When September comes: 12 tips for a smooth year 6 to 7 transition

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
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Transition from year 6 to 7 is always a challenging time for students, but during a pandemic the potential difficulties have been heightened for both young people and schools. Matt Bromley offers 12 strategies to help our new year7s thrive when they arrive this September

A recent literature review on the subject of primary to secondary school transition concluded that there was “fairly robust evidence that pupils' educational outcomes decline after they move to secondary school” (Jindal-Snape et al, 2019).

The report found “evidence of a decline in pupils' motivation, school engagement and attitudes, and an increase in absence and dropping out”, as well as “evidence of a negative impact of transitions on wellbeing, a decline in feelings of school belongingness and connectedness, poorer social and emotional health, and higher levels of depression and anxiety”.

In my book, Making Key Stage 3 Count (2016), I reported similar findings and argued that, often, this decline – both academic and pastoral in nature – was the result of insufficient or ineffective communication between primary and secondary schools which had several harmful consequences:

  • Secondary school teachers have a weak understanding of the curriculum content that precedes what they personally teach, while primary school teachers have a weak understanding of the curriculum that succeeds their own.
  • Assessment practices in the two phases are inconsistent and therefore there is little correlation between year 6 and 7 data.
  • There is often a weak understanding in year 7 of what pupils can achieve and therefore insufficient challenge in the curriculum.

Of course, it is not just about schools talking to each other more often and more effectively. Rather, there are many factors outside a school’s control that impact on a pupil’s ability to adjust to secondary life, including their own social and emotional development.

Covid and transition

The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly compounded the problem. Various reports and commentators have claimed devastating impacts of Covid-19 on pupils’ learning and longer-term prospects.

For example, a study from the Nuffield Foundation and National Foundation for Educational Research (Sharp et al, 2020) had this somewhat damning conclusion: “Nearly all teachers estimate that their pupils are behind in their curriculum learning, with the average estimate being three months behind. Over half of teachers estimate that the learning gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has widened.” The report found that the impact was worst for students in the most deprived schools.

Meanwhile, a report entitled Understanding progress in the 2020/21 academic year (Van den Brande & Andrews, 2021), found that all year groups had experienced a “learning loss” in reading. In primary schools, these were typically between 1.7 and 2.0 months. Schools with high levels of disadvantage had experienced higher levels of “loss” (up to 2.2 months) than other schools, particularly in secondary.

And a third report (Blainey & Hannay, 2021) claimed that at the end of the autumn term there were measurable declines in attainment compared to the previous year across virtually all subjects and year groups. The year 6 Pupil Premium group was estimated to be around seven months behind the non-Pupil Premium group in maths.

So, with these challenges in mind, what can schools do to ensure a smooth transition for new year 7 pupils this September?

1, Avoid a deficit model focus on the future

Having cited the reports above, I will say this: pupils may have “lost” a few months of “normal” classroom teaching and therefore might not have been taught parts of the planned curriculum, and home-schooling experiences will undoubtedly have been varied, but does this equate to “lost learning”? And do we actually mean “lost learning” at all?

Pupils will not have lost very much learning during lockdown. Rather, their prior knowledge will have decayed slightly and will therefore require some retrieval practice to dust it down. With this practice they could find themselves back on the same trajectory pretty quickly. What’s more, lockdown may actually have served to incubate their learning, helping pupils forge new connections and develop more schemata, or at least provided some time for reflection.

2, Attend to pupil wellbeing first and foremost

To help our pupils get back on track, we should eschew formal assessments, which I have argued before is never a good way to start year 7 (Bromley, 2018). Instead, make sure our pupils feel welcomed and safe. We should attend to safeguarding and mental health concerns and foster a sense of belonging.

A useful report by the British Psychological Society (2020) offers a “resilience and coping framework” for supporting transitions. It states: “There is a risk that the narrative around school transition and the experiences of children becomes dominated by the language of risk, trauma, damage, or illness. To adopt an approach that promotes resilience is not to ignore the potential for trauma or harm, rather resilience models emphasise positive influences without discounting risks and vulnerabilities. This means that there is space for a narrative that explores assets, strengths, hope and coping.”

3, Invest in quality first teaching

After attending to pupil wellbeing, we should invest in quality first teaching: through good teaching, formative assessments can identify any academic concerns. And quality first teaching should focus on pupils’ literacy skills first and foremost – developing their oracy and reading comprehension.

Professor Dr Daniël Muijs, former Ofsted director and now dean of the School of Education and Society at the Academica University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, argues that any attempts to address “learning loss” must put the teacher at the core.

Writing on the university’s website (2021) and citing a number of research reports, he argues that “effective interventions need to put the teacher at the heart of the approach, and primarily encourage high-quality teaching”.

He added: “We know that short-term interventions such as one-off, add-on courses are less effective than a coherent approach that is implemented across the school and aligns with the school vision.”

Muijis believes that effective quality first teaching is anchored in mastery learning: “To help all pupils catch-up, it is helpful to build on the principles of mastery learning (which) means that we don’t leave anyone behind, and provide support for students who are at risk of failing. To do this we need to know our pupils’ starting points, which we can do through formative diagnostic assessment.

“In our teaching approaches, we need to continue to use effective strategies suggested by research on learning such as retrieval practice, and what we know about explicit teaching from teacher effectiveness research.”

4, Arrange virtual visits in the summer term

During these visits, secondary teachers should of course talk to year 6 pupils about life in “big school”, but perhaps we will have more impact by facilitating current year 7 pupils talking to year 6 peers. The year 7s can share their experiences of the transition process and life after transition. Pupils are more likely to listen to their peers than they are to teachers and will be relieved to hear from pupils in the year above them that life in secondary school is not quite as daunting as they think.

5, Hold a virtual parents' evening in the summer term

Welcome new parents and answer questions about the transition and induction process. Offer a further virtual event early in the autumn term for “settling in” discussions.

6, Primary and secondary teachers talking and sharing plans

For example, a teacher within the English department of a secondary school could make it their mission to know as much as possible about the primary English curriculum and could map what is taught at primary to the key stage 3 curriculum. They could ensure that what is taught in year 7 represents a natural progression from what is taught in year 6, and that it consolidates and extends prior learning.

They could also ensure that the language of learning used in years 6 and 7 is consistent – both in terms of the technical language pupils know and use and the language teachers use to describe aspects of pedagogy and practice (for example, WAGOLL and WABOLL).

7, Strike the right balance

Whether virtual or in-person, transition days must balance enthusing pupils about what delights await them in September (and allaying their fears) and not over-selling the secondary experience.

We want the event to be fun and engaging, to make pupils excited about their new school, but we do not want to give the false impression that every science lesson, say, is a veritable fireworks display. If we over-sell, then the reality will only prove disappointing by contrast and pupils will feel cheated.

9, Ask year 6 pupils to produce a Pupil Passport or portfolio

This could be done during the summer term and could contain examples of their best work and information about how they like to learn and what motivates them. This puts some ownership of the transition into pupils’ hands, thus engaging them as active participants in the process.

10, A staggered start in September

Doing this means that year 7 pupils can acclimatise to their new environment and navigate around the site without the looming presence of older, bigger students. This might extend into staggered breaks and lunches for the first week so that new pupils can experience lunch in the canteen without vying for position with older pupils and can enjoy the playgrounds, and make new friends, without fear.

11, Peer mentoring schemes

There is much to be said for enlisting current year 7 pupils as mentors for new year 7s. These pupils have more recently experienced transition and settling in arrangements (especially during the pandemic), and thus are better placed to offer relevant advice and guidance.

Being closer in age and experience, they are also better placed to communicate and understand how a year 7 pupil is feeling. The mentoring could start while the mentees are in year 6 (on transition days, for example) and continue after the summer of transfer.

12, Create a ‘bridging unit’

Pupils could begin working on this unit at the end of year 6, continue working on it over the summer holidays and complete it at the start of year 7. Bridging units enable pupils to produce good work to take with them to secondary school, showing their new teachers what they are capable of. They also allay pupils’ natural apprehensions about the kind of work they will be expected to do in secondary school.

Bridging units help pupils to see the natural links between primary and secondary curricula and to understand that secondary education is about progression, not starting again.

Of course, consideration is needed for pupils who do not have supportive homes and who will be placed at a disadvantage when continuing work over the summer. You could resolve this via a “summer school” offer (there is a specific Covid-19 summer school fund and it would be a justified use of your Pupil Premium funding too).

  • Matt Bromley is an education advisor and author with more than 20 years’ experience in teaching including as a secondary school headteacher and principal and MAT director. Visit www.bromleyeducation.co.uk and for Matt’s archive of best practice articles, visit http://bit.ly/seced-bromley

Further information & resources

  • Blainey & Hannay: The impact of school closures on autumn 2020 attainment, Hodder Education & SchoolDash, February 2021: https://bit.ly/3dh2erM
  • BPS: A resilience and coping framework for supporting children going back to school, June 2020: https://bit.ly/3uNSviz
  • Bromley: Transition days are not for testing, Bromley Education Blog, July 2018: https://bit.ly/3uVjatB
  • Jindal-Snape et al: Primary to secondary school transitions: systematic literature review, Scottish government, February 2019: https://bit.ly/2Q46ZMu
  • Muijs: Sustainable improvement: What works in addressing learning loss, Academica, April 2021: https://bit.ly/3sjLR1K
  • Sharp et al: Schools' responses to Covid-19 The challenges facing schools and pupils in September 2020, Nuffield Foundation & NFER, September 2020: https://bit.ly/3uNQbbl
  • Van den Brande & Andrews: Learning loss research: Understanding progress in the 2020/21 academic year, EPI & Renaissance Learning (commissioned by the DfE), February 2021: https://bit.ly/3mPXagU

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