CEO’s Blog: Taking the long view to tackle the challenges of the move from primary to secondary school

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Research out this week shows the move from primary into secondary school has become more difficult due to the pandemic. Secondary schools are going to need to make major adjustments to anticipate the scale of needs they will soon face. 

The move from primary to secondary school was a major challenge even before the pandemic. Primary schools generally serve fewer pupils and have stronger relationships with families than their secondary colleagues. Children are typically taught by one teacher who knows their capabilities and struggles right across the curriculum, and school leadership teams will often know every child and every family.  

At secondary school, students can benefit from greater subject specific teaching and a broader range of relationships, but not every student finds this change straightforward. In the North specifically, attainment which is broadly in line with national averages at the end of primary school opens up into a substantial attainment gap by the time students are sitting their GCSEs.  

According to new research by YouGov, 79% of teachers are currently concerned that pupils leaving primary school this year won’t be emotionally or socially ready for secondary school. Children have missed out on many of the experiences that would otherwise have supported their educational journey to this stage, and in addition to their social and emotional readiness, many are still grappling with learning gaps from persistent periods of time out of school.  

Rather than the onus being on children’s readiness for secondary school, perhaps we should think instead of the readiness of secondary schools to meet children’s needs. Secondary schools must be ready for children as they are and lean on primary expertise if needed to help take children on the next stage of their learning. This begins with a proper analysis of their starting points, academically, socially and emotionally, and appropriate support to help meet students’ needs as they arise. 

SHINE is supporting approaches right across the North of England to help improve the transition from primary into secondary school. For example, Debi Bailey, a passionate school leader in the North East, is running a project which helps identify needs among children whilst they are still at primary school and then provides intensive support once they reach secondary.  

Debi had realised that children who might struggle with the move to “big school” were not being identified early enough. Thanks to Debi’s approach, children are being individually assessed to gauge their attitudes to themselves and their learning. Primary school children who may have confidence issues, or are suffering with anxiety, are being identified as needing help earlier, and are receiving bespoke support from a dedicated member of staff. Problems that may otherwise have remained hidden are being addressed long before the move to secondary. Already the schools are seeing improvements among the students who have received the support compared to historic cohorts, and Debi is keen to share her approach so that other schools can benefit. 

As secondary schools gear up for welcoming their next cohort of year six students, schools like Debi’s are already working with those in year four and year five who will be moving up in the coming years. Concerns around the transition may have been intensified by the pandemic, but it was a strategic issue in many schools already, and those who are at the forefront of tackling it are already taking a long view.