Transition: A giant step that needs more support than ever

11 Sep 2021, 4:00

As schools welcome new and returning pupils, the NFER’s Julie Nelson and Caroline Sharp warn transition may not be as smooth as usual

This week, some children will be starting school for the very first time while others will be moving to a new one. All will be embarking on fresh routines, with new teachers and classmates.

Transition has always been a time of mixed emotions –excitement, hope, nerves, uncertainty. But our latest research suggests the pandemic has left pupils feeling more anxious and under-prepared than usual.

We interviewed school senior leaders in 50 mainstream primary and secondary schools across England, serving deprived populations. They told us their transition year groups had not adjusted as smoothly as usual last year and predicted this would also be true in 2021. Despite schools’ best efforts to create virtual or socially-distanced transition events, many felt pupils had experienced a reduced transition offer.

The youngest face the biggest challenges

Recent evidence from Leeds University and NFER has indicated very young children have been particularly affected by the pandemic. It has, after all, accounted for a very large proportion of their lives.

Many of the primary leaders we interviewed said that, due to Covid-19 disruption, their nursery, reception and year 1 children were not emotionally or academically ready for the next stage of education.

A minority of primary leaders said their young children’s transition experience was not affected because they provided all-through education from nursery to reception on one site. This meant nursery pupils were already sharing facilities with reception pupils and were familiar with staff and routines.

In spite of the widespread focus on missed learning, our leaders were most concerned their year 6 pupils would not be adequately prepared for secondary school in terms of their skills for learning, social skills and emotional control.

The pandemic has left pupils feeling under-prepared for transition

They acknowledged pupils had some learning gaps, but hoped these could be caught up during key stage 3. However, they worried that pupils would struggle, both organisationally and motivationally, with their ability to manage more a rigorous timetable and their general stamina for learning.

In addition, some year 6 pupils were said to be particularly anxious about the move to secondary school. This ties in with other findings from our research, which show how the pandemic has contributed to a deterioration in some pupils’ wellbeing and mental health.

Older pupils face specific challenges

Though secondary leaders felt their older pupils had coped better with remote learning than younger pupils, they said the removal of national exams in 2020 and 2021 affected year 11-13 pupils’ academic readiness for their next steps.

With regard to year 13 students leaving for university, leaders worried that having missed out on the rigour of A level exam preparation and the development of essay writing and enquiry skills that comes with that would set them back. One said starkly: “I don’t think they’re ready for university. I worry for them.”

Leaders were also concerned about pupils’ preparedness for FE colleges or work-based learning. A few predicted a rise in the number of young people who would be NEET as a result of the pandemic’s impact on their education.

And while the new cohort of year 11 and 13 students can hopefully look forward to a less disrupted year ahead, they are also facing a particular form of anxiety, brought about by a lack of certainty about 2022 assessments. Leaders’ call for urgent clarity on this issue isn’t just about certainty for them and their teams; it’s just as important as a safeguard for pupils’ mental health.

Looking to the future

Hopefully the removal of Covid-19 restrictions in schools will consign many of these challenges to the past. But education policy makers can’t assume a return to normality will happen simply or quickly.

For pupils who made key transitions in 2020 and 2021 to reach their full potential, their schools will need adequate funding as well as support from external agencies to provide the enhanced wellbeing, behaviour and academic support they are likely to need.


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