatively lower increases in cognitive ability compared with those with positive transitions. Further, contrary to previous research, we found that transition experience was independently associated with change in cognitive ability, after controlling for a range of social background and other key factors. Although we cannot say anything about the direction of cause and effect, this is nevertheless an important finding as it highlights where schools may be able to positively influence change. This could, for example, be through the adoption of a growth mindset[33] or by improving transition support, or both.

We were only able to ascertain one aspect of transitions for parents due to their child's transitions, namely the impact on parental working patterns. The vast majority of parents – including amongst those whose children had additional support needs – reported no changes to their working patterns as a result of their child starting secondary school. However, a majority of parents did report an increase in school related costs.

7.5. Life events during the transition period

Life events occurring alongside the primary to secondary transition may influence both the transition experience and other aspects of children's development, including their cognitive development. For example, it has been argued that a stable family environment is important for positive transitions (Hammond, 2016). In this research we attempted to understand the prevalence and potential impact of such life events on changes in the child's cognitive ability. The life events considered included changes to family composition, friendship difficulties (such as change in the experience of bullying)

Overwhelmingly, parents did not report any changes in partnership status over the period corresponding with the child's transition to secondary school. In terms of bullying, children were less likely to be bullied in secondary school than primary school. While half of children reported being bullied in both primary and secondary school, where bullying occurred at one time point only, this was more common in primary than secondary. Notably, children living in lower income households and in more deprived areas were more likely to be bullied than those in higher income household and those living in less deprived areas. Interestingly, amongst those who reported being bullied at secondary school only, a higher proportion were from higher income households.

Most children did not have any identified additional support needs in Primary 6 or S1. In Primary 6, 14% of children had one or more additional support need; towards the end of their first year of secondary school, this figure was 15%. Overall, 20% of children had an additional support need at either P6 or S1 or both.

Girls and children from socioeconomically less advantaged households tended to experience a higher number of other upsetting life events than boys and those in more advantaged socioeconomic circumstances, respectively.

None of these life events were found to be independently associated with a change in cognitive ability scores over the period considered, after other differences between children had been controlled for. Furthermore, there were no indications that they had any impact on the association between transition experience and changes in cognitive ability. This supports the previous 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 including various life events occurring alongside the transition.

7.6. Recommendations for policy and practice

In the above we have outlined and discussed some of the key findings of the research. Drawing on this, in the following we set out our 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, the following may help improve children's transition experience:

  • 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, in line with the requirements of the Additional Support for Learning Act, as our research shows that socioeconomically disadvantaged children were more likely to have negative transitions than their more advantaged peers.
  • 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 in children's first year at secondary school. Although secondary school teachers are already working towards developing positive relationships, they should be made aware that some children still perceive that they are not always fair towards them. A whole-school dialogue might be useful to ensure all staff and children have a shared understanding of expectations and rules.
  • Children's recalled anticipated experience of secondary school was predictive of their transition experience. Therefore, addressing any anxieties and misconceptions about secondary school while children are still in primary school is important. This may include the use of enhanced transition to support more familiarization with the secondary school environment for children with identified higher levels of concern or anxiety.
  • The decline in positive attitude towards English and maths between primary and secondary school was not accompanied by high levels of concerns about the difficulty level or pressure of associated class work. Therefore, it is important to identify what other factors are at play here so that schools can effectively meet the needs of their pupils. Further, it is important to review children's attitudes over time.
  • Schools should continue to implement the national approach to anti-bullying in Scotland. Further, they should use their recording and monitoring information to inform local approaches to dealing effectively with incidents of bullying behaviour, and share good practices where bullying is less prevalent.
  • Ensure that relevant activities – in particular, any activities 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, e.g. through timely and relevant communication. Also ensure that parents are fully informed and supported to help their child with the transition. Make parents aware of their importance during this time.
  • Ensure transition practice is evidence based and incorporate pedagogical approaches that enhance children and young people's learning experience in school.

7.7. Recommendations for research

This research provides new, unique and important evidence to help understand primary to secondary transitions. It also raises a number of further questions and highlights areas for future research to cover, for example:

  • Why are children from less advantaged socioeconomic background 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 experiences and changes in their cognitive ability? Ideally this also should include different/wider aspects of 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)?
  • What are the reasons some children have negative expectations about secondary school and why are some children generally less positive about secondary school?
  • What role does ethnicity play in the transition experience amongst children in Scotland?
  • What role do siblings and other family members play in the transition experiences? In particular, what role does the age and gender of siblings play, and whether the sibling(s) attend the same school(s).
  • What are the specific actions that can be taken to support improved transitions for children and young people with additional support needs?
  • What transitions do parents experience alongside their child's transition, and, in particular, how might these relate to the parent-child relationship?
  • How might other aspects of the child-teacher relationship (than how much children feel their teacher treats them fairly, as considered here) be related to the transition experience?

Notably, the GUS data allow for further analysis exploring many of these questions. In particular, GUS data would be useful for further exploring aspects around interrelationships between characteristics and experiences and how they relate to the transition experience, as well as differences in experiences between more and less disadvantaged children, and those with and without additional support needs, as well as boys and girls. GUS data also holds further details on the teacher-pupil relationship at primary school level, as well as a range of data on mental health and wellbeing for both the children and their parent(s).

In addition, while this research makes use of the most recent available GUS data, data are currently being collected at the time the GUS children are in their third year of secondary school (S3). Extending the analysis presented here with these additional data will provide a powerful and much needed longitudinal consideration of children's primary to secondary transitions.

Finally, in terms of future data collection, for comparison purposes it would be useful if, in future studies, repeated engagement and motivation measures, such as those utilized in this research, were accompanied by direct questions about the transition experience. Ideally, transition measures should be included to cover extended periods of time.



Back to top