Year 6 to 7: Answering the transition challenge

Written by: Colin Hegarty | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Primary to secondary transition is always challenging for students, who face the double whammy of anxiety and learning loss. The impact is felt particularly keenly in maths. Colin Hegarty offers his advice

More than 600,000 students will be moving on from primary to secondary school this September. While many students are excited by this transition, it is almost always accompanied by palpable anxiety – from children and parents alike.

For this year’s cohort, there are even greater challenges and increased anxiety thanks to Covid-19. Just as day-to-day teaching has been upended by the pandemic, so have the detailed transition plans and activities which take place in the spring and summer terms – visiting and speaking to year 6 students, meeting with primary teachers, planning and running school visits, and face-to-face support for children with additional needs.

Transition to secondary school is a pivotal moment but this year teachers are attempting to do it with their hands tied behind their backs.

The challenge of transition to secondary has always been a two-headed beast – student anxiety about the prospect of secondary school; student learning loss over the summer break.

Learning loss is a problem felt starkly in maths education given the hierarchical nature of the subject. And this year, lockdown exacerbates the situation…

The combination of weeks off school, learning loss and transition anxiety has the potential to massively stall maths progression for the year 7 in-take, and is likely to alter how secondary maths teachers plan the first half-term.

However, is a whole new approach needed? When we step back and pause, we remember that the core issues remain the same. And addressing them may need only some slight adjustments…

Tackling transition anxiety

Transition anxiety cannot be wholly avoided and the lack of face-to-face contact with new teachers and physical introductions to new spaces will exacerbate students’ worries. The first step in alleviating any kind of anxiety is communication, and transition is no different.

At this time, creative methods of communication are needed between schools, students and parents.

In a recent blog, Charlotte Bagnall, a child development researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, whose work includes a focus on primary-secondary transition, suggests: “Virtual transition work, from live tours of the secondary school and interactive maps of the building, to moderated discussions between pupils and primary and secondary school staff, could provide much needed transition exposure, and reassure all involved for when schools restart (hopefully) in September.” (Bagnall, 2020)

Great efforts are being made by secondary schools to collaborate virtually with feeder schools. I have been impressed to hear about lots of virtual activities – year 6 pupils being encouraged to record video questions for current year 7s to answer, online mentorship programmes, and secondary teachers hosting and recording sample lessons for year 6 students or setting mini-projects to acclimatise them to secondary learning.

Research from educational consultants Premier Advisory Group (Smart, 2020) suggests that “buddy” systems could help reduce anxiety of pupils and their parents/carers around transition.

As they suggest: “Although ‘buddies’ will not be able to meet before September, there is the potential for secondary pupils who are not yet returning to school, for example those in year 7, to provide some form of support to current year 6 pupils remotely.”

As well as these novel approaches, probably one of the most useful things is to schedule a video call with the parents/carers and each student who will be starting in September. I appreciate this is time-consuming, but secondary school leaders should enable year 7 form tutors (or others) to have the time to speak directly with students.

Communication between primary feeders and transition leads

Communication between teachers at key stage 2 and 3 is particularly critical over the next few weeks. Year 6 teachers will need to adopt new “markers of progress” to share with their year 7 colleagues: “Who has engaged in lockdown learning and in what capacity?” and “How has/will progress be assessed in the absence of SATs?”

The more year 6 teachers can identify where learning gaps might exist, the more year 7 teachers can provide the right support in September.

Communication is also important to help support curriculum continuity which is particularly important in a foundation subject like maths. Research from University College, Cork (Prendergast et al, 2019), found that that teachers at both primary and secondary level identified similar issues with maths transition: “A lack of continuity between curricula, a lack of knowledge of each other’s curriculum and a lack of communication between both levels.”

Mitigating increased learning loss

As well as anxiety about starting secondary school, the other big issue is learning loss. Research shows that the normal summer break can set back children’s maths learning by two months (Cooper et al, 1996) and that the subsequent move to secondary school can lead to a drop in maths attainment during year 7 (Henderson et al, 2017).

Although teachers and schools are working incredibly hard to ensure students are learning during lockdown, it is a worry what learning gaps might arise over this extended period, in particular, for students that have been harder to reach and motivate.

There is inevitable disparity between the amount of learning and progress children are making in lockdown. Some year 6s have been motivated and continued to work hard, others may have completed very little to no school work.

For example, recent research has shown that 71 per cent of primary school pupils are getting involved in remote learning activities, while 63 per cent of secondary students are engaged. Figures that fall even further for vulnerable pupils of all kinds, including those without access to ICT for learning at home (Lucas Nelson & Sims, 2020; see also Headteacher Update, 2020).

Notwithstanding the challenges above, even those students who have worked hard are doing so under challenging circumstances.

All this means that, across the board, a degree of learning loss is inevitable.

I believe that it is the setting and encouragement of a learning routine of little and often that will be the most impactful for year 6s between now and September. Now is the time to engage parents and provide encouragement to keep going with maths learning through summer.

Technology has made this easier, with numerous apps and platforms available to encourage bitesize maths practice.

If the response to coronavirus has shown us anything it is that the vast majority of teachers are able to adapt with skill and resilience, creatively using all the tools at their disposal to support their students’ learning at home.

Although transition this year presents significant challenges for both primary and secondary schools, I am in no doubt that teachers will be able to ensure our new year 7 students are equipped for starting secondary school.

  • Colin Hegarty is the founder of HegartyMaths and education director at Sparx, which has launched a free learning at home online course to support year 6 students to develop their core number skills and be better prepared for maths at secondary school in September:

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