Transition: A journey not an event

As this year’s round of open day and evening events begin, SSAT’s Head of Primary Networks Laura Burton reviews some of the research and literature on transition and talks to the transition team at Eltham Hill School about the transition journey for students at their school.

The transition from primary to secondary school has often been considered as ‘one of the most difficult in pupils’ educational careers’ (Zeedyk et all 2003) and therefore one that we all should strive to make a success for young people. As demonstrated by West, Sweeting and Young’s 2010 research into the effects of transition on attainment and wellbeing, getting it right for each cohort of students is vital for long term success and happiness. They found that, ‘at age fifteen, a poorer school transition predicted higher levels of depression and lower attainment’.

At Eltham Hill, a secondary school for girls aged 11-18 in London, their belief is that ensuring academic and personal success for their students begins with the best possible transition from primary school. Research indicates that a successful transition to secondary school involves ‘functioning well in two areas: being academically and behaviourally involved in school and feeling a sense of belonging to school’ (Rice et al n.d.). A view supported by the whole staff team at Eltham Hill, who believe their school motto of ‘Excellence, Happiness, Success’ embodies their vision for Key Stage 2 to 3 transition: the team work tirelessly to ensure every child has the necessary conditions in order to excel not only academically, but within their friendships and as part of the wider school community.

Concerns and challenges expressed by students are often focused around the formal (school) systems, such as: navigating the school building; homework and the range of teachers and informal (peer) social systems, including: making new friends; bullying; getting to school and mixing with older children (Pratt and George, 2005). The transition team at Eltham Hill, including both Key Stage Three Leader, Dena Sully and Primary to Secondary Family Liaison Lead, Dawn Stevens, ensure that they tackle these anxieties, when the students are still year 6 pupils. This is done to make pupils feel comfortable and enables them to begin to break down barriers and to recognise the difference between Key Stage 2 and 3. Approaches include: the transition team visiting each child in their primary school; open mornings; taster days and face to face meetings with KS2 staff to tap into the knowledge of the students’ existing teachers to effectively feedback to KS3 staff.

The team recognise that students joining them will have a range of different needs and concerns. The gathering of information from primary schools and parents is key to tailor their transition approaches to the specific needs of groups and individuals. One way this is achieved is through their Year 6 summer school, which takes place over the holiday before the girls start at Eltham Hill. Year ten prefects, along with old Year seven pupils and teachers, work with invited children over three days in team building activities which gives staff further opportunity to build a deeper understanding of these students and to build relationships. This also gives the girls (and their parents) time to get to know the school in an informal way and a chance to begin to build relationships with their peer group.

The school maximises opportunities to make links with parents, providing help and support some parents may need to deal with their own anxieties related to school and transition. Guidance on how parents can best help children through transition is also made available. These relationships fostered with parents in the early weeks of transition are key to building up the full picture of the students so that they can find the best ways to meet their needs.

Transition should not end in the September students begin Year 7. Research shows that different concerns reduce at different rates for individuals. Findings from the School Transition and Adjustment Research Study (STARS) show that ‘concerns about being bullied reduced in the first term of secondary school but re-emerged at the end of year 7’ (Rice et al n.d.). For some students, concerns and anxieties do not dissipate immediately post-transfer and there may be longer-term effects that must be identified and addressed by Key Stage 3 staff. At Eltham Hill, interventions are put in place that continue all the way through the student’s first year at secondary school. Year 10 pupils are assigned to a Year 7 tutor group to mentor a group of students for the year which supports the younger children with potential concerns around the informal social systems within school. This offers older students an opportunity to develop their leadership skills. Year 10 also organise and host events such as discos, the Year 7 sleepover at the end of the year and accompany the children to the pantomime. Vulnerable pupils are supported individually by Year 10 buddies who will be matched in pairs by common interests and will then meet daily in the canteen for breakfast, an aspect of the transition which has a very positive impact during the year and often into the next.

So, what about pupils currently in Year 6 at primary school? Eltham Hill believes that transition for these girls begins now. The impact of COVID 19 has meant that many of the transition activities for the current Year 7, due to take place in the summer, have had to be adapted to be delivered in a remote or virtual way whilst still maximising the intended outcomes for positive transition. Welcome videos have been created by year 7 students; headteacher Erika Podmore and KS3 Lead Dena Sully produced “a day in the life of EHS” film; year 6 parents have been able to join webinars which have informed and reassured. Clear, warm communication by phone and email and socially distanced visits to identified families have all helped to secure a smooth transition despite the challenges.

The beginning of the transition journey for this year’s Year 6 will be no different. The transition team will once again think creatively and actively for solutions to ensure the process for next year’s cohort is as positive as previous years.

Some questions about transition to consider:

What’s your school’s collective vision for Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 3 transition and how is it underpinned by your values?

At what points in the transition process do you notice the greatest concerns? What can be done to ease this?

What changes have been made to transition routines and activities because of restrictions and lockdowns? What else might need to be put in?


Pratt, S. and George, R. 2005. Transferring friendships: Girls’ and boys’ friendships in the transition from primary to secondary school.
Rice, F., Frederickson, N., McManus, C., Shelton, K., Riglin, L., Ng-Knight, T. n.d. Predicting successful and difficult transitions to secondary school (STARS).
West, P., Sweeting, H., Young, R. (2010) Transition matters: pupils’ experiences of the primary–secondary school transition in the West of Scotland and consequences for well‐being and attainment, Research Papers in Education
Zeedyk, S., Gallacher, J., Henderson, M., Hope, G., Husband, B. and Lindsay, K. 2003. Negotiating the transition from primary to secondary school: Perceptions of pupils, parents and teachers. School Psychology International

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