The Impact of Primary-Secondary Transition on Students’ Wellbeing: research summary

Posted on behalf of Dr Ros McLellan, current co-ordinator of our Schools-University Partnership. In the post below Ros shares with us a summary of findings from a research project she is currently engaged in . . .

Transfemclellan_rosrring from primary to secondary school is an anxious time for most youngsters with the dip in academic progress during the first few weeks in secondary school being a well-established phenomenon. For most students, concerns are generally short-lived with around three quarters reporting they have settled in well by the end of the first term, but something like 6-10% experience persistent problems. A recent major review of school experience funded by the Nuffield Foundation as part of the Changing Adolescence Research Programme, found no studies which examined young people’s wellbeing over more than the immediate primary-secondary transition period, despite the fact that that small but significant percentage of students appear vulnerable to longer-term problems. We also know from international studies that young people’s wellbeing in the UK is lower than that in many other developed countries. Maurice Galton and I have been researching young people’s wellbeing over the past five years and he is a world-renowned expert on the primary-secondary transition, having studied the topic over the past four decades. Wlogo Nuffielde felt it was high time to explore young people’s wellbeing over transition over a longer period of time than previous studies and are grateful to the Nuffield Foundation for funding this work.

Maurice Galton’s previous work shows that over the years schools have developed a range of strategies to ensure continuity for students. Termed the five bridges of transfer, these relate to 5galton_maurice areas – administration, social, curriculum, teaching and autonomy. By the early part of the 21st century it was clear that a lot of sophisticated work was going on in terms of things like bridging units of study, teacher exchanges and post-induction sessions to tackle the issues encountered by young people as they transfer schools. However in the changed educational landscape where many schools have become academies outside local education authority control and in a more stringent economic climate with reduced funding in schools it is unclear how much of this work remains in place. It is therefore timely to revisit to examine what is happening now and how this might relate to young people’s wellbeing.

We recruited four secondary schools (and their feeder primary schools) to work with us in central and eastern England. Two schools indicated they pay particular attention to primary-secondary transfer and have a range of strategies in place to support the vulnerable. The other two had been specialist arts schools and strongly promote the arts and these were chosen because our previous work had suggested that creative initiatives promote eudaimonic or functioning wellbeing (i.e. self-actualisation and fulfilling potential) together with the other main facet of wellbeing, hedonic or feeling wellbeing (i.e. feeling good and enjoying life) so we were interested in seeing whether students in these schools would fare particularly well. The research involved:

  • Surveying 1110 young people about their wellbeing inside and outside of school at the end of Year 6, after the first half-term at secondary school, and at the end of Year 7 using a questionnaire we had developed in our previous work.
  • Developing case studies of the work to support primary-secondary transfer and people’s perceptions of it in each secondary school based on observations (induction days, the first day at secondary school, a regular day in Year 7), interviews (with students seen to be successful and those at risk, as well as discussions with various members of staff including the Year 7 coordinator) and an analysis of relevant documents (relating to arrangements for transfer).

Survey findings revealed that whilst perceptions of wellbeing outside school remained more or less constant over the time period studied, both eudaimonic and hedonic wellbeing in the school context declined considerably over the year. What was interesting was the wellbeing scores did not change significantly between the end of primary school and the initial period at secondary school; the drop occurred between the October half-term and summer testing points in Year 7. Thus it seems, in line with previous literature, most children settle into secondary school within the first half-term as their wellbeing scores stay relatively constant. Thus, the work schools were doing to ease transfer was generally effective for the immediate transition period, although they were less successful at maintaining wellbeing over the first year at secondary school.

Our previous study suggested that wellbeing declines with age and indeed this reflects the literature more generally but this doesn’t explain why only wellbeing in school was affected, whilst wellbeing out of school was unchanged. The explanation for this could lie in the stage-environment fit theory, which suggests that the learning environment must fit the developmental needs of youngsters, which research has shown problematic as students move from primary to secondary school. Work in occupational psychology has suggested that successful work-role transitions comprise 4 stages, which take place over a period of time including a preparation stage, initial encounters, adjustment and stabilisation, and whilst schools attend to the first two stages rather less emphasis is placed on the final two stages.

There were no overall differences between the schools either in terms of overall levels of wellbeing or how this changed over the year, thus it would appear that they were equally effective in maintaining wellbeing over the transition period and showed a similar decline over the Year 7 period. The final issue of note was that boys overall reported higher frequencies of eudaimonic wellbeing at all testing points and this was seen across all schools. This finding, whilst concerning, does reflect what we found in our previous work and the literature more generally.

The case studies demonstrated a remarkable consistency in experience across all four schools. Overall students thought they had settled in well and were experiencing hedonic wellbeing, felt most teachers had their best interests at heart so they could achieve their best, thus facilitating eudaimonic wellbeing and valued what the Year 7 coordinator had done to support them. As the field of student voice has demonstrated, they are well placed to reflect on their wellbeing and did make some suggestions.

Similar approaches were taken to induction days and the first day at secondary schooling. As in previous studies, there was a considerable focus on administrative issues such as the timetable and rules in students’ initial encounters with their secondary school. However, what was different was that the rationale for rules in terms of helping students achieve their best was explicit and this appeared to be accepted by the majority.

Previous writers have talked about transfer from primary to secondary school being a status passage and the need therefore for secondary school to be different from primary to mark this change so students see they have successfully achieved the status change in the transition. Thus, whilst some initiatives such as a special base at one of the schools for vulnerable students, who were grouped together in a tutor group, undoubtedly helped this group in the early stages of their secondary careers, it can also hamper if students don’t yet feel they have achieved the status change. In this particular example targeted students appreciated the base initially but wanted to fully integrate with the rest of their cohort by being able to mix with others during lunchtimes and breaks. Thus there is a balance to be struck between support and continuity and discontinuity.

Our observations in this study and in previous work suggest that teaching approaches do not differ markedly between Year 6 and Year 7, perhaps due to performativity pressures of the KS2 SATS eroding the traditional topic-based and integrated approach of primary schools. Again this can be problematic for students needing to feel they have achieved a status change. Given that students were preoccupied with making new friends and vulnerable students reported continuing issues with friendships and relationships with some teachers, rather than focusing on taster lessons in induction days, which may not be dissimilar to what they are used to, it may be more useful to focus on the social rather than curriculum aspects of transfer. Vulnerable students will also need on-going support as their problems continue through the year and are exacerbated by the prospect of going into different teaching groups and potentially having a different personal tutor / Head of Year in Year 8.

Although two of the schools specialised in the arts, there appeared little difference in teaching approach between these and the other two schools based on our observations and what young people told us. Our previous work had suggested that creative work led by experienced practitioners fostered eudaimonic wellbeing through being autonomy-supportive and allowing youngsters to make their own decisions about their work and hence reach their potential. Although we saw some examples of autonomy-supportive practices in all schools, the strong focus on targets and rules meant this wasn’t the typical practice and wasn’t something that was more apparent in the arts-specialist schools. But to maximise learning in autonomy-supportive environments students also need to become efficient autonomous learners as well as efficient managers (which the focus on admin and rules supports) and this needs to start during the initial encounters and during the adjustment stages.

Thus our recommendations are:

  • Consider transfer from primary to secondary school as a status passage and give consideration to the balance of continuity and discontinuity to enable students to feel they have successfully transitioned to a new status. Also take into account the developmental needs of youngsters and phase changes gradually.
  • Consider transition as an on-going process comprising a number of stages that isn’t just about the first term in secondary school (i.e. preparation, initial encounters, adjustment and stabilisation).
  • Focus particularly on social aspects in the preparation and initial encounters (induction days and first few days at secondary school) rather than on curriculum / pedagogy.
  • During initial encounters and the adjustment phases students not only need to encounter autonomy-supportive teaching but also need to be taught how to be efficient autonomous learners (how to work independently, take notes etc.).
  • Vulnerable students need on-going support, particularly in the socio-emotional sphere.
  • Although important for all students, particularly attend to how to help girls feel they can achieve their potential and involve them in this process.

See and for a link to the report.

Ros McLellan

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One Response to The Impact of Primary-Secondary Transition on Students’ Wellbeing: research summary

  1. jemk1 says:

    This is excellent thank you Ros. In particular I note the need for efficient autonomous learners and that there is a focus on the social aspects in transition. All your recommendations are particularly pertinent in the mixed up transitions encountered across Bedfordshire. Here we have not only 3 tier but fast becoming a muddled up one two three or even five tier transition.This is a huge concern for parents and schools alike.

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