The Case of Emily: A Focus on Students as they Transition from Primary to Secondary Schooling

Publication Details

This is one of three reports on a study which followed a diverse group of New Zealand students as they made the transition from primary to secondary schooling, progressed through Year 9 and on in to Year 10.

Author(s): Shelley Kennedy and Sharon Cox, Research, Ministry of Education.

Date Published: September 2008

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This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box.


This report is one of three on the study Students' Transition from Primary to Secondary Schooling. Links to the two other reports are in the "Where to Find Out More" inset box.

The purpose of the study was to investigate what it is like for students when they move from primary to secondary schooling, as a basis for establishing to what extent this transition may be a problem for some or all students. It was also to identify ways in which to make this transition smoother for students, with the ultimate aim of contributing to enhanced experiences and increased successes for students in the classroom and at school generally.

As the title suggests, the core of this report documents the experiences of 'Emily', one of our participating students, throughout the transition process. The report is divided into four parts.

Part I (chapter one) begins by setting out the nature, purpose and scope of the report, followed by a brief description of how it links to the other two reports in the series. It also includes suggestions for using the report.

Part II (chapter two) contains an overview of the primary to secondary schooling transition study as a whole, as context for Emily's story.

It further contains summary details about Emily, plus a brief description of 'Luke', portions of whose story are included to complement that of Emily's.

Part III has a primary focus on Emily. Each of its eleven chapters (Chapters Three to Thirteen) covers different aspects of her story, with a particular emphasis on the 18 month period of the study during which she progressed from her final year at primary school to Years 9 and 10 at secondary school.

Short pieces about Luke are also inserted into each of the chapters in Part III, as are portions of the data on the more than one hundred students who participated in the transition study. The references to other students are intended to show where, how, or if their experiences and views differed from those of Emily.

Part IV (chapter fourteen) comprises a discussion of what the information presented in previous chapters tells us, with reference to the transition study's research objectives. The discussion incorporates data from Emily's story, but in contrast to Part III, now has a greater overall emphasis on data relating to all participating students.

A very brief summary of the findings of the study, as presented in this report, is provided overleaf.

Other data, for example, detailed analyses of students' achievement throughout the transition process, are presented in the two further reports on the study.

Highlight Findings

  • The primary to secondary schooling (Year 8–9) transition is not the 'disaster' that is often feared.
  • Most students quite quickly adapted to the more immediate changes inherent in a move from primary to secondary school, such as finding their way around in a new school, moving classes, and becoming familiar with different rules and routines.
  • Also, by the end of their first year at secondary school:
    • overall, Year 9 students reported many positive experiences at school;
    • in the majority of cases, students' test results — we used Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning, known as asTTle — revealed sound or good achievement gains, despite the significant dip in mathematics scores and a levelling off in reading and writing recorded shortly after the transition;
    • few students expressed a desire to 'go back to how things were' at primary or intermediate school.
  • But, at the same time, the Year 8 to Year 9 transition does represent a time of significant, deeper-level change for students that is generally 'unsettling'.
  • It became evident too over the course of the study that while the Year 8 to Year 9 transition seemed to be commonly thought of as a particular 'event', it should more appropriately be regarded as a 'process', requiring students to make ongoing adjustments over quite some time.
  • Other important findings include that for an important minority of students, the Year 8 to Year 9 transition is a particularly challenging time, academically and/or socially, and exacerbated in some cases by emotional issues or difficult home circumstances. Without appropriate support, at least some of these students are likely to be at particular risk of dropping out of the education system, and of achieving few or no qualifications.
  • And for students overall, while they reported many positive or enjoyable aspects of their schooling experiences 'post-transition', just as they did prior to the transition, there is a need for concern about the evidence which showed that students became less positive about their subjects at school over time, and less engaged in aspects of teaching and learning at school, supporting the findings of other national and international studies.
  • Feedback from students at all phases of the study provided important insights about what may help keep students engaged in their schooling, suggesting amongst other things a greater need for a student perspective to be taken into account, and at an early stage.

The account of Emily's experiences before, during and at two points following the Year 8 to Year 9 transition event, given in this report, illustrates much of 'how it was' for the majority of students in the study who made a good overall transition. But the ups and downs she experienced also provide important insights into the difficulties that students in general can encounter during their schooling and suggest what may need to be taken into account in order to solve those difficulties.

The data relating to all participating students throughout the report show the basis from which we derived the main themes and 'key implications' of the study findings that are presented. 

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