Avoiding the transition dip

Written by: HTU | Published:

The transition dip is a well-known and ongoing problem in our education system. Primary head Anna Traer-Goffe reports on a transition programme undertaken with their partner secondary school and some of the lessons they have learnt.

It is widely acknowledged that the primary to secondary school transition is a problematic time for primary school pupils. A change in environment and teaching staff can lead to a drop in expectations, and pupil standards often end up dropping too.

Emotionally, it can also be a scary experience for pupils to go from a small, close-knit community into a school that is gigantic, both in terms of geography and population. It can be an overwhelming experience, even for the most confident year 6 pupil.

The primary school of which I am headteacher, Burrowmoor in Cambridgeshire, is part of the Active Learning Trust, which also sponsors a local secondary school to which we are a feeder school. Being part of the same trust has allowed us the freedom to develop links with the purpose of aiding the transition of our pupils.

This year we decided to run a new transition programme to support our year 6 pupils. Our premise was to give them a taste of secondary school life in general, not one uniquely tailored to Neale-Wade, and the scheme is now coming to the end of its first year. During this time, we have had positive feedback from pupils, staff and parents, and in the spirit of good practice would like to share some of the things that have worked well for us.

Forging a good relationship between one or more of the schools you feed into is an essential part of aiding the transition process for your pupils. Only by having this relationship can you truly be collaborative, sharing ideas and feedback on what worked, what didn’t, and why.

Together, you can come up with a basic scheme to follow. This could involve any variety of activities, such as school visits (both the pupils to the secondary school and teachers to the primary school), workshops, and incorporating bits of the year 7 curriculum into year 6 lessons. The more time spent on these preliminary stages, and the more frequent sessions such as these are, the more familiar and comfortable year 6 pupils will grow with the idea of moving on.

Time, then, is an essential factor in ensuring that children are properly prepared for the transition period. We implemented a long-running programme that began at the beginning of the academic year. As any teacher will know, pupils don’t come in a “one-size-fits-all” format – some that are much more confident than others. It is important, therefore, to do some preliminary work to identify those pupils that may benefit from a bit of extra support and guidance throughout the process, or those who are more vulnerable.

One of our teaching assistants with the responsibility for family and inclusion work talked to year 6 teachers about these pupils, and then arranged meetings with each of them to discuss their fears and concerns. Having this prior knowledge enables you to tweak the programme accordingly.

Weekly small group visits to Neale-Wade began in October, ensuring that the whole year group had visited by January. We made sure that each pupil had visited the academy at least three times over the course of the academic year. It is important to keep visits varied to allow the pupils to grow in confidence. We did this by slowly giving them more autonomy with each visit, eventually giving them the opportunity to plan their final trip by using maps of the school. They also had the option of being able to navigate their group around the school.

These visits are also an excellent opportunity to use the secondary school’s teaching staff and students. Neale-Wade students were encouraged to volunteer to show the children around the school, providing a friendly face and allowing them to ask questions that they may not ask teachers.

The pupils were able to ask a variety of questions, and the Neale-Wade students also took the opportunity to inform them about school policies on behaviour and other rules in a more relaxed manner. The other positive that comes from getting the older students involved is the fact that the children will have familiar faces that they will recognise around the school in their first weeks of year 7.

We decided that equally as important as having these visits and programme in place in the first instance was consolidating the visits with a two week “de-camping” period. This involved a fortnight’s teaching and learning for the year 6 pupils, all taking place at Neale-Wade. In order to ensure that this remained a comfortable process for the pupils, we split them into smaller teaching groups of 15 pupils, and divided lessons between Neale-Wade and Burrowmoor staff. 

In lessons taught by the secondary school’s teachers, teaching assistants from Burrowmoor were always present to provide an extra level of familiarity. This de-camping period allowed the pupils to take advantage of specialist teaching and resources, while also becoming more comfortable with learning in a secondary environment.

Making sure that the de-camping period ran smoothly was of utmost importance, as this was the first real experience the pupils would have of going to school in a secondary environment. We had a dedicated transition co-ordinator, who was intrinsic in making sure the whole process ran smoothly and took charge of all logistical aspects.

It is often the little things that are the most easy to overlook but can easily cause the most disruption, for example forgetting log-ins that the pupils will need to access computers. Taking the time to make sure every box is ticked ensures that there is no hindrance for the pupils in carrying out work set by their teachers, allowing them to get on task straight away. 

We also prepared individual folders for each child, so that they were able to keep a record of their work and have something to reflect upon at the end of the fortnight.

We were keen to do lots of work towards preventing the slip in standards that is unfortunately so often the tendency for transitioning pupils. By allowing for a mixture of teaching from both Burrowmoor and Neale-Wade teachers we ensured that communication channels were kept open, and what was expected of pupils in terms of their learning was conveyed appropriately. We hope that this will give the year 7 teachers of those pupils carrying on to Neale-Wade a better idea of the year 6 cohort’s capabilities, thus avoiding any performance dips.

My last piece of advice remains centred around the importance of communication. This time, however, the focus is on the pupils and their parents. After all, they are the ones who the experience is for, and who will be able to tell you if it is working or not! 

We ensured that we asked pupils how they were enjoying their days at Neale-Wade, what they had been doing, and how they had found it, as well as asking their parents’ opinions on the scheme and what their children’s feedback had been on returning home from school. So far, feedback has been extremely positive, and pupils in particular have communicated that they feel less apprehensive about becoming year 7 students.

The transition programme that we have implemented has left me confident that our year 6 pupils are well-prepared for their secondary education, and are eagerly anticipating rather than fearing the change. I am also hopeful that their performance will not experience a drop on leaving Burrowmoor. 

A key part of any primary school headteacher’s role is ensuring that their pupils not only meet, but exceed expectations and standards. I believe that this responsibility does not stop on the last day of year 6. We should endeavour to foster relationships with our local secondary schools and collaborate to ensure that the good foundations laid down by primary teaching are more easily built upon by secondary schools. 

  • Anna Traer-Goffe is headteacher at Burrowmoor Primary School in Cambridgeshire, part of the Active Learning Trust.

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