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 8: Concluding comments

The overarching goal of schools is to ensure that students make good progress throughout their schooling and achieve relevant qualifications. Achieving this goal for all students means equipping young people well for a positive future: for example, qualifications, or not, can very often mean the difference between having genuine choice about future pathways and having no other option but to take up low-paid employment with few if any longer-term prospects.

To be in the best position to succeed, students need to develop a clear sense of a pathway through their education early on, and maintain steady levels of progress and engagement at school at every level of their schooling. In particular, they need to be able to maintain equilibrium through more exceptional times, such as the transition from primary to secondary schooling.

Central Messages

In common with other recent research findings (eg, Evangelou et al, 2008; and the Competent Learners @ 14 phase of Wylie et al's Competent Children, Competent Learners longitudinal study) we found that most students in our transition study generally coped well with the shorter-term aspects of the transition from primary to secondary schooling.

This was due in considerable part to the work put in by schools and many teachers. Students indicated, for instance, that it had been helpful when their Year 8 teachers had encouraged them to make the most of the new opportunities that would be available to them at secondary school. Similarly, some of the particular steps and initiatives that their secondary schools, deans, and teachers put in place facilitated the settling-in process: peer support schemes were particularly well received by students new to Year 9.

However, alongside this positive picture of students' transition from primary to secondary schooling are findings (replicated in other research referred to throughout this publication) that highlight a number of issues and concerns.

These issues relate primarily to the achievement of some students in particular and to an overall decline in student attitudes towards subjects and learning generally, which has implications for student achievement and progress over the longer-term.

And an important concept inherent in considering transition points, including the primary to secondary transition, is that transition is more than simply an event. It is an ongoing process, involving a range of key players. One major aspect of transition as process is the importance of effective links between the primary and secondary sectors regarding transitioning students, and also between schools and students' homes and communities. While regarding it as challenging to accomplish, all teacher and principal participants in our transition study agreed that forging stronger links of this kind would be beneficial to all concerned: teachers, students, parents and communities.

The research literature reports similar conclusions (eg, the Scottish Executive Education Department 2007; Hughes et al, 2008). More specifically, Hughes et al emphasised that:

'Children, parents, primary and secondary school teachers each have extensive 'funds of knowledge' which are relevant to primary–secondary transfer. Our research shows that sharing this knowledge can address [any] dip[s] in attainment [following] transfer, and help children adjust more easily to their new school. Primary–secondary transfer is a long-term process. Planning for transfer needs to start [before] Year [8] and continue through into Year [10].'

Another aspect of transition as process rather than event is that students — and parents — often anticipate the move to secondary school with a certain amount of concern. And, as well, in respect of some students at least, there is evidence that the cumulative effect of the changes they encounter can mean that much of their first year at secondary school, and not just the early days and weeks, is an ongoing challenge of adjustment. This is despite early claims of having settled well at secondary school.

Achievement Concerns

Our previous report, Students' Achievement as they Transition from Primary to Secondary Schooling, shows that the assessment data gathered at four different points revealed good achievement gains for most students over the course of the study. In particular, students who had been achieving highly at the end of Year 8, were most likely to continue to be achieving in the top quartile in mathematics, reading, and writing in Year 10. In contrast, however, the ongoing learning and achievement of students in the lowest achievement quartile was of concern38.

Specifically, it was found that:

  • Between the end of Year 9 and early in Year 10 students in the bottom achievement quartile for mathematics had the lowest rate of progress.
  • The gap between the high and low achieving students in mathematics widened at secondary school.
  • Although students' achievement scores fluctuated over the four phases of the study, around half of the students who were in the bottom quartile in one or more of mathematics, reading or writing in Year 10 had also been achieving in the bottom quartile in Year 8.
  • Some groups (eg, Pasifika students) were over represented in the bottom quartile for reading. They were slightly more likely to be in the bottom quartile for mathematics than students from other ethnic groups and were not present at all in the top quartile for this subject.

Students Attitudes to Subjects and Engagement in Learning

Our transition study data — again confirmed by similar findings in other national and international studies — further showed an increasing trend for students to express less positive attitudes to their subjects over time and an increased tendency to disengage from aspects of their learning at school.

There is a range of reasons for students' decline in positive attitudes to their subjects and lowered levels of engagement in their learning.

These include when students find their schoolwork either too difficult or not challenging enough, do not find subject content interesting or relevant, and when they experience teaching and learning approaches that are not best suited to their particular needs. As well, the nature of relationships with teachers and classmates is fundamental.

The 'age and stage' of the students is a further factor in that the middle years is a period during which young people begin to encounter many different social distractions and challenges, and become increasingly more likely to challenge things they may previously not have questioned.

However, Cole (2005), concluding a discussion about young adolescents and schooling, stressed that…
 '… whilst adolescence is a difficult stage of development, it is not the reason for declining attitudes to schooling and learning. The key factor in determining whether or not adolescent students are engaged learners is the quality of schooling they experience.'

The evidence of increasing student disengagement underlines how important it is to 'capture' the imagination and interest of students in their early years at secondary school, and of course in the months and years preceding the transition to secondary school, in order to show them that learning at school can (continue to) be both intrinsically and extrinsically rewarding. Increasingly, research evidence (eg, Kane and Maw, 2005) shows that this process can be considerably facilitated by feedback from the students themselves. Kane and Maw sought the views of secondary students regarding their learning needs in order for 'teachers and researchers to be able to understand and improve learning and teaching'. In a 2009 interview with Kane, in which she reflected on this earlier work, she stated: "We should be asking students more; my research shows they are capable of articulating quite clearly how they learn and their agency in their learning. We don't ask students enough to be involved."39

Student Adjustment to Changes Generally

Towards the end of Year 9, students looking back over their first year at secondary school could identify a range of matters or experiences that had been difficult (even when interesting or exciting) for them to a greater or lesser degree. These included: getting used to many other, and more diverse, people; forming new friendships; adjusting to different teacher expectations and pedagogies; taking tests; physical differences in the school environment compared to primary school; the different rules and regulations; losing their former status of being the most senior students at their school; overcoming fear of bullying; juggling timelines and responsibilities; and, simply feeling more fatigued than previously.

A particularly important factor during times of change, and also in terms of supporting student achievement, engagement and well-being is that students are able to experience positive, supportive relationships with parents/families, with teachers, classmates and others. For example, a constant theme in students' responses concerned the deleterious impact on their learning and well-being when they were in a disruptive or tense classroom environment.

How Can Schools Support Transition to Secondary Schooling?

In light of the central messages presented above, and the suggestions and ideas presented throughout this document, for effective transition to occur amongst other things there needs to be:

  • meaningful cross-sector communication between schools and teachers regarding student achievement and well-being, and about curriculum continuity and effective pedagogies;
  • common understanding and agreement within and across teachers and schools regarding key assessment tools, including how results are interpreted and used. Parameters for student data sharing across school sectors also need to be clearly expressed to ensure that the data compiled or received is such that it can and will be used to better inform teachers' work with students;
  • opportunities for teacher exchange visits across schools/classrooms;
  • meaningful communication about students' progress and well-being between schools and parents/caregivers, and wider community members as appropriate;
  • creative and flexible approaches to helping parents feel welcome and supported by schools, and to attend meetings with teachers where they can have meaningful exchanges about the progress and needs of their children
  • dedicated people and time allowances within schools for effective communication to occur across sectors and between schools, parents, and wider community members;
  • careful selection and appropriate training and support for key people involved in transition processes in schools (Year 9 deans and form teachers for instance);
  • as many organised opportunities as possible for students to visit their intended secondary school prior to transition and to hear about the positive things that happen at secondary school from senior students;
  • well planned and implemented orientation activities for new Year 9 students to assist them to get to know the new systems and requirements, meet their new teachers and classmates, and generally feel welcome in the school;
  • consideration given to extending orientation-type activities into a year-long programme of support for Year 9 students and/or re-organising aspects of school systems and structures to allow for nominated teachers to dedicate more intensive periods of time specifically to Year 9 students;
  • an understanding of, and liking for, young adolescents among those who work with middle years students;
  • planned ways of getting to know students well, and for listening to and taking into account their feedback about how they are finding their subjects and approaches to teaching and learning;
  • appropriate training and support for all teachers so that they are equipped to effectively assess student achievement and establish appropriate levels of difficulty for different students of the work being studied, as well as to monitor and track both individual and overall student progress;
  • greater knowledge and understanding of how to deliver the curriculum in ways that middle years students find engaging and relevant.

Some Last Comments

There are many potential matters to consider in order to effect improved outcomes for all students throughout the transition from primary to secondary schooling, in all likelihood too many to effectively, or realistically, tackle all at once.

It is anticipated, however, that the information presented in this document will be helpful for schools and teachers when making decisions about areas to focus on in the first instance, taking into account the particular context within their own school and community, and the characteristics of the students — and teachers — involved.

All students can benefit from schools, teachers, and parents/families providing particular support and encouragement to ease the transition and beyond, but such input is especially important for students for whom the transition process is likely to be more than usually difficult.


  1. The proportion of students in our transition study consistently achieving in the bottom quartile in one or more of reading, writing and mathematics across all phases of the study was typically between at least eight and 11 percent of the total group of participating students.
  2. The interview referred to was between Judith Loveridge and Ruth Kane (Director of Teacher Education, University of Ottawa; formerly Professor of Teacher Education, Massey  University). It was reported by Loveridge (2010) as part of the secondary school multi-methods action research exemplar in Chapter 5 of the report, Involving Children and Young People in Research in Educational Settings.

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