View all news

Call to stop the trauma of transition

Young people from a project funded by the Quartet Community Foundation for the West of England

Young people from a project funded by the Quartet Community Foundation for the West of England Quartet Community Foundation

27 January 2010

Two complementary studies launched today [27 January] call for more action to bridge the damaging primary-secondary divide.

Vulnerable young people’s happiness and prospects are being undermined because too little is done to ease one of the major transitions of their lives – that from primary to secondary school. Two complementary studies launched today [27 January] call for more action to bridge the damaging primary-secondary divide.

Both studies are from Bristol – one from the University of Bristol and the other from Quartet Community Foundation for the West of England – and both received sponsorship from the city’s Society of Merchant Venturers, but the implications are national as well as local.

The studies highlight the fact that while many children sail through the move to secondary school, others lack the emotional resilience required to handle the adjustment well. The consequent anxiety and loss of confidence can have a serious impact on their level of attainment and standard of behaviour.

The University’s study cites a 1999 report from Cambridge University which estimated that up to 40 per cent of pupils failed to make expected progress during the year after moving to secondary school. More recent work, also from Cambridge, found that 30 per cent of pupils made no progress in mathematics between Years 6 and 7 and 50 per cent made none in English or science.

The Bristol studies identify a ‘two-tribe’ characteristic in the UK education system that works against the academic and emotional interests of many children at a challenging period in their lives. A primary-secondary divide is apparent in everything from curricula to teacher education and from school governance to the way most local education authorities are organised.  

The studies acknowledge that worthwhile efforts are under way in Bristol and elsewhere to improve links between the primary and secondary stages. These include the development of all-through schools and partnerships or federations of schools, together with exchanges of primary and secondary school pupils, teachers and governors.

But the studies call for such changes and experiments to be focused more specifically on easing the transition for pupils and reducing its negative effects on performance, learning and wellbeing. 

The studies say children should not have to cope with an abrupt shift from child-centred approaches at primary school to subject-centred ones at secondary school. Primary and secondary teachers should be given the support they need to collaborate on smoothing the path between Key Stages 2 and 3, especially in mathematics and English.  Together they could resolve the tensions between different approaches to learning.  

Policy makers and governors should consider arranging for children to transfer to secondary school in June rather than September, according to the studies, thus allowing more time for induction and adjustment.

Some particularly vulnerable children will find the transition difficult no matter how well schools and local education authorities manage it. For them, the Quartet Community Foundation study suggests, a properly funded approach to personal support and mentoring, often involving the children’s families too, is urgently required.

Professor Rosamund Sutherland, joint author of the University of Bristol study, said: ‘Many pupils describe their early days at secondary school as “scary”. The move to “big school” can trigger a process of disengagement from formal education and, ultimately, from social norms.

‘A lot of good work is done in Bristol and across the UK to ease aspects of this transition, but there is scope for much more dialogue and joint planning across the primary-secondary divide, especially as far as teaching and learning are concerned.

‘There is sometimes a lack of understanding and trust between primary and secondary schools, with each feeling that the other is somehow letting the side down by, for example, focusing too much or too little on subject-based learning.

‘We need to deal with this kind of disjuncture, for the sake of all children but especially those who aren’t equipped to cope well with the transition and whose academic and other life chances can consequently be blighted.’

Professor Murray Stewart of Quartet Community Foundation, which commissioned its study from InPerspective UK, said: ‘The shift from primary to secondary school is one of a number of key transitions young people have to make. For the vulnerable ones, the transition is not a happy process and the effects can be damaging and permanent.’

Trevor Smallwood of the Society of Merchant Venturers said: ‘The Society has sponsored an Academy in south Bristol and our experience is that many children have limited understanding of what’s expected of them at secondary school. More should be done, both before they arrive and once they get there.

‘We need far stronger partnerships between the primary and secondary levels and more imaginative approaches to governance.

‘We sponsored these studies because we can’t sit back and allow a portion of each new generation to be lost. We believe that nationally, not just in Bristol, policies and practices need to be sharpened up to make the primary-secondary transition an inspiration to young people, not a tribulation for them.’

The University of Bristol and Quartet Community Foundation are sending the studies to appropriate MPs and other people of influence locally and nationally to prompt debate and promote change.


Further information

The studies:

Supporting Learning in the Transition from Primary to Secondary Schools, by Rosamund Sutherland, Wan Ching Yee and Elizabeth McNess of the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol; and Richard Harris of the School of Geographical Sciences and the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO), University of Bristol. January 2010.

Supporting Vulnerable Young People in Transition: Addressing Poverty of Wellbeing, by Anita Gulati and Anna King of InPerspective UK Ltd for Quartet Community Foundation. January 2010.

The Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol is one of the UK’s most successful teacher education institutions and an internationally renowned centre for research. It is part of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law.

Quartet Community Foundation for the West of England is one of the country’s oldest and most successful community foundations. It uses its expertise and local knowledge to help donors support the local causes and charities they care about and make an impact through their giving.

The Society of Merchant Venturers has been involved in education and other philanthropic activities in Bristol for some 400 years. It is the sponsor of the Merchants’ Academy in Withywood, south Bristol, which opened in 2008 and which is co-sponsored by the University of Bristol. The Society is also the sponsor of a second Academy in Bristol, Colston’s Girls’ School.

Please contact Joanne Fryer for further information.
Edit this page