Easing the Transition from Primary to Secondary Schooling: Helpful information for schools to consider

Publication Details

The present report is the last in a series of three. Each report presents findings from a Ministry of Education project A Study of Students’ Transition from Primary to Secondary Schooling .

Author(s): Research Division, Ministry of Education.

Date Published: June 2010

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

Chapter 2: The primary to secondary schooling transition study and selected findings

This chapter presents an outline of our transition study, along with selected findings - teacher and parent views of the transition as well as brief reference to student feedback - from the study, as context for the material presented in subsequent parts of the report.

The Study

In response to an identified need for more information about students' transition from primary to secondary schooling within a New Zealand context, the Research Division of the Ministry of Education designed an in-depth, exploratory study. Key findings from the literature review by McGee et al (2003) guided the scope and the design of the study.

The study followed a diverse group of just over 100 students for 18 months as they made the transition from Year 8 at primary school to secondary school, progressed through Year 9 (their first year of secondary schooling), and on into Year 10. Six full primary, two intermediate, and two secondary schools from two main centres were involved in the study.

The purpose of the research was to identify the factors that seem to facilitate or hinder a smooth transition for students between the two school sectors in terms of their:

  • overall learning and achievement;
  • social development or adjustment; and
  • attitudes towards school, learning and achieving well.

The ultimate aim was to provide information that would contribute to enhanced experiences and increased successes for students in the classroom and at school generally.

What was Involved

At each of four phases of the study, students took part in individual interviews and were assessed in mathematics, reading and writing in order to investigate how or if the transition impacted on achievement at school.

During interviews, students told us how they felt about moving on to secondary school, how they found secondary school once they were there, their views about different curriculum subjects, and about teachers, friendships and social relationships generally. They also talked about what most impacted on how they learned and achieved, how they felt about school in general before and after transition, and how they saw their schooling in relation to future goals and aspirations.

We also consulted parents, school staff (45 in total) - including principals, teachers, and Years 9 and 10 deans in the participating schools, and senior student peer supporters for their views on important issues concerning the transition from primary to secondary schooling and its effect on students.

Point to Note:

The transition study and resulting reports have a particular focus on when students' transition from primary to secondary schooling involves a change of (mainstream) school. According to Ministry of Education data, this is the situation for the large majority of students in New Zealand (just under three-quarters).

Some findings from the primary to secondary schooling transition study follow. (The teacher and parent material presented has not been covered in our previous reports.)

Student Views and Experiences of the Transition to Secondary School

Year 8 students are often anxious or afraid about moving on to secondary school. Of their more specific fears, they worry about the possibility of being bullied. But for most students it is to a great extent simply that they are 'fearful of the unknown'.

Some weeks after the transition, however, despite earlier fears, most students in our study considered that they had 'settled', and were coping quite well with all the new or different experiences they were encountering.

In contrast, as discussed further in Chapter Four, students tended to become increasingly critical of aspects of school as they progressed through Year 9.

Positive Aspects for Students of the Transition

"Often, there is a focus on what will be difficult about the transition, but there are also many positives for students."

Often, when the subject of the primary to secondary schooling transition is raised, there is a focus on what will be 'difficult' about it, and an assumption that it will be a negative experience for students. While understanding possible stressors for students is undoubtedly important it is also important to recognise positive aspects of the transition for many students. This understanding can help alleviate student, parent, and teacher fears prior to transition. It can also lead to a positive focus on ensuring that a school's strength areas are actively promoted or built on to make students' experiences at school even more worthwhile.

Data presented in our previous reports on the transition study showed that there were many good things about transition, with students frequently identifying a range of positives for them personally regarding their move to secondary school, both socially and in terms of their learning.

Individual Student Characteristics and Expecting the Unexpected

"There were common transition experiences for students but also important individual differences."

Although there was considerable diversity among participating students, there were many common themes in their responses about the transition itself. Many consistent themes were also evident when students talked about their experiences and views regarding learning and achievement and about social aspects of their schooling.

As well, however, study findings revealed the importance of individual student characteristics for better understanding the needs of transitioning students. For example, where one student may require more input and support for their learning and achievement to make a successful transition, another may need more support around social relationships, or involvement in the wider life of the school.

A key message to emerge from the study findings was that, in order to provide students with the best possible support at times of potential added pressure, teachers should know students well, and have access to up to date information concerning their learning and achievement and what is going on in their lives more generally.

Selwyn's story (Case Study 1) illustrates how complex it may be to 'predict' how well different students will transition.

Case Study 1: Transition and individual student characteristics

Selwyn was a small, shy student who had been unable to find like-minded students to mix with at primary school. As a result, he spent most of his out of class time at school reading by himself. However, somewhat contrary to expectations, Selwyn's transition was a positive one. His move to secondary school, with its more diverse student population, wider extra-curricular opportunities, and option subjects available, resulted in him discovering compatible companions. Also, thanks to the insightful observations and subsequent mentoring of his performing arts, English, and form teachers in particular, in collaboration with Selwyn's concerned parents, Selwyn was able to get off to a good start at secondary school: he encountered opportunities to showcase his special aptitude and abilities in the performing arts in ways that he hadn't had before. As a result he blossomed, from the positive attention and recognition received from other students following his very successful appearances in school productions and through being able to extend his particular abilities. There were also positive spin-offs in the regular classroom setting: Selwyn now felt more at ease with his peers, realising that they accepted him for who he was, despite his quirkiness, and he was more able to speak up and contribute in class. His previous lack of confidence to contribute for fear of being ridiculed by classmates had often been a source of frustration and misery for him, especially as he was a capable, well-read student who often knew 'the answers', where others did not.

Teacher Views on the Primary to Secondary Transition

A number of teachers in the study, both primary and secondary, suggested that the transition to secondary school is an exciting and stimulating experience for some students, who enjoy the challenge of the transition and 'blossom' due to the wider range of social, academic, and extra-curricular opportunities.

There were also a few teachers who did not regard either this particular transition or year-to-year transitions generally as a particular issue, reasoning that change is simply 'a part of life that everyone has to cope with'.

In general, teachers overall considered that most students adapt to secondary school quite quickly, recovering from their fear and confusion before the beginning of the second term. However, at the same time, many also identified a range of what they saw as important transition-related issues which are potentially stressful or unsettling for at least some students. These are detailed below.

The Physical Size of the School

It was noted that in their first weeks at secondary school Year 9 students are often anxious about successfully negotiating their way from class to class, and also find it physically exhausting, especially if they are carrying heavy bags of books.

Coping with a Large and Diverse Student Body and 'Loss of Status'

The changed nature of the student population was considered particularly intimidating for students who moved from small, homogenous primary schools into large secondary schools with a more diverse ethnic mix. Teachers talked about Year 9s' fears about being bullied by older students. They also referred to the shock for some students of losing the position and status that comes from being the seniors at their primary school to being 'bottom of the heap' at secondary.

Adjusting to Having Several Different Teachers

Some students were reported to struggle (or predicted as likely to struggle) to form concurrent relationships with five or more teachers at secondary school. It was felt that it can be difficult for Year 9 students to adapt to academic and behavioural expectations if these vary across their different classes. Participants emphasised the importance of students developing a strong relationship with at least one significant adult at the secondary school to provide a sense of consistency and support.

Adjusting to a More Formally Structured Timetable and Discrete Subjects

Both primary and secondary teachers suggested that secondary school is difficult for students who do not have the skills or organisational ability to readily follow timetables.

Furthermore, it was suggested that some students find it challenging adapting to the structure of discrete subjects taught in 50-minute periods at secondary school, a considerable change for them from the more integrated subject approach at primary school. Several primary teachers felt, too, that while some students would find a 50-minute period too long to concentrate, others would need more time than a single class period to really get focused on a subject and start learning.

Receiving Less Personal Attention and Opportunities

"There was concern that the students would 'get lost' at secondary school."

Primary teachers in particular were concerned that some students were at risk of getting 'lost' in the much larger secondary school system. They worried too that Year 9 students would be disappointed and disadvantaged by not being given as many extension or leadership opportunities as they had received at primary school.

Negative Changes in Behaviour

A number of teachers expressed concern about evidence of deteriorating behaviour of some students post transition, a notable contrast to their good behaviour and progress at primary school.

Troublesome 'transition-related' behaviours were attributed to:

  • disruption of social networks, both with teachers and with peers;
  • less individual attention from teachers at secondary school because of the way secondary schools are organised, making personalised relationships between teachers and learners more difficult to achieve;
  • Year 9 students 'testing the boundaries' as part of adjusting to the new school and growing up;
  • inappropriate classroom placements of some students in relation to their learning and/or social needs, diminishing the student's self-concept and ability to cope well;
  • less responsive teacher pedagogy leading to student disinterest and lack of engagement;
  • peer pressure from other students resulting in skipping classes, decreased desire to do well in academic work, smoking, drinking, using drugs and general misbehaviour.

Despite the identified issues and stressors for students, there was a sense that teachers on either 'side' of the Year 8 to Year 9 transition did not know for sure how the transition affected their students, partly because over the longer term it is difficult to separate the effect of transition from the other factors affecting student behaviour and learning, and also because of lack of knowledge of each other's sector.

Parent Views on the Primary to Secondary Transition

"Parents are often fearful about the transition."

Like many of the participating students and teachers, most parents expressed a range of fears and worries about the impacts of the transition from primary to secondary schooling. These worries included their child:

  • becoming 'a small fish in a big pond';
  • being bullied;
  • finding the work too difficult or, in some cases, not challenging enough;
  • not being well-organised enough to cope with (the anticipated) extra demands; and
  • finding it difficult to cope without their best friends and having to make new friends.

They also worried that their child would 'get into bad company', and that their child would not have the same level of support and understanding that they had received from their teacher(s) at primary or intermediate school.

And, on their own account, they anticipated that if their child had a problem, it would be more difficult to know who to contact at the secondary school to talk about it.

Some weeks after their child's transition to secondary school most parents reported that their earlier fears had been largely unfounded. However, as well as identifying positive aspects of their child's first year at secondary school, parents also identified less positive matters (eg, their child struggling with schoolwork), helping to identify some important areas to focus on when thinking about how best to ease the transition event and address any ongoing adjustment or settling in issues for students.

Some representative comments from parents follow.

Parental comment on what their child was enjoying about secondary school

"He enjoys playing sport, very proud to wear his uniform and get on the bus with his friend and he is happy with his school work."

"Really enjoys computers at high school and using word processing programmes and is developing skills rapidly, plus making new friends."

"He enjoys doing his homework to research maths and social studies."

"[My daughter] enjoys her teachers and feels very confident to approach them with anything. She enjoys the peer supporters and often tells me how lovely they are and that they make her feel safe and are great to talk to. She is enjoying the different studies and is very happy with her new school friends."

"[My son is enjoying] being a librarian (access to huge amounts of books), being in the chess club, and being at the same school again with his closest friend who is a bit older."

"More independence and mixing with other children outside her normal circle of friends."

"New friendships, different teachers, enjoying her [option] subjects she's chosen, finding that she's coped quite well with all the changes."

"Choice of option subjects, teachers' enthusiasm/passion for their subject. Learning new things in her subjects."

"The variety of school activities that she can be involved with. She has just joined the Polyclub. Likes the teachers and finds them very helpful."

"Meeting new people, new friends, feels more grown up, enjoys having men and women teachers (has not had a male teacher before), the new things on offer - new subjects, feeling older - more freedom to do new stuff."

"Friends, more independence, stimulating work, feedback from teachers."

"Is with an older age group. They do different subjects each day which makes it more fun and the variety of subjects that interest him - eg, graphics, art (he wants to study architecture)."

"[Enjoys] everything - most of all, linking up with people: teachers, peer supporters, friends old and new."

"The social side and new friendships. And the work is harder and more of a [positive] challenge."

"He likes experiencing new subjects (science, typing). He likes dance - this surprised me."

Parental Comment on what their Child was NOT enjoying about Year 9

Teaching and Learning

"Finding science boring - no experiments, all writing."

"Doesn't like subjects that involve reading and writing all the time in class."

"The teacher doesn't engage her in the learning."


"Being pulled up by teachers and not being given a chance to explain the situation."

"Liked the subject but clashed with the teacher."

"Finding that teachers in [two of her subjects] unable to relate to the students."

"Finds some teachers are not supportive."

Level of difficulty of the work

"Finding some work too difficult."

"Can't quite get to grips with the concepts in mathematics."

"Easy things she knows from past times and having to do it again."

"[My son] gets a bit bored. He has felt that sometimes the work is too easy."


"She gets annoyed with other kids playing up in class."

"Getting used to the amount of different children who have different outlooks on life."

"Finding the older children intimidating."

"Not being able to play [as at primary school] - she says everything is about image."

The different expectations and responsibilities

"Having to be organised - his responsibility to have the right books, etc, at the right time."

"Getting used to all the different rules."

"He doesn't always enjoy the responsibility that goes with the greater freedom."

"Having to cope with the six-day timetable - it is confusing."


"Homework all the time and having to prioritise one [assignment] over the other."


"Not being able to go into the classrooms at lunchtimes because privileges have been taken away from students in the past [for poor behaviour]."

"No activities at lunchtime, having to stay outside at tea/lunch breaks."

"Walking between classes when it's raining."

Discontinuity of teachers

"Missing almost two terms of [one subject] due to having 'relievers' who basically just filled in time."

"Was very disappointed when her English/form teacher left during the year."

Other things 

"The tiredness. Starting earlier, finishing later. Having to carry a heavy bag of gear around."

"Having to get up at 6.30am to catch a crowded train (could just walk to school before)."

What Parents would Like Schools to Provide

Parents' predominant 'wish' was for schools to ensure that their child was safe at school.

More broadly expressed expectations of schools were that they would provide 'a quality, high standard education' and 'good discipline'.

While parents clearly wished schools to provide their children with the best possible learning opportunities, and effective discipline, they also wished for their children to be in an environment that was friendly, welcoming, and enjoyable and which gave them a sense of security and belonging.

In terms of their children's teachers and other staff in the school, they wished for them to be:

  • approachable (both for their child and themselves);
  • understanding;
  • patient;
  • willing to help their child with learning and homework they found difficult;
  • responsive to their child's pastoral care issues;
  • conscious of the need to give clear explanations to students;
  • aware of the importance of having high expectations of all students and clearly conveying what the students would have to do to meet those expectations.

Parents also frequently expressed a wish for schools to help promote feelings of pride, self-esteem, and confidence in their children, and to encourage and foster personal attributes such as honesty, integrity, respect, and 'a continued love of learning'.

"[The most important things for the school to provide for our children is] to be proud of themselves as individuals and to teach them self-worth, [make sure they are] feeling safe (within the school environment), and encourage our children to want to learn more and enjoy it at the same time."
  Parent of Year 9 student

Questions to consider

  • To what extent do we agree with the views about transition recorded in the previous few pages? In particular, in light of our own situation currently, how accurate is the reference to schools'/teachers' lack of knowledge about what happens in the other sector and the possible implications of this for transitioning students?

Summary Comments

"It is helpful to know what students anticipate will be the 'best' things about secondary school."

"Systematically collected information from students, parents, and teachers about the sorts of anxieties and fears they have about the primary to secondary schooling transition helps show where efforts to make this transition as positive and trouble-free as possible may need to be directed.

Similarly, it is helpful to know what students in particular anticipate will be 'best' or most exciting about attending secondary school, so that steps can be taken to successfully meet students' (appropriate) expectations and avoid disillusioning them.


  1. The students were assessed by means of asTTle (Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning). AsTTle is an educational software package developed for the Ministry of Education by the University of Auckland which enables teachers to create and analyse literacy and numeracy tests, in both English and Māori, for students in Years 4–12 (curriculum levels 2 to 6). Further information about asTTle may be obtained from the Te Kete Ipurangi (TKI) website.
  2. This publication does not therefore specifically address student transition from primary to secondary schooling within the same school. Nor does it discuss more specialised transition situations (eg, when a student transitions from a kura to a regular English-medium secondary school). However, in light of evidence from the research literature that transition points in general, including year-by-year changes as students progress through their formal education, have features in common, it is likely that much of the material presented in this report is pertinent to the other contexts as well. For further reading, refer to MacArthur et al's (2007) work on transition for students with special needs, and research by Berryman and Glynn (2003) regarding students transitioning from Māori-medium at primary level to English-medium at secondary school.
  3. Students' fears and hopes about secondary school in the weeks preceding their arrival there, and their feedback about what it was like for them in and out of the classroom in the weeks and months following transition are reported in some detail in our previous report The Case of Emily: A focus on Students as they Transition from Primary to Secondary Schooling (refer p.12).
  4. This is not the student's real name. Pseudonyms have also been used in all of the other student case studies presented in this document.
  5. Refer to Chapter Four regarding the view expressed by some teachers that a few students never really settle or adapt to secondary school.

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