Aim higher coordinator Ivan Holdsworth discusses transition years and the implications these stages have on students’ learning

‘Schools need to find out how pupils see each of the transition years and to present a picture of the “next year” that makes pupils look forward to it with excitement – in terms of both opportunities to extend their learning and opportunities to be “more adult” and responsible.’

The Impact of School Transitions and Transfers on Pupil Progress and Attainment (Galton, Gray and Ruddock 1999)

It has long been recognised that young people go through numerous upheavals during their school careers: Reception to Key Stage 1, moving from infants to juniors, transferring to ‘big school’, Key Stage 3 to 4, beyond GCSE and moving into higher education. Some of these shifts are characterised by ‘learning dips’ when children’s learning can stagnate or appear to regress.

The most substantial changes in attainment can occur after transfer to a new year group within a school. Highly able young people are often affected by their transition between key stages, especially in the move from primary to secondary school.

The DfEE report The Impact of School Transitions and Transfers on Pupil Progress and Attainment (Galton et al) from 1999 recognises that transition and transfer is firmly on the education agenda. Schools have user-friendly induction processes and far fewer pupils experience sustained anxiety. However, there is still much to be done in overcoming problems of curriculum continuity and differences in teaching and learning. 

Some issues for G&T children:

  • Induction programmes are often aimed at smoothing the transfer process rather than ensuring that pupils’ commitment to learning is sustained.
  • Two out of five pupils fail to make progress during the first year after transfer.
  • Pupils experience a decline in motivation towards some subjects.
  • Negative impact of the long summer break on previous skills and knowledge.
  • Repetition of work from the previous year.
  • New work set by teachers underestimates pupils’ capabilities.

The Ofsted report Changing Schools: Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Transfer Arrangements at Age 11 (Ofsted, 2002) praises the pastoral aspects of induction. The transfer of basic pupil data from primary to secondary schools is more consistent with the introduction and widespread use of the KS2 transfer form, and the KS3 strategy has improved liaison between secondary and primary colleagues.

However, there is still much to be done to improve the learning opportunities for more able children. The report is critical of the way in which data about pupils from primary schools is utilised by secondary schools; a focus on transfer is a low priority for subject departments in secondary schools and that only test score information is requested and used with too much time being spent on additional testing of pupils at the start of Year 7.

While teachers in all the schools recognised the importance of continuity in pupils’ learning (meaning pupils should not have to repeat what they have already learned), the survey found that teachers from KS2 and 3 rarely came together to discuss teaching and learning programmes, standards of pupils’ work and to compare and share approaches to teaching. Some projects do, however, exist where this happens, but they tend to be short-term projects rather than offering a sustained, ongoing dialogue.

More successfully, nationally funded G&T summer schools have existed for a number of years, with the main objectives of: smoothing the transition between Year 6 and Year 7, improving continuity and progression in their education, enriching their educational experience and/or enabling them to engage early with material they would not normally encounter until later.

Insufficient challenge

The DfES report, Transfer and Transitions in the Middle Years of Schooling (7-14), Continuities and Discontinuities in Learning (Galton et al 2003) stems from a project that examined practice in more than 12 local authorities and 50 schools. It said that transfer arrangements in schools were generally working well but there was a need to focus more on academic progress.  

  • Headteachers acknowledged a ‘push’ during Year 6 with 82% using practice testing and 74% booster classes. 
  • At transfer, schools are paying increased attention to curriculum and pedagogic issues but pupils are still insufficiently challenged in Year 7.
  • In year-to-year transitions, learning is better supported if schools give clear messages about the status of different years and if teachers recognise the value of peer support and provide sustained encouragement for pupils trying to re-engage and shed their previous reputations.

Galton et al measured pupils’ attitudes immediately before transfer to Year 7 and in November and July afterwards. They found that the present Year 7 curriculum is not suitably challenging for more able pupils. They reported that English lessons had more variety and were more interesting than in Year 6, but maths involved doing similar things though with ‘bigger numbers’. In Year 7 science pupils reported spending much of their time copying out details of experiments, and as a result able pupils were easily bored by these lessons and preferred the active involvement and variation in English.

The researchers did visit several schools where thinking skills were being taught in Year 7 science via the use of CASE (Cognitive Acceleration in Science Education). This type of approach is widely considered to be of benefit to G&T children. However the CASE approach was often used over one or two lessons a week and pupils were not able to relate or link it to their other science lessons.

The researchers highlight transfer from Year 7 to 8 as a time when routine can set in and learning suffers. Pupils said that Year 8 is more or less the same as Year 7 and work was at the same level. They also felt that Year 8 wasn’t given the same level of importance by teachers as Year 7 or 9. Another issue raised by the interviewees is the pressure of the peer group versus the pressure of work. Many more able children at this stage don’t want to be seen as ‘nerds’ or ‘boffs’ and thus fail to give enough attention to academic learning.

Transfer and transition at post-16

The move to post-16 study can involve a change of learning environment. G&T students may progress more quickly through some of their courses and get qualifications earlier than their peers.

Strong links with universities and FE institutions can help to extend students’ academic skills and raise awareness of the demands of university. Partnerships between schools and FE colleges are set to become increasingly common under the government’s plans for personalising the curriculum.

Some Aimhigher Partnerships have introduced programmes specifically for G&T 14 to 19 year olds who have the potential to benefit from HE. Aimhigher’s explicit focus on under-represented groups helps to ensure that additional support for disadvantaged G&T students is carefully targeted. However G&T cohorts have been inconsistently identified between partnerships and there is no national data.

Support for post-16 learners in schools

Post-16 academically gifted students are likely to be following A-level courses in school. In addition to good teaching pitched at their level and designed to challenge and extend their abilities, such young people benefit from a range of approaches to accustom them to higher-level academic work and to accommodate their needs and preferences:

  • The development of students’ thinking and learning skills. Year 11 students from a number of schools come together to study AS units in critical thinking and complete this work in Year 12.
  • Students in Year 11 shadow A-level students in courses in which they are particularly interested.
  • Masterclasses, workshops and seminars at university offer the opportunity to study at a higher level and learn new skills.
  • Local arrangements allow pupils studying AS level units in Key Stage 4 to move to a different institution post-16.

Open University Young Applicants in School Scheme (YASS)

YASS enables 16-18-year-olds to study degree level courses alongside their A-levels. It is effective in stretching the abilities of more able learners by encouraging independent learning, developing skills appropriate to HE, and offering new ways of learning through a variety of media.

OU Short Courses are particularly popular. Students study a course that complements their A-level choices, whilst improving skills, broadening their academic profile and offering the opportunity to do something completely new. Modules also introduce them to a way of working more akin to university study. Short courses are available in arts, science and technology. Successful completion leads to 10 credit points at HE level one. There are several start dates available throughout the year – many students typically begin in May of Year 12 and follow a course for between 10 and 16 weeks.


There are now many examples around the country of how mentoring has been effective in supporting G&T 16-18-year-olds. In Liverpool and Coventry Aimhigher has employed graduate mentors to work with learners in local schools and colleges.

As recent graduates, mentors are able to relate current university experience. They support sixth form tutors by ensuring that students have up-to-date information, arrange visits to universities, and help with UCAS applications.

Aimhigher’s work on transition in Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent

Aimhigher are funding a programme to support the transition and progression of G&T young people from a widening participation background (students from families who have no tradition of accessing higher education).

Local FEs and sixth forms are working with a number of universities to improve attainment of G&T WP students at KS5 and level 3, raise aspirations, improve self-efficacy and motivation and ultimately see more G&T students from non-traditional backgrounds progress to HE. Key activities will include:

  • pre-induction days in Year 11, team building and study skills input in Year 12
  • providing a coordinated programme of masterclasses and  residential generic and subject specific workshops
  • providing study skills, motivational and critical thinking activities for target students
  • providing mentoring and tutor support for students at risk of underachieving
  • holding events, and providing information for parents about progression to higher education.

Further information

Exploring the Secondary Transfer of Gifted and Talented Pupils, Jenny Brookes, University of Bristol 2004 (Conference Paper)

Open University Degree Study for Sixth Formers

Supporting the Transition and Progression of Gifted and Talented WP Students