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Supporting children's development
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3.3 The transition to secondary school

It is quite common for children to worry about the transition to secondary school. Some children undertake this transition ‘alone’ without the support of their friends or parents. Children can worry about what going to secondary school will mean. They wonder if the school work will be much harder and whether they will be able to cope with it. It is important for schools and teachers to recognise these worries and support children before and after the transition.

Many secondary schools include sports activities and social activities in the early weeks of new pupils joining and many children benefit from this. Once settled, year 7 children quite like being treated more as an adult and less like a child within the secondary school environment. Key factors for a successful transition appear to be parental/carer support, other pupils, teachers and a programme of targeted social activities.

The roles played by other adults and peers appear influential in making a successful transition. Earlier in this section you were introduced to the ideas of Lev Vygotsky who researched the significance of social interaction or support with parents or carers and went on to describe it within social constructivism or socio-cultural theory.

Social constructivism or socio-cultural theory places significant emphasis on how the culture that we live in and the people we interact with (our environment) influence how we learn, behave and adapt to new situations. Vygotsky’s view was that children actively engage with their own environment and by doing so learn how to adapt to new situations.

Vogler et al. (2008) described how ‘Transitions can be understood as key moments within the process of socio-cultural learning whereby children change their behaviour according to new insights gained through social interaction with their environment’. Of importance here is the key issue of children engaging or interacting with others. In doing so it implies a two-way process and the readiness of children to adapt to the new situation.

Preparing children for this readiness is an important role for schools as well as parents. The majority of children do go on and undertake this transitional process successfully. But what happens with very shy children, reluctant children and those for whom not only is the school new but so is the culture in which their education is taking place?

The move to secondary school means a number of changes for all children and without doubt this transition can be stressful both for children and their parents. From a child’s point of view, moving from primary school can mean loss of friendship groups, finding their way round a much a larger school environment and no longer being at the top of their school.

For most children, after two to three weeks spent in their new environment, they become more settled and more confident about life within a secondary school. For some children, settling into life at secondary school can take two to three terms or longer!

So what is different about a secondary school and what difficulties may arise during the transition from primary to secondary school? Table 2 identifies some of the main differences between primary and secondary school and why some children might find this transition difficult.

Table 2 Differences and transition difficulties between primary and secondary school
Differences between primary and secondary schoolTransition difficulties between primary and secondary school
Subject-specific teachers instead of class teachersLearning lots of teachers’ names, their expectations and styles of teaching
Pupils use a locker rather than having a deskLess supervision of pupils at break time by teachers
Independent travel to schoolFinding their way around a much larger school

Activity 7

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Having looked at Table 2, now try to think of some more differences and difficulties. You could draw on your own experience of moving to secondary school or that of your son or daughter or other relative.

Make some notes before reading our comments.

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Not all children move at the same time to secondary schools. Some local authorities operate a middle school system that children attend from age 10, but the transition from primary school can be stressful for children regardless of how schools are managed within local authorities.

Children used to being thought of as the oldest in their primary school now become ‘little fish in a big pond’. Having to remember to take books to lessons and to hand in homework, perhaps to shelves near the staffroom, are all things that newly arrived secondary children have to learn to deal with. They may find themselves in classes that are ‘streamed’ or ‘set’ and therefore not always with the same group of class friends. And meeting a tall, mature sixth former who may be their class prefect means negotiating their ‘place’ in their new environment.

Most transitions pass unnoticed but some can impact greatly on the lives of both children and adults. This section has defined three types of transition and considered vertical transition in particular. It has looked at how best to support children’s transitions from home to school and between schools and identified key factors. It has located the move from primary to secondary school within a socio-cultural context by recognising the influence of parents, carers and significant others, such as teaching assistants, on children’s ability to cope with change. The transition from childhood to adulthood is one we all pass through and the teenage years can be linked to other transitions to work, college or university.