Transition to secondary school: Does it affect age-16 performance?

Publication Details

Competent Children, Competent Learners is a longitudinal study which began in 1993 and follows the progress of a sample of around 500 New Zealand young people from early childhood education through schooling and beyond. The transition to secondary school was focussed on during the previous phase of the study when students were aged 14 (refer Cathy Wylie, Edith Hodgen and Hilary Ferral, 2006). This report provides follow-up analysis of any statistical effects of the transition to secondary school evident at age 16 on students’ engagement and achievement.

Author(s): Cathy Wylie and Edith Hodgen, New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Date Published: May 2009

Please consider the environment before printing the contents of this report.

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.

Section 1: Introduction

The transition from primary or intermediate school to secondary school is getting increased attention, in a context of concern about closing gaps in educational achievement, improving student engagement, and debates about the benefits of different school structures (intermediates versus middle schools versus Year 7–15 secondary schools versus composite (area) schools), and the needs of adolescents.

The longitudinal Competent Children, Competent Learners project, undertaken by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research and funded by the Ministry of Education, can provide useful insight into the nature of this experience, and its effects. We published a report on our findings when our sample was aged 14, when a third were in Year 9, in 60 schools, and two-thirds in Year 10, in 63 schools (Wylie, Hodgen & Ferral 2006). Here we provide a follow-up analysis of any statistical effects we could see when the sample was aged 16, and taking part in NCEA assessments.

The effects of transition to secondary education at age 14

In the report from the age-14 phase of the project, we described how the transition to secondary usually involved a change of school, and some marked change in the characteristics of the school an individual attended, particularly moving to a much larger school, or to a single-sex school. Friends were often lost in the process—but they were also gained. Secondary school offered students a wider range of experiences, rather than a totally new world.

Most of the sample settled into secondary school within two terms. The length of time it took to settle in reflected previous reactions to school as well as current. Prior feelings about going on to secondary school were not related to how soon students settled into secondary level schooling, and high performers were no more, or less likely to settle quickly than others. Students could take longer to settle into secondary school if:

  • the school was not their first choice;
  • they thought the discipline was stricter than at their primary school;
  • they found teacher expectations hard to get used to;
  • they thought there was more work to do than at primary;
  • they thought the work was more challenging than at primary;
  • getting to school took longer;
  • they did not find school enjoyable;
  • they had regular paid work;
  • their parents had concerns about them at school at age 12;
  • they had not had friends to help their transition;
  • they were not used to having more than one teacher at their primary school;
  • they had little experience of changing schools; or
  • they were in schools where it was less likely that information about them from Year 8 was used.

These aspects are not determinative—students who settled straight away could also have similar experiences. We found no significant relationship between student motivation levels at age 14 and the length of time it took them to settle into secondary school.

Does the transition to secondary school affect student performance?

The transition to secondary school is often seen as a risky passage, and there has been attention in recent years to making it easier (Hawk & Hill 2001, 2004). Quantitative analysis of its impact on student performance suggests that it is more of a risky passage for some students, rather than all students. Grolnick, Kurowski, Dunlap, and Hevey (2000, p. 466) note that:

One point on which most researchers agree is that there is great variability in children's responses to the transition. Thus, the literature has turned from an emphasis on whether, in general, the transition is disruptive for children, to an examination of who is vulnerable and what factors protect children from experiencing declines in self-perceptions and academic performance.

Grolnick et al. (2000) cite US studies finding greater vulnerability for already low-achieving students, those who had negative self-perceptions, and those with low peer support. They also note that one reason for the decline in reading and mathematics grades that they found in their own work was less a change in student performance, than "stricter grading  practices of seventh- as opposed to sixth-grade teachers" (p. 482). However, a decline in grades can impact on student motivation, and increase the likelihood of dropping out of school (Anderson, Jacobs, Schramm, & Splittgerber, 2000). The latter cite other US studies finding that transition to secondary school was more likely to have a negative impact for students who had behavioural problems in elementary school, students from low-socioeconomic homes, and (not unrelated), African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, and girls (in relation to self-esteem). They note the importance of both preparedness (academic knowledge and skills, independence and industriousness, conformity to adult behaviour standards, and coping mechanisms), and support from others (informational, resources or services, emotional, and social (peers)). The lower the levels of preparedness, the more support is needed.

From their 18-month study following just over 100 New Zealand students from eight primary and intermediate schools to two low decile secondary schools, Kennedy and Cox (2008), concluded that the transition to secondary schooling was best thought of as a process, "requiring students to make ongoing adjustments over quite some time". They found that while most students did make these adjustments, many became less engaged in some aspects of learning, suggesting that the deep issues underlying concerns about the transition to secondary schooling are connected to concerns about the nature of secondary schooling, and relationships of students and teachers.

In the Competent Children, Competent Learners' study, we found that students who took two terms or more to settle into secondary school had lower scores for attitudinal competencies (e.g.  perseverance, communication, self-management), at age 14 after taking into account prior performance and social characteristics. But this was the only association between student competence or school-engagement levels, and the transition to secondary school that we found. We found no associations with a change of school (some students remained at the same area or composite school); the size of a student's new school relative to the size of the school they had attended before moving onto secondary school, the gender-mix of the new school; or a change in decile level of the schools.

Contrary to fears that transition to secondary school negatively affects student performance, we found that while there were changes in individual students' performance, there were just as many students who achieved higher scores than they had been getting at primary school as students whose scores decreased. Indeed, despite the fact that as young adolescents, they could take advantage of experiences and friendships that could compete more with school than at previous ages, there was slightly greater stability of performance over the two years between age 12 and age 14, than there was for other 2-year periods when the sample was in primary school.

Cox and Kennedy (2008) tested students more frequently over the transition to secondary school, using the same tests. They found a decline in average mathematics scores but consistent reading and writing scores between the end of the students' Year 8 experience in primary or intermediate school, and the start of their Year 9 in secondary school. Average scores then improved by the end of Year 9. However, they found the same pattern of decline in average mathematics scores and stability in reading and writing at the beginning of Year 10, suggesting that this pattern may not be so much about the transition to secondary school per se, as a "summer" dip.

While we did not see any negative effects on student cognitive performance in the first or second years after their transition to secondary school, the association between lower scores for the attitudinal competencies and taking a longer time to settle into secondary school did give us pause, particularly given our analysis showing that attitudinal competency levels at one age can have a bearing on levels of both attitudinal and cognitive competencies two years later, and that both can be thought of as a different side to the same coin of learning (Wylie with Ferral 2005). Thus it seemed important to see what longer-term effects there might be on student learning from their transition to secondary school experiences when we returned to the sample at age 16, when they were either tackling the senior school qualification, the NCEA, or, for a small number, had already left school.


  1. Four other reports from the age-16 phase of the project and reports from the earlier phases can be obtained from the Ministry of Education, here on Education Counts, or from the NZCER website .
  2. National Certificate of Educational Achievement, the NZ secondary school qualification. For more information about NCEA visit the NZQA website.

Contact Us

Education Data Requests
If you have any questions about education data then please contact us at:
Email:      Requests EDK
Phone:    +64 4 463 8065