Headteacher David Dixon looks at the problems various forms of transition can pose for some children and suggests ways to help smooth those troubled paths

Transition has always been a ‘big issue’ in school, particularly from the primary phase to secondary. This is where it is anticipated that children will receive a culture shock when they move from the womb-like state of the primary classroom to the cold reality of secondary school. It can be equated to tadpoles breaking out of the spawn and running the gauntlet of the larger and more aggressive fauna of the pond. It is a fact that out of the thousands of tadpoles that swim free, only a tiny proportion go on to develop into adult frogs, which is why so many eggs are laid in the first place.

Unfortunately, it can still be the case that this analogy pertains for what happens to some primary children by the time they reach Year 8. This is especially true of children with some form of special educational need and is often linked to emotional and behavioural difficulties. But why should this still be the case, when we all know that transition needs to be carefully managed and when in recent years there has been much better liaison between secondaries and their feeder primaries?

Fundamental differences
There are several aspects to this. One important consideration is that there is still a fundamental difference between the systems of primary and secondary education. In general, the pastoral care of the primary is much stronger and more comprehensive than is possible in the secondary.

The fact that secondary students have different teachers for different subjects means that an individual is not dealt with by a particular adult for very much time. The form tutor tends only to see students at registration time and this does not allow for dealing with any complex social/emotional issues. Other teachers might only come across an individual for a couple of hours a week or a fortnight, which means that it is difficult to build up any deep relationship. Also, secondary teachers are more focused on ‘delivering’ their subject to students, rather than seeing themselves as another arm of social services (and why should they?). This is not to say that secondary schools have been oblivious to the work on learning styles, learning environments and individual needs in terms of lesson differentiation and behaviour management. Secondaries also put a lot of effort into induction schemes, whereby Year 5 and 6 students make visits to their next schools and have sample lessons and meet their new teachers etc.

But the fact still remains that a significant number of students start to fail drastically when they embark on the Key Stage 3 curriculum (and it cannot all be attributed to the attainment dip caused by the long summer holiday). I have tracked many students who have suffered from this unhappy syndrome. In the more extreme cases they end up excluded and drop out of the system. Many more just hold out until they can leave school at the earliest opportunity. There are other students who survive OK, but due to low self-esteem and/or poor parental support, badly underachieve. They add to the performance dip characterised by transition from one key stage to another (although this can be partly explained by different test criteria, which is another weighty issue not to be dealt with here).

Fatalistic attitudes
One still hears secondary heads and teachers bemoaning that primary teachers ‘baby’ their Year 6 protégés and do not equip them with the necessary skills to enable them successfully to access the secondary curriculum. Incidentally, similar comments can be heard from Key Stage 2 teachers talking about Year 2 and Year 1 teachers talking about Foundation!

In relation to this there appears to be a rather fatalistic attitude that this transition dip is inevitable and that there is not much that can be done about it. I think one way forward is to look at the concept of transition in a much wider way.

Transition is synonymous with change. The concise Oxford dictionary says it is: ‘…a passing or change from one place, state, condition etc… a momentary modulation… one style to another’.

To get really philosophical about it, you can see that the whole of life is a constant transition. Time does not stand still and we are all dragged along by the biological consequences of this. There is no such thing as the present, only the past that we leave behind and the future that we can anticipate. You need to be conversant with quantum physics to really understand all this, so I’ll swiftly move on!

The point is that educationalists only focus on a few instances of transition that they feel are significant and then seek to ‘manage’ them so that students can cope with the consequent changes. As mentioned above, these tend to take place at the end of a key stage and to a lesser extent from one year group/class to another. The beauty about very small primary schools is that transition is not such an important issue until the students have to make the big jump to secondary school, which can be all the more traumatic because of the greater than average differences between the two establishments.

Useful pointers
However, let me return to the concept of transition itself. One does not need to go down to the quantum level in order to gain a better appreciation of transition and some useful pointers as to how to make it smoother for all children.

To illustrate this, I am reminded of a very useful piece of advice I was given as a probationary teacher by my mentor, who was the school deputy head. It was a large middle school, with a significant number of students with behavioural difficulties and which operated like a secondary, rather than a primary. The deputy told me: ‘whatever else you do, always get to the classroom before them… define the situation yourself before they have the chance to. That way, they are entering your territory, rather than you entering theirs’.

Looking back, this was a very obvious piece of advice, but in effect this was a way of managing the transition from corridor to classroom so that a lesson could start in an orderly way (and I have tried to stick to it ever since). This sort of simple strategy can avoid what can be termed ‘deviant transition’, that is a movement from one situation to another which leads to a deterioration in behaviour and/or learning.

Instances of deviant transition can be witnessed at lunchtimes. Some schools have on-going problems with a small minority of students unable to behave well. These same students can often behave quite acceptably in the classroom, but once outside and confronted with midday staff, they seem to assimilate the devil. This can be exacerbated if they go off-site for their lunch. The students seem to have no mental link between the two physical situations of classroom and non-classroom. All the expert behaviour management of the teachers and TAs and inculcation of higher moral standards from PSHE and citizenship lessons are not worth the proverbial tinker’s cuss once the students are unleashed into the school yard or local environment.

Many schools have provided excellent professional development opportunities for the midday supervisors in order that their approach to behaviour management does not differ from that of the classroom staff, and this definitely helps… but not enough. A subversive youth culture clicks in as soon as some students leave the classroom, which can lead to potentially Asbo-type behaviour. There can then be a knock-on effect in the afternoon when, on returning to class, it can take an age for them to settle down. I am sure the consumption of junk food off the premises is also a factor in this.

Why then do many children demonstrate a Jekyll and Hyde personality? I believe that much of it can be pinned down to the nature of the transition from classroom to outside. Some students do not make links between their classroom behaviour and that of the yard or street because nobody has created an ‘exit strategy’, or perhaps in the context of this discussion a ‘transition strategy’. Such a strategy – or series of strategies – might include:

  • Further training for midday supervisors, which instils the behaviours of teachers and TAs so students do not receive mixed messages about their expected conduct.
  • Midday supervisors told to have a ‘zero tolerance’ with students who do not comply with an accompanying system of referrals backed up by senior staff and teachers.
  • Inviting midday staff into assembly to emphasise that they are ‘true’ members of staff like the rest of us.
  • Inviting midday staff into classrooms to reinforce the previous point.
  • Asking teachers to remind students about their conduct just before release from the classroom and time given to evaluate with the students how things went on their return.
  • Asking the teachers/TAs to be in their classrooms to receive the children in order to instil calm for the afternoon session (I wonder where this strategy came from?!).
  • Informing and involving parents promptly when student’s behaviour is poor at dinnertime, with the ultimate sanction of exclusion.
  • Modelling behaviours in assembly, in the form of good examples and bad examples of lining up, dealing with problems in lines, conduct at the dinner table etc, using pre-drilled students as actors, or allowing more open-ended role-play in PSHE and citizenship to explore the issue and provide more awareness of it (as we know students can lose a great deal of empathy with others once they reach their teens).

All the above can complement the provision of additional lunchtime extra-curricular opportunities. Some of these can be run by the midday staff, thus promoting better informal relationships. Extra-curricular activities also retain some positive school culture at lunchtimes as well as leaving less time for ‘idle hands’. There is also an argument for not letting students out of school until they are in Year 9 or 10, if at all, so that they have less opportunity to drift into deviancy or to consume vast amounts of refined sugars and fats. I know several secondary schools that have done this. It has had the added benefit of not letting the general public see students ‘behaving badly’ in the street, thus damaging the reputation of the school.

There are numerous other such micro-situations that call for transition management. Many link to good classroom management strategies – for example, the relatively simple transition from one type of activity to another. If students are autonomous and know where to store things at the end of an activity or where to access things for the new activity, then the transition will be smooth. If this is not the case, then the potential for deviancy increases.

Unfortunately, sometimes these skills are lost when children go to secondary school because some teachers are not so astute with classroom management techniques.

Secondary teachers can also fail to realise that most Year 6 students enter Year 7 as autonomous individuals who have not been ‘babied’ at all. In fact, unconsciously, it may be Year 7 teachers who do the babying with a consequent lowering of motivation amongst their charges.

When I worked as a deputy in Essex in the early 1990s, our school cluster was involved in a project with the then railway operator Network South East. It was entitled ‘Skills For Managing Change’. I do not know what became of it, but it fits the remit of this article because we mapped all the instances of change encountered by students as they moved through the school system and then considered the associated skills. This covered students from the age of seven to 18. These skills would then be actively taught to help students have a smooth transition from one activity to another, one place to another, one day to another, one class to another etc. 

Many of the change skills involved time management, self-evaluation and target setting, ie where am I now, where do I need to be and how will I get there? In essence, they were all designed to make students more autonomous and confident learners and to counteract the corrosive effects of low self-esteem and low expectations.

I have tried to resurrect this thinking in my own school because I believe it is even more relevant today, particularly in the area of self-evaluation. We all know how this is being promoted through the mechanism of the SEF for school improvement, but this ethos needs to influence how individual students operate on a lesson-by-lesson (dare I say second-by-second) basis, regardless of their age and aptitude.

Special needs
There is a significant and sometimes traumatic transition for all students that occurs without fail every school day – namely the move from home and community into the school. Just by coming to school some students experience a psychological change that condemns them to being poor learners. This is especially so if they come from what is euphemistically labelled ‘dysfunctional families’, or if they have certain kinds of special needs.

If this transition is not managed effectively, then children and teachers are stymied before they even start a lesson. Effective parent liaison, extended services, Every Child Matters, healthy schools, etc, are all bound up in having the potential to provide strategies for making this most crucial of transitions successful. This is much easier said than done. However, we shy away from it at our peril. Schools can be alien places and the ways in which they organise themselves must make them user-friendly and stress-free for all.

A couple of perfunctory taster lessons for Year 6 at secondary school will not deliver effective transition. Other types of transition, a few of which are mentioned here, will not be managed effectively if insufficient effort is made or not enough out-of-the-box thinking done.

We should also recognise when smooth transition is not appropriate. Some students relish change and are motivated by a quick jump from one thing to another and these students will vary according to the circumstances. Year 6 students can literally outgrow the primary school and enjoy the new regime of the secondary with all its different lessons and teachers.

In the same way, we all know that it is often easier and more invigorating to jump into a cold pool rather than gingerly edge into it. Taking the pool analogy further, it can be the case that an overbearing Year 6 student may be humbled and conform once they enter secondary school because they are suddenly the small fish in the big pond.

Of course, issues of transition are not just confined to the students of the school. The induction of new staff and the management of change generally relates to the definition of transition given above, ie moving from one state to another. This is at the core of all leadership and management activities and is very easy to get wrong (as I know to my cost).

It is a truism, if not a cliché, to say that we live in ‘an ever-changing world’. The pace of this change is ever-accelerating. In many ways schools have changed less quickly than the rest of society. By this, I mean that if a Victorian teacher was transported to the present, he or she would find shopping centres, modes of transport and electrical technology totally baffling. But I suspect that they would still feel at home in the average school, despite the computers and interactive whiteboards.

In secondary schools in particular, they would still observe desks in rows with a pedagogue (albeit not in mortar board and gown) delivering a content-based lesson to often passive recipients. The culture gap between school and the outside world has grown, therefore the transition between is increasingly challenging, if not impossible, for a sizeable minority of students.

One positive benefit of the National Curriculum (I’m sure there must be some more) was the introduction of the notion that primary and secondary teachers were all in it together. Thus we have year groups labelled Foundation to Year 11, with accompanying subject levels and key stages, which are supposed to seamlessly progress from one to the next. But how much of this is reality and how many of the problems we encounter in schools are caused by inappropriate transition arrangements?

Life aquatic
I realise there have been several references to aquatic life in this article and I’ll leave you with one more to emphasise the value of a smooth transition. It is a well known tale from the tomes of change management. If you wanted to boil a frog and you wanted to make it as painless for the frog as possible, whilst making it manageable for yourself, the best way would be to place the frog into a pan of cold water and gradually turn up the heat until it reached boiling point. This is good change management in action. But how often do we try to force a proverbial flailing frog into an already seething cauldron when we are dealing with school transition issues?