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Children starting secondary school during Covid-19 need extra support

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Students and families across the country are waiting to hear when schools will reopen.

There have been reports that Year 6 students will be the first to return. Why?

Year 6 students, who are preparing for the move to secondary school, face unique risks as they miss out on the transition support that would usually be taking place this term.

Evidence shows that the primary to secondary transition is a critical moment in a child’s life. For the most vulnerable children, support lost to the Covid-19 crisis could lead to lasting disadvantage.

The government need to help schools address this issue – by looking at best practice and putting extra support in place.

Why the move from primary to secondary school is so important

The move from primary to secondary school is challenging at the best of times. It requires children to get used to lots of changes; from having one class teacher to a different teacher for every subject, from being part of a community of a few hundred students to one with upwards of one thousand, and to a more challenging curriculum with new approaches to teaching and learning.

While most students settle into their new surroundings without much trouble, for some the move from primary to secondary school can be a difficult process with lasting impact on wellbeing, academic success and opportunities after education.

For example, a literature review conducted for the Scottish Government found evidence that the primary to secondary transition has a negative impact on educational outcomes, as well as a “decline in feelings of school belongingness and connectedness, poorer social and emotional health, and higher levels of depression and anxiety”.

The RSA’s own report,Pinball Kids: preventing school exclusions, also flags the transition from primary to secondary school as a potential trigger point for behavioural issues to arise, which could result in exclusion.

Some students are more vulnerable during the transition between primary and secondary school

The Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families highlights that particular groups of children are more likely to struggle with transition than others. This includes children with special educational needs and disability (SEND), mental health problems, behavioural problems, limited parental support, experience of transient living such as being in care, anxiety, and experience of being bullied.

For these groups of children, already dealing with additional complex circumstances, the move to a completely new environment can be especially difficult to navigate. For example, students with a formal assessment of SEND may have enjoyed close support from a member of support staff; losing this relationship may induce stress or anxiety.

We know that many of the groups of children most vulnerable during transition are also disproportionately likely to experience exclusion from school, achieve worse academically at Key Stage 4, and end up NEET (not in employment, education or training) after school.

All of this points to the importance of getting support right during primary to secondary transition, to prevent further challenges down the line.

What support would usually be on offer to help Year 6 students prepare for secondary school?

Support varies from school to school but tends to include a visit from secondary school staff to feeder primaries, during which they explain what students can expect in their new school and how they can prepare for the change.

Many schools go further, inviting incoming students to spend time at their new secondary school, taking part in taster lessons, meeting their form tutor and new classmates, and joining assemblies, sports days or school trips.

For more vulnerable children, the transition process often starts even earlier. Managed by schools and local authorities, individual students and their families may be offered regular one-to-one support in the build up to the move. Children with SEND, for example, may receive regular visits from the secondary school’s SEND Coordinator who, in liaison with an educational psychologist, can begin building a relationship with their family, understanding the student’s needs and putting support plans in place.

How will students about to transition from Year 6 to 7 be affected by the Covid-19 crisis?

With weeks – possibly months – of missed learning during school closures, many children will find the academic jump to secondary curriculum even more daunting. As the RSA’s Danielle Mason has written, it is students from disadvantaged backgrounds who suffer most from 'learning loss'.

As well as losing a significant period of academic learning time, this year’s cohort of primary school leavers will also miss out on an important psychological transition.

As one Year 4 teacher described to us recently, “Year 6 students won’t be able to mark this really significant part of their education… not just in terms of their education but in terms of those emotional landmarks they would usually experience.” In a University of Cambridge study into the impact of the move from primary to secondary on students’ wellbeing, this transition is described as a “status passage”. If schools remain closed for the rest of the academic year, the usual rite of passage rituals that accompany Year 6 leavers – end of year assemblies, performances, shirt signing – will be missed.

And, of course, for the most vulnerable children, the additional tailored support so many rely on will be difficult to deliver from lockdown.

As Rob Gaygan, Vice Principal at Towers School and Sixth Form Centre (one of the case study schools featuring in the RSA’s Pinball Kids report) recently explained to us, the challenges around transition during the crisis are of great concern. For the most vulnerable children, such as those with SEND, a transition support group would usually be in full swing by now, with incoming students visiting for an hour each week to walk around the school and begin to get used to their new environment.

It is, as yet, unclear when schools will reopen so that this transition work can take place. There have been reports over the weekend that Year 6 children will be the first to return to school, possibly as soon as June 1st.

As we await further announcements, schools are looking to government for guidance on how they can provide vital transition support from a safe distance

This guidance should draw on examples of innovative and effective practice. Case studies featuring in our recent report, Pinball Kids: preventing school exclusions, offer examples of such practice from schools and local authorities, designed to support vulnerable students through transition and beyond. For example:

Passmores Academy curriculum support

Passmores Academy, a secondary school in Essex, employs a full-time primary-trained specialist to support students struggling with literacy and numeracy. Incoming Year 7s who might benefit from this support are identified early and begin a bespoke curriculum as a small group. Many reintegrate to a mainstream timetable once their confidence and ability have grown, while others continue to access specialist support throughout their time at the school.

Intensive transition support in Tower Hamlets

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets has developed a comprehensive primary to secondary school transition programme, which includes a collaboration with Half Moon Theatre. Through drama workshops, young people are given a safe space to explore the situations they may face at secondary school and how to deal with them positively.

We may also need new creative solutions for these most exceptional of challenges. The government, in close consultation with schools, should consider a range of options including:

  • small groups – beginning with the most vulnerable – staggering their start at their new school so begin to build the strong relationships vital for a successful secondary experience
  • blending Year 6 and 7 curriculums in order to help this year’s primary leavers catch up on lost classroom time, and to smooth the jump between primary and secondary learning for all students.
  • Year 7 students returning to school before other year groups to create time for transition support
  • Year 6 returning over the summer holiday to help students re-engage in school and prepare to move

We might even make some changes that prove beneficial beyond the end of this pandemic. As the RSA’s Ian Burbidge has written, finding new innovations that work will be central to creating lasting change after COVID-19.

Until then, it is vital that there is extra support for students transitioning to secondary school and that the government issues clear guidance for teachers and school leaders on this issue.

We will all struggle with the transition to a ‘new normal’ after the crisis subsides, but we must make sure these children get the support they need for theirs.


Do you work in, or know of, a school that is thinking about how to best support students starting in Year 7 when schools re-open? Are you a student, or parent of a student, preparing to move to secondary school with ideas about what support would best help you? If so, get in touch at Education@rsa.org.uk

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