Supporting the transition of vulnerable learners into secondary school

As the end of the school year approaches, principals, leaders, teachers and pastoral care staff will be focussing on what is an important time ahead – the transition of Year 8 students to secondary school. It is a significant time and understanding the impact of this transition and what needs to be done to ensure it is successful for all learners is critical, particularly for vulnerable learners. 

We have looked at transitions a lot over the years. The Year 9 Plus 2016 – the first year report highlights elements of effective practice in supporting the transition into secondary school of at risk or vulnerable learners. These insights also reiterate what we found in a 2012 evaluation on supporting effective school transitions: Transition from Primary to Secondary School.

Who is most vulnerable?

The transition to secondary school is an exciting one in the lives of most of our young people. It is a chance to consolidate on what has been learnt at primary school, gain greater opportunities to pursue more specific areas of academic, sporting, social and cultural interests and to engage with a broader peer network. While many young people face this time with some trepidation or anxiety, it is exciting and challenging to experience a new learning environment, meet and form new relationships with peers and teachers, and to understand the different social norms, rules and boundaries presented by secondary school.

But this transition can be particularly challenging for young people who may be vulnerable due to family circumstances, a poor educational track record, additional learning needs, low self-esteem, or other issues including disability, high health needs and emotional, social or psychological issues. Those on the autism spectrum are also vulnerable during this period of immense change.

For many learners, the shift to secondary school - with more regimented time-tabling, different classroom placements and multiple subject teachers - can prove daunting. Learners who have limited whānau support may find the loss of their safety net - existing peer and teacher support networks - difficult to cope with and hard to re-establish in the new context.

The transition to secondary schools also coincides with important social, emotional and physiological changes in the lives of adolescents. Issues with transience and changes in school and family contexts (such as in the case of young people who are the subject of care and protection orders, or have been in families impacted by family violence) may also exacerbate these risk factors. 

Impacts of poor transitions

Experiences in that first year of secondary school are important predictors of future outcomes. The risk for vulnerable students is that poor transitions compound and negatively impact the young person’s wellbeing and achievement. They may be disproportionately susceptible to peer pressure and test boundaries, indulge in risk-taking behaviour, have high levels of truancy and ultimately fail to engage in their learning. Some young people may become withdrawn and isolated, which in some cases leads to them leaving school early – reducing their future prospects and impacting their wellbeing.   

Creating a school culture focused on successful transitions

Schools that understand how these changes impact on their students and who actively consider the impact of these transitions are better placed to help students make positive adjustments to their new school.

Students’ wellbeing and learning must be maintained during transition periods, and focus placed on potentially complicating factors including social, emotional and physiological changes than can negatively impact learning.

The role of the Year 8 teacher

Year 8 teachers play a significant role in enabling smooth transitions into secondary school. Effective practice includes establishing early liaison with the secondary school and sharing achievement and other information so that new schools gain an understanding of the needs and interests of learners. Schools should work together to agree which students will require specific monitoring and support and clarify the strategies and transition plans that will have the most impact on these individuals. Teachers of Year 8 students know their students well and are aware of their needs, strengths and weaknesses. It is critical that this information is shared.

Setting up visits so that students have some understanding of their new schools’ culture, practices and expectations, liaising with parents and whānau so they are in the loop and understand how they can support and prepare their child life at secondary school are just some of the ways Year 8 teachers can empower students and demystify the early secondary school experience. 

The role of the secondary school

ERO’s 2012 study found that the transition to secondary school was more complex than just developing orientation processes for students to become familiar with the school’s environment, personnel and programmes, although those actions do help.

We found that good schools had deliberately adopted practices to support transitions, with a focus on having systems in place to support the building of relationships between students, their teachers and their peers, a responsive curriculum and effective systems in place to monitor and check in with individual students. Students in these schools were given the opportunity to succeed, supported by initiatives such as big brother/big sister or tuākana/teina relationships where senior students act as a guide and mentor to the incoming students over the first few terms.

Schools we find who place an emphasis on successful transitions tend to operate high quality pastoral systems. Identifying students who might be at risk of failing prior to their starting at secondary school or within the first few weeks, is critical to a staged and managed transition for these learners. In our recent Year 9 Plus study we also noted the importance of building off data and information from the young person’s primary or intermediate school, noting that beginning the year with an excessive battery of assessments may quickly alienate some learners.

As programmes like PB4L highlight, establishing clear routines, clarifying the expectations of school behaviour and ensuring that these are understood are critical to successful outcomes for at risk learners coming into a new school. Understanding key triggers for behaviours related to the new school context and impactful events (whether they be in our out of school) and having a planned response for such events is just as important.

Effective partnerships with families and support agencies

Active engagement with a school helps parents and wider whānau and aiga to become effective members of the school’s community and engage in their child’s education. Strategies which build peer networks between parents can provide additional supports to parents. Many schools we engage with work hard to keep parents regularly informed about student progress and know who to contact should issues or concerns arise about any aspect of the young person’s school experience.

Engagement with families prior to starting school and in the first few weeks of school can assist in reinforcing expectations, including those related to school attendance, homework, the wearing of uniforms, behaviour and school routines. For some learners ensuring that systems actively link in with other support agencies (such as Children’s Teams, health professionals, Whānau Ora, or Oranga Tamariki Social Workers) is also vital in ensuring that those who may be vulnerable are well supported when they enter secondary school. 

Early warning signs that things aren’t going well

Intervening early and quickly in response to issues and awareness of warning signs is critical, as these events signal a potential lack of understanding of expected behaviour, or the start of a pattern of concerning behaviours. It is important to be aware of a change in student attitudes, anti-social or challenging behaviour, signs of disengagement, withdrawal, a lack of connectedness and frequent class or school absence. 

Planning for young people with complex and challenging needs

For some groups of students with particularly complex and challenging needs, such as those on the Autism spectrum, the establishment of a transition planning group or pastoral support team involving the school’s SENCO, RTLB, classroom teachers, health and support agency, parents and the young person’s Learning Support worker will be important. In such cases it is particularly important to have a professional to oversee the transition. This will include mapping out links between schools, agreeing on a support pathway for the transition and, as with effective transition processes for all students, providing their family, whānau or aiga with consistent support and information.

A documented transition plan in such cases can ensure that everyone in the process is aware of agreed actions and responsibilities. Linked to the students Individual Education Plan (IEP), any plan developed would ideally establish both short and long-term goals. Establishing effective relationships with staff, including teacher aides and classroom teachers is crucial for these learners, as well ensuring that teachers and staff who work with these students in the new school understand their individual needs and have clear knowledge relating to specific behavioural triggers. Schools will equally need to ensure that any required modifications to buildings or equipment are in place well before school begins.

Key questions

  • What steps is your school taking to identify students who may be vulnerable in the transitions between primary and secondary school?
  • Have you established a transitional planning team for particularly vulnerable students?
  • What mechanisms have you in place to ensure early engagement with students their families, whānau or aiga?
  • Are you working with your Kāhui Ako |Community of Learning to actively design strategies and practice which support the effective transition of students between Years 8 and 9?

Visit our website to find relevant ERO publications:

Transitions to secondary school

Findings in Year 9 Plus – 2016 – The First Year reinforce how important support is to students in transition. Year 9 Plus is a concept developed by the Ministry to improve the chances of educational success of one cohort of students and better their future life opportunities.

We evaluated the concept trial to identify what was working well so far. We considered the processes developed to support students' transitions between contributing and secondary school and their subsequent participation, engagement and progress during the year. The report discusses the influence allocated champions had on these students’ first year at secondary school and lessons that can be taken from Year 9 Plus to improve any schools' responsiveness to similar students in the future.

Transitions in the middle years

Evaluation at a Glance: Transitions from Primary to Secondary School highlights the important pastoral care and learning support processes needed for students to successfully and seamlessly move into and through secondary school. When students adjust to school successfully, it has a positive impact on their learning. School culture makes a difference. The report provides details on six factors contributing to successful transitions.

Early childhood transitions

In Continuity of learning: transitions from early childhood services to schools, we look at how children are supported when they move from early childhood to school. It explains what’s important, what works well and what doesn’t work well for our children at this critical point in their lives.

A good experience commonly includes early childhood teachers and primary teachers working together; understanding and linking the early childhood learning curriculum with the primary school curriculum; knowing each child’s background, what they enjoy, their interests and strengths; and strong relationships with parents and whānau. These services and schools continually review their practice to keep on improving it.