Understanding the contexts of children's transition from primary to secondary education

  • Perry Knight

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


‘Tell me and I'll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I'llunderstand.’ (Chinese proverb) Why is it that children in Year 6 have the ability to construct stories independently, yet at the start of Year 7 the same children have difficulties recalling this knowledge and understanding? Transfer from primary to secondary education has been widely debated for a number of decades. Despite this, Evans et al.’s (2010) evaluation of transition concluded that for over 20% of transferring children, the process remains problematic, leading to inconsistent progress, both academically and socially. Transition research has focused significantly on process and procedures, accumulating data from a wealth of stakeholders, but largely neglecting the voice of the child experiencing this process. My research centres on the child, documenting their learning journey through their transition from primary to secondary school. Galton et al (1999b) identify three elements supporting a child’s continuation of learning post- transfer: enthusiasm for learning; confidence in themselves as learners; and a sense of achievement and purpose. A significant contribution to these qualities is the socio- constructivist view that ‘talk drives learning.’ Clear differences in progress, learning and teaching are contained within the microsystems of classroom life. Therefore, to deepen understanding of contexts of transition it is essential to focus research on language and relationships within such systems. Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological framework (1979) provides a basis for an analysis of the contribution of microsystem relationships and sub- cultures to the social matrix of different and progressive classroom environments. My research used an exploratory multi-case study approach (Merriam, 1988a; Yin, 2009). Three distinct models of transfer were identified and examined in depth. Within each of these cases, the learning of a group of children was observed and key points discussed with them throughout the transition process. Therefore, my research explored transition in the broadest sense, through the child’s experiences. The research moved beyond myth and procedures in order to understand the tools a child needs to transfer into secondary school to ensure sustainable progress and enjoyment of learning. Each of the cases had their own model of transfer. The first, Case1, considered children transferring from the more ‘traditional’ primary school into a ‘secondary’ school. In the second, Case 2, children transferred within an ‘all-through’ school within the same building. The third, Case 3, operated within the experience of Case 2, but transferred from their primary setting into the all-through school (the same school as Case 2). The study expected Case 2 as being the best model of transfer and provider of seamless progression of learning for children in Years 6 and 7. However, each model had case-dependent issues that affect a child’s progress within the wider contexts of transition. As a result, the study acknowledged the impact of previous research and further considered this study’s impact on learning in meso and microsystems. Three main, associated arose across the case studies. The first considered teacher provision during the transition period identifying: • the importance of learning roles and relationships between the child and their teacher, and the child and their peers. • structures of accountability generated by Statutory Assessment Tests (SATs). Within a culture of test-based curriculum structures, the study discusses the impact on children’s learning within continual testing and reporting frameworks. It does not discourage the importance of developing basic skills, but considers the purpose of continually tracking and monitoring children throughout their transition period. The importance of standardised test scores is questioned, as these routines are not followed through post-SATs. • children encouraged to participate in new learning routines and contexts. However, the study identifies an absence of sufficient communication between schools that diminishes consistency of learning opportunities during transfer. In addition, the study highlights differing definitions of independent learning between individual school and classroom contexts. The second considered barriers to the continuous development of independent learning. It further identified the distorting influence of SATs, firstly on a child’s development of independent learning, and secondly, on differences of definition between primary and secondary contexts. It suggested that skills recognised in independent learning are situated within almost singular contexts of primary school. When transferring to secondary school, there is an increased challenge for children to transfer these skills into multifarious contexts. Finally, the study identified the differing challenges of language demands on a child’s continuous learning, specifically • inconsistencies of curriculum terminology between primary and destination schools. • differing language clusters that children develop during group work. I observed that these clusters were transferred within each independent learning activity, but were not recognised in the analysis of my secondary classroom observations. This raised the issue of teacher expectations, questioning whether on transfer teachers expect all children to be classified as ‘workers’, rather than consultant, leader, engineer or technician within group and learning activities. • the role of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ learning relationships between effective partnerships of ‘novice’ and ‘expert’, concluding that weak novice-to-novice relationships affected the continuity of learning. Findings common across all three cases exposed wider implications for transition. These were compared to the ORACLE studies (Galton et al, 1999b; Hargreaves and Galton, 2002). Recommendations offered were to: • ensure the continuity of learning progression, • promote active participation in learning, • improve the quality of children’s work during the transition period.
Date of Award26 Feb 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorKathleen Bullock (Supervisor) & Paul Denley (Supervisor)


  • transition
  • primary and secondary schools
  • Urie Bronfenbrenner
  • language demand
  • attachment
  • classroom relationships
  • learning
  • Case studies
  • qualitative methods
  • student voice
  • Statutory Assessment Tests (SATs)
  • independent learning

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