Getting transition right for vulnerable pupils

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We all know that transition to year 7 can lead to a dip in student outcomes. Daniel Sobel speaks to Jez Piper about how we can get transition right, particularly for our most vulnerable pupils

I do not need to persuade anyone nowadays that primary to secondary transitions are important. We have known this for decades.

However, getting any local authority or academy trust to throw money at this is a different matter entirely. Such initiatives are few and far between.

Yet, it is all the rage to run programmes aimed at reducing exclusions. But I would argue that one of the significant contributing factors to challenging behaviours, mental health and even the attainment gap is transition.

Twenty years ago research found that “some groups of pupils are more at risk than others of losing ground at these critical moments in their school careers; in the process the seeds of social exclusion may be planted” (Galton et al, 1999).

No kidding Sherlock. In any average story about a student who found themselves permanently excluded in year 8 or 9, we tend to gloss over the impact that the numerous transitions they have experienced have had.

A case study

I remember the case of Steve, who had been permanently excluded. The appeal was messy and acrimonious as tends to be the way. Steve was anxious at primary school but supported enough so that most of his outbursts were pre-empted. These were prompted by vulnerability and what could be loosely described as “sensory overload”.

Steve started displaying significantly negative behaviours in the summer term of year 7 and they became progressively worse throughout year 8.

Steve’s “managed transition” was complete by the middle of the autumn term of year 7 as far as the secondary school was concerned and it was assumed that he would benefit from the general approach the school took and such information was reiterated by the head of year 7 to the apparently overly anxious parents.

As negative behaviours emerged the parents tried to explain that the student was vulnerable and nervous and that strict behaviour policies were only making things worse. Then one outburst led to a fixed term exclusion which spiralled. Although the permanent exclusion was in year 9, Steve was on his way out by the end of year 7.

Steve needed a more supportive transition and this would have solved a range of problems – not just for him, obviously, but it would have benefitted his peers too. This pattern is not unusual and can be applied to many students, especially those with SEN, SEMH and or other needs.

My friend and colleague Jez Piper, who is currently head of a MAT, is one of the most advanced thinkers and practitioners around the issues of transition that I have come across. This article is based on our discussion and his wisdom.

Psychological back-drop

The social and educational expectations of transition within the home are significant and even more so for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Think about what the single-parent mum who did not complete school herself might tell her child about “big school”, for example. Or the young-carer, who has a whole new reality to “cope with”. Or the child with SEN, who is going from their small, predictable, safe environment to an unknown, enormous maze where “no-one knows me”.

It is not surprising then that the School Transition and Adjustment Research Study (UCL & Cardiff University) of 1,100 students transitioning from primary to secondary found that while students’ perceptions of their wellbeing outside school remained more or less constant, their wellbeing in the school context declined considerably over the year. The conclusion is that secondary schools are less successful at maintaining wellbeing over the entirety of the first year.

It is worth reminding ourselves that although it is a cultural norm in the UK to change schools at different points, this is not necessarily a “natural” human process. All of us (teachers, students and parents alike) would benefit from one nursery-primary-secondary-sixth form under one roof. Imagine the financial savings, long-term planning, joined-up thinking...

The usual plan...

Many schools take a lot of time to develop structures and systems that do in fact positively support pupils through their transition, appealing to the exciting changes ahead through taster days, transition events or “moving-on” sessions.

As year 6 draws to a close the well-known cry is often heard post-SATs – what do we do with them now? I am sure most of you would recognise this process: enterprise projects, end-of-year performances, transition days or week, leavers’ assembly, then a six-week summer break, then back in year 7 to orientation days, setting up learning and the curriculum, initial assessments and a “new” baseline...

This period of time could potentially cover a period of 10 to 12 weeks, the equivalent of nearly a term of just transition. For many vulnerable pupils who need an effective and consistent structure this “gap” in their learning journey, coupled with the change of school setting or class, can significantly affect their confidence, wellbeing and outcomes.

An alternative approach

Jez asked me the question: what if transition was not focused on the movement of pupils from one setting to another – what if we were to look at a more pedagogically sound approach, and not one driven by the existing system?

Transition could start from the moment that a child enters school, no matter at what point, and should be part of a continuum of learning from four to 18, regardless of the setting.

Jez describes a project he helped deliver which developed an approach to ensure that transition for vulnerable pupils started before they entered in Reception, or at least at the pupil’s point of entry into a school.

The programme involved working closely with the feeder secondary school to employ their SENCO as the community strategic SENCO. Consequently, pupils were known throughout their primary journey by both primary and secondary colleagues. A practical and active conversation to support the learning of the individual pupil started that spanned from the moment they entered the primary school and throughout their transition into secondary and beyond.

Expert practitioners were enabled to work across phases of learning and a greater focus on secondary school colleagues supporting the development of learning and skills in the primary setting enabled more effective and bespoke intervention earlier in a pupil’s education when it was most readily needed.

There was also a greater level of support for parents, which again enabled more bespoke approaches to the development of learning for all vulnerable pupils and made for a more effective transition between school settings.

It allowed a more pedagogically focused approach to transition, where the continuum of learning flows effectively from EYFS through to key stage 3 and beyond through focused work and engagement to enable the primary curriculum to meet the secondary curriculum, not only through what was taught but also through an adaptation of the structures for teaching and learning at both levels.

Apply this to the case of Steve. The same key person who knew Steve and his parents’ needs in key stage 1 would be there in key stage 3 as well. This would have enabled all of the simple solutions that he needed.

It is not difficult to argue that the preventative model is best, but what is new in what Jez and I are saying is that the way of doing this is through promoting a longer-term EYFS to 18 transition planning rooted in the same small team across schools. And in moving towards this, there are lots of things you can do...

Ideas for schools

  • Secondary and primary colleagues work together to examine the continuum of learning. Identify the gaps, particularly around the perceived transition points, and plan ways to “plug the gap”. If transition is always in the last few weeks of the summer term, could pupils not start their next phase of learning perhaps taught by one of their “new” teachers?
  • Seek opportunities to enable primary and secondary colleagues to actively work cross-phase both operationally and strategically. The “cluster/hub” SENCO model example could equally be applied to teams of expert support staff, inclusion leads, family support and pastoral care staff. Are the key stage 2 and 3 leaders involved in working with these pupils heading for transition more than a year prior to transition?
  • Share training between phases. There are many times that transition fails because teaching staff have not been afforded the widest extent of the training available to meet the needs of the pupils in their care. There is a huge amount of power in primary practitioners supporting the training of their secondary colleagues in the early stages of key skills development and in secondary practitioners leading innovative curriculum development and expert subject-specific teaching at primary level.
  • Use the same identification procedures and advice to teachers between the key stage 2 and 3 phases in your cluster of schools. The key is to focus on less information rather than more because the goal is consistency, which can only be achieved in manageable chunks.
  • Plan regular activities together that bring pupils (and parents?) from across phases and schools together to plan, to perform, to share ideas.

An example of this last idea: Jez ran a “Cluster Choir” for many years bringing pupils from year 3 to 11 together to sing, perform and to have fun. More than 70 pupils regularly came together to share in the musical experience and to perform for parents in regular concerts.

He explained: “It was only when we hosted a netball tournament at our school that I started to realise the real importance of ‘shared activity’ for transition.

Excited pupils came to find me to tell me that many of the other primary school teams were made up of Cluster Choir members, and that they all knew each other. It changed the dynamic of the tournament completely.”

Some conclusions

I end most of my articles for Headteacher Update emphasising two things, which in this case I hope is obvious:

  1. The quality and usefulness of information exchange and communication is key. I think it goes without saying that this is heavily reliant on the second point...
  2. Relationships: the more developed, fluid and comfortable the adults are between the organisations, the more this will naturally reflect in the children.

A simple self-evaluation question that can help you understand how well your parents and students perceive transition could be: how well do I know the staff and ways of the transition partner school?

Jez’s final word: the key to effective transition is in ensuring that, in all of the changes of setting, process and procedure, there is a clear continuum of learning between phases, an understanding that each phase builds upon and values the previous one, and that time is given to creating opportunities for pupils and staff to meet and work together – not just as a one-off, but more regularly as a part of the learning journey.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. You can find all his articles for Headteacher Update on our website via
  • Jez Piper is the CEO of the Diocese of Bristol Academies Trust. He has been a headteacher, SENCO and involved in school leadership for more than 15 years in both England and Wales.

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