Moving from primary school to secondary school, nursery to school, or school to college, is a seismic change for any child. The transition can be both exciting and frightening. As Covid closures has seen so many children left in limbo teetering on the cusp of moving schools, the thoughts of parents and teachers no doubt linger on timely support and school returning.

My eldest daughter, is one such child (in year 6) looking with some trepidation towards the leap to secondary school. Despite some continued online communication with friends – and school – the abrupt ending to her primary experience was jarring. Her excitement for the summer residential (she’d looked forward to it for years!), along with other post-SATs pleasures, has been dashed.

On our daily walk yesterday, she told me she really wanted to get back to school to see her friends. We talked through all the potential permutations of a return. As a parent, there is a conflict between our thoughts for her personal safety and helping her make that important transition with confidence. Schools, of course, are currently grappling with a legion of such challenges.

What does the research evidence tell us about transition?

The evidence that attends transitions is largely focused on the primary/secondary transition, but we can learn about all vulnerable transition points, such as the move from nursery to primary school, along with school to college.

It is consistently clear that there is a decline in educational outcomes when children undertake transitions. We don’t exactly know why. It may be down to falling motivation and weakened school engagement. It may simply be the impact of adolescence that is hidden in plain sight.

Evidence suggests the children who decline most at the transition between primary and secondary schools are those from disadvantaged backgrounds and/or pupils with SEN. It is likely down to a complex mix of new social and emotional challenges as well as low literacy. We can only guess that such learning gaps will be widened given the longer-term Covid closures.

The research evidence, thankfully, offers areas of promise to mitigate the gaps that grow at transition. These include:

1. Establishing social and emotional links with educators at the new setting e.g. pupils meeting secondary school teachers and experiencing the new setting.

2. Curriculum continuity. Some studies indicate that poor curriculum continuity may inhibit an effective transition, especially for struggling pupils.

3. Assessment of Gaps. There is clear evidence that catch up is possible with well implemented interventions based on sound assessment.

4. Targeting of disadvantaged/vulnerable groups for special transition support e.g. it is common for nurture groups to given additional transition support.

5. Summer school. There is evidence to suggest well-structured summer schools, with an academic component, can be beneficial.

6. Parental engagement. There is evidence to suggest that attempts to secure parental engagement, particularly for disadvantaged/vulnerable groups, can mitigate gaps that emerge at transition points.

Clearly, the existing evidence needs to be transplanted to our new, more complicated present.

Mitigating the gap at transition

The school system is currently gripped by countless barriers and new challenges. Rightly, creating a safe and happy setting for children is absolutely the first priority. For most children, there safety and happiness will be inextricably linked to how they learn and how well the catch up after these school closures.

Of course, though it is important to connect physically and emotionally with your new school setting, it may be very limited. Many technological innovations will likely abound to mitigate the more troubling problems at the transition. Children may gain virtual tours of big school; they may get talk to her new teachers electronically during the summer term. End of year rituals may be transported to safer online alternatives.

Safe summer schools may become an option for targeting support at high risk groups. Alongside potential new experiences, academic tutoring, with the requisite technology, could better mitigate the likely transition gap for targeted pupils.

Children, like schools, are resilient and flexible. It may be one or two cleverly crafting supports will see children like my daughter feel like they have been offered an apt emotional end to her much loved primary school experience. No doubt, her secondary school will help her bounce back in the autumn term too. I’ve every confidence that expert and resourceful schools across the country will turn thinking about school transition into a success, even in the face of the Covid challenge.

Key Research Evidence:

• Scottish Government (2019) – Primary to Secondary School Transition: Systematic Literature Review – LINK.

• Van Rens et al. (2018) – Facilitating a Successful Transition to Secondary School: (How) Does it Work? A Systematic Literature Review – LINK.

• EEF (2014) – Interim Evidence Brief: Reading at the Transition – LINK.

• EEF (2020) – EEF Toolkit: Summer Schools – LINK.