Completely different or a bigger version? Experiences and effects of the transition to secondary school

Publication Details

Most of the Competent Children, Competent Learners study sample changed school when they went on to secondary level. This transition often involved some marked change in the characteristics of the school they attended - moving to a much larger school, or to a single-sex school. Friends were often lost in the process - but they were also gained. But secondary school offered students a wider range of experiences, rather than a totally new world.

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

Date Published: 2006

Executive Summary

Key Findings

Most 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; high performers were no more, or less likely to settle quickly than others. Those who did take two terms or more to settle had lower scores for the attitudinal competencies after taking into account prior performance and social characteristics.

Views of school remained mainly positive, though there were marked increases in boredom and restlessness. Students from low-income families, and in decile 1–2 schools showed less engagement with school. There were some similar trends for Māori and Pacific students in the study.

Contrary to fears that transition to secondary school negatively affects student performance, we found that change was just as likely to be up as down, and in fact that there was slightly greater stability of performance over the 2 years between age 12 and age 14, than there was for other 2-year periods when the sample was in primary school.

Kinds of School Change in the Transition to Secondary Level

Eighty-eight percent of this sample changed school in the transition to secondary level education. The most frequent kind of change was simply from an intermediate or full primary school to a secondary school. Just over a third moved from coeducational to single-sex schooling or changed their school socioeconomic decile, usually moving to a higher decile school. Just over a fifth went to a school that had a much larger roll (at least 3½ times) than their primary school.

We found little evidence of multiple "stacking up" of major change: sometimes one kind of change was "balanced" by another (e.g. moving from a coeducational to a single-sex school balanced by the new school being moderately larger rather than very much larger). While a list of the kinds of structural change that can occur for students in this transition can seem to add up, most students in this sample were not experiencing all of them simultaneously. Those who tended to experience more structural change than others also tended to be students from homes that were well resourced in terms of maternal qualification and family income.

Views of the Move to Secondary

The majority of students settled into their secondary school within two terms. Only 17 percent took longer. Parents and deans tend to see the settling in period as taking a little less time than students, on average.

At age 12, most of the students in this sample were positive or had fluctuating views about going on to secondary school. Reasons for looking forward to the change were anticipation of having interesting activities, more choice, and more independence. Reasons for being apprehensive were related to fears of negative social climates and work that would be too hard to do.

However, students who were apprehensive about going on to secondary level were just as likely as those who were positive to settle in within two terms.

On the whole, social characteristics were unrelated to student estimates of how long it had taken them to settle into secondary school. The one exception was low family income.

Students moving from a full primary school took longer to settle in on average than those moving to secondary from an intermediate. Shifting to a much larger school than the primary one led to a longer settling in time. It also led to more loss of friends—but more opportunity to make new ones. Shifting to a single-sex school from a coeducational also had a higher settling in period. Those whose new school was higher or lower decile than their primary one settled just as quickly as those whose new school was a similar decile to their old.

Friendships were important in settling in, as were teachers, family, and senior students.

Secondary school offered the students more—more subject choice, and more challenging work, as well as more teachers, students, work, and shifting between classes. On the whole, these things were seen either positively or neutrally. While most students thought that secondary level schoolwork was more demanding, around a third also thought they were repeating work they had done before. This suggests that repetition may be occurring in some subjects or some schools only.

Around a third felt they had less school responsibility than at primary or intermediate school; this and feeling they were treated more as a child were views more likely to be held by students and parents from less-advantaged homes.

Gender and ethnicity were largely not reflected in differences in student views of their new school. However, Māori and Pacific students were more likely to find it hard to get used to their new teachers.

School Choice

Seventy-one percent of the students said their school was their first choice of school, and 73 percent would choose the same school again. Those who were less likely than others to be in their school of first choice were from low-income families, and they and Māori or Pacific students were most likely not to want to attend their current school if they could choose again. Students in low-decile schools were least likely to be at their school of first choice, or choose the same school again.

The New School Environment

Most of the schools attended by the students were organised in horizontal form classes, so that students would start secondary level with others of their own age. The common compulsory subjects of English, mathematics, science, and social studies provided continuity with primary school. This continuity was also evident with technology and the arts, which were compulsory at most of the schools. Six optional subjects were offered on average. Their content was related to school decile, with computer studies, the arts, or horticulture more likely to be offered at low-decile schools, and languages at high-decile schools.

Within-subject differentiation by student performance levels occurred to organise classes in compulsory subjects for between half to two-thirds of the schools, rather than streaming of groups for all classes. This within-subject differentiation is not dissimilar to the grouping practices that students would have been used to at primary school for reading and mathematics. Within-subject differentiation increased with school size, but occurred most in boys' schools, and also more in low-decile schools.

Cross-curricular or integrated courses occurred in just over a quarter of the schools, more commonly in coeducational schools than single-sex schools. Lunchtime activities for students were offered in all schools, though 42 percent of the students thought that only occasionally or never were there good things for them to do then. A wide range of extracurricular activities was offered, particularly sports, debating, kapa haka, music, and drama.

Student and Parent Views of their Early Secondary School Experiences

Around two-thirds of the students continued to enjoy learning at age 14, and liked their teachers (even if there were more of them). Most seemed confident in their new school. They were slightly more likely to say they usually got all the help they needed—though the proportion of those who did not usually or always get the help they thought they needed (27 percent) remains of concern. But there were marked increases in boredom and restlessness, and in those who thought they could do better work if they tried.

There were signs that Māori and Pacific students were running up against the school rules more: they were less likely to think discipline rules were fair, and to feel they were treated as individuals. They were more likely to think they could do better work if they tried, but also more likely to think they got too much work to do.

Ethnic differences tended to overlap with family resources: thus we see the same trends in relation to family income and maternal qualification. However, in addition, there was a much greater likelihood that students from low-income homes or whose mothers had no qualification would report being bored, skipping classes, getting sick of trying, not liking their teachers, and wanting to leave school as soon as they could.

A marked change from when the students were aged 12 and in primary school was that students attending low-decile schools were now much less engaged, and less confident in their schools. They were, however, just as likely as others to like their teachers, feel they got all the help they needed, and that it was important to do their best.

Doing well at school mattered more for the sample at age 14 than it had at age 12—just over half chose this as one of the three things of most importance to them.

Subject choice was mentioned more by students at age 14 as something they enjoyed about school—otherwise there are no clear trends in what students enjoyed about school that are related to the transition to secondary school. Particular subjects were named, with more nominating health/physical education and the arts than the compulsory subjects. Sports were also enjoyed. Friends continued to top the list. Homework was not enjoyed by a quarter of the students, and mathematics, science, or poor or boring teachers by a fifth. Discipline was not enjoyed by 12 percent.

Homework was taking an hour longer each week, on average; but there was a growing gap between those who spent most time, and those who spent least time on it. Dislike of homework grew slightly. Parental help was slightly less than at age 12, and parents reported that they mostly gave it "when needed". Forty-three percent of the parents said they had difficulty helping their child with mathematics homework. Parental help with homework was less likely in low-income homes, and for Māori and Pacific students.

Parent views

Sixty-five percent of the parents thought their child enjoyed school—less than the 75 percent at age 12, but comparable to age 6, after the transition between early childhood education and primary school. Family income levels remained associated with views of enjoyment of school—but not gender and maternal qualification. Low school decile was also more associated with lack of enjoyment of school.

Around a quarter of the students were thought by their parents to like only some of their teachers, or none of them. However, only 12 percent thought their child had little or no support for their learning from their teachers, and 19 percent thought their teachers gave their child little support for their emotional wellbeing.

Satisfaction with their child's school progress was the same for parents with children in Year 9 as it had been at age 12, but there was a slight drop for those with children in Year 10. Māori and Pacific parents were less satisfied with their child's progress. Parents from low-income homes thought that their children got less support from teachers than did others, and that their children enjoyed school less.

Parents of students in decile 1–2 schools reported less satisfaction with their child's school progress. They were more likely to have co-operated with someone at the school to sort out a problem, with a higher rate of social-emotional issues.

Parents were just as likely to work with their child's teachers to resolve issues at secondary school as they had been 2 years earlier. Most of these issues were resolved, but there was some increase in the (small) proportion of those that had not been.

The majority of parents felt welcome in their child's secondary school; patterns of involvement were much the same as they had been in their child's last primary school.

Parents' and students' views of the transition are not always in agreement—particularly around whether they had chosen the school alone, or as a joint decision, and about the levels of work and responsibility in secondary school.


Most of the sample experienced changes in their friends over the transition to secondary school—friends were lost, but new friends were gained. Loss of friends was more likely with those who went to single-sex schools, or moved from full primary schools.

Friendships and independence from parents were becoming more important, particularly for students from low-income homes. Close friends were more likely to include both males and females, particularly for students at coeducational schools. All but a few students had some close friends.

Almost all the students said their school friends were good friends, and only a few wished they had different friends at their school. However, most students also have friends who do not go to their school, more so for students at single-sex schools.

Going out with friends to entertainment, or going out with them with no fixed agenda had increased. Entertainment carries costs; so it was not surprising that this was less likely to occur for students from low-income homes. Support or trust was a more important aspect of friendships.

Settling In

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.

The time it took to settle into secondary school did make some independent and additional contribution to the mean attitudinal composite score, with lower scores for students who took more than two terms to settle into secondary school. A similar trend was evident for Year 10 students in relation to their confidence in the school environment.

But the time it takes to settle into secondary school was the only factor specifically related to the transition itself that showed any negative associations.

There is no evidence from this sample that the transition to secondary school negatively affects student levels of performance—there is in fact a slightly greater stability of performance over this 2-year period than other 2-year periods during their primary school years. Change in performance was just as likely to be up as down over this time period.

We looked at factors that might be related to different patterns of change over the transition. Engagement in school and seeing achievement as something that occurs when absorbed in learning or working hard is related to improvements in cognitive areas. Feeling pressured by friends and having friends who display risky behaviour, are related to drops for the attitudinal composite.

Is Transition to Secondary School a Red Herring?

The value of a longitudinal study is that it can put this transition into perspective. Because we have material on students' prior performance and engagement in school, we can see that these carry more weight in early secondary performance and engagement than the transition itself.

However, there are three groups of students whose experiences and responses indicate possible emerging issues for the success of their secondary education. There are signs of a growing mismatch and discontent with schools among the low-income group, and, overlapping that to some extent, among those attending low-decile schools. We also see see some of these trends, but not to the same extent, among Māori and Pacific students. In our sample, Year 10 Māori and Pacific boys seemed more likely to experience decreases in performance.

This suggests that concerns over transition need to focus more on these groups, and the nature of learning and teaching in low-decile secondary schools. Given the importance of prior engagement and performance levels, we would also gain from ensuring that these are good before students come to secondary school: this should support positive and engaging teacher-student interactions for students from low-income homes and in low-decile schools.

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