Ensuring smooth transition from primary to secondary school for children with additional support needs: issues, dilemmas and recommendations

By Kamil Trzebiatowski (2012)

for the University of the West of Scotland

The Supporting Children’s Learning Code of Practice (2010) states that education authorities need to ensure smooth transition experiences for children at every stage of their education, such as moving from nursery to primary school or from primary to secondary school. In order to do so, the Code states, “appropriate arrangements” (p.107) need to be present in order for schools to be able to support children during such transitions. For children with additional support needs (ASN), however, further arrangements need to be in place. As Maras and Aveling (2006) say, pupils with additional support needs may experience transitions differently and therefore existing transition programmes might need to be adapted for them. Their own research suggests that such pupils might experience social and emotional difficulties during transition, arising from having to deal with larger learning environment, extended secondary timetables and entirely new social contexts. These factors can have a direct impact on their academic performance. Research confirms that pupils’ lower attainment is related to their transfer from primary to secondary school (Graham and Hill, 2003; DfES, 2008). Not only is it argued that pupils need to adapt to new teachers, more school rules and larger buildings (Pratt and George, 2005), but also that groups of pupils less able to deal with transitions include those with special educational needs (Sutherland et al., 2010).

Having worked in both England and Scotland supporting ASN learners, I became interested in processes involved in arranging smooth transitions for such pupils and related issues for schools and professionals. As a strong proponent of the principles of inclusive practice at mainstream secondary schools, I believe that it is particularly important to support pupils with ASN at this crucial time to ensure their academic growth as well as their emotional and social well-being. Code of Practice clarifies that achieving this will require the collaboration of various agencies such as secondary schools, health services, social services and voluntary organizations, seeking children’s views, consulting their parents and incorporating their opinions in the planning process. Since the Additional Support for Learning Act (2004) obliges education authorities in Scotland to “seek and take account of relevant advice and information from appropriate agencies and other persons” (p.10) at least 12 months before a pupil begins their secondary school, planning for ASN learners’ transition needs to begin early.

Effective inclusive school practices may influence the success of transition arrangements. HMIE’s guide How good is our school (2004) states that inclusive schools are such where all staff are committed to their pupils’ well-being, collaborate with each other, welcome children’s and their parents’ views and involvement in the school community, considering their views when making decisions about their education. Pupils with ASN are enabled to participate in all of the school activities as far as possible and the staff work with a number of specialists such as health and social services to ensure the pupils’ well-being and remove barriers to their learning. Index for Inclusion (Booth and Ainscow, 2002) does identify “reducing barriers to learning and participation” (p.3) as one of the salient features of inclusion. As those HMIE’s guidelines correspond to those placed on education authorities by the Code of Practice, inclusive practices at the school’s level are a vital ingredient of successful transition processes for children with ASN.

This essay will first consider different types of difficulties that ASN learners may experience at transition from primary to secondary schools. I will then discuss issues and dilemmas related to the requirements to incorporate children’s views in the transition planning process, schools collaboration with children’s parents and their involvement in transition. Further, strengths and possible difficulties of professionals’ work in multidisciplinary teams will be discussed. The essay will then consider the involvement of learning support assistants in the school and transition processes and will consider the possible value of continuing professional development for improving transition processes. I will then briefly analyse the content of the generic transition plan (Appendix A) and conclude with recommendations and suggestions for future transition practice.

It is vital to consider the multitude of issues that ASN learners might face when transferring to secondary schools. Children on the autistic spectrum might experience mainstream classroom as too noisy, making focusing difficult, might be anxious about peer relationships and become targets of bullying (Dann, 2011). Jindal-Snape et al. (2006) say that children with ASD might be concerned with the physical size of the new school and new school rules to learn. For children with dyslexia, the move from concrete work in primary schools to abstract-based teaching in secondary schools might prove difficult (Mortimore, 2003) as might busy secondary timetabling, causing dyslexic difficulties to surface (Thomson, 2008). Children with dyspraxia might become easily lost in the large school, disorientated and unable to learn the school’s map (Brookes, 2005). Visually impaired children new to a school might be teased because they look different to their peers (MacConville, 2007). Adopted children have been shown to be at risk of emotional and behavioural problems at adolescence, which could lead to concentration difficulties (Howe, 1997). Finally, young carers’ academic performance at school can be affected because of their caring responsibilities and the resulting lack of sleep (Noaks and Noaks, 2009).

An argument could be made that not attending to such children’s needs at the point of their transfer to secondary school can result in their exclusion from the school community. Twenge and Baumeister (2005) warn that social exclusion may be linked to elevated aggression and antisocial behaviour. They also suggest that exclusion results in people becoming less helpful, self-defeating, reducing their ability to think intelligently. Therefore, ensuring that ASN pupils are included at the point of transition could help them become more productive members of the school community and utilise their academic potential.

Because ASN pupils are not a uniform group (Maras and Aveling, 2006), transition arrangements need to focus on individual learners’ differences and need to utilise all human resources available to cater to their varying needs. Enquire’s report on transition (2007), in concurrence with the aforementioned Code of Practice, identifies effective communication, informed and engaged children and parents, commitment of school leadership, well-trained staff, the existence of early planning procedures and focusing on solutions as opposed to problems as the pillars of effective transition processes.

As school education is delivered for the benefit of children, seeking their views in the process of transition is discussed first here. Whilst all children have been reported to experience difficulties transferring to secondary school – making new friends can be daunting to children, they may worry about being bullied, be afraid of being lost in the new school (Ashton, 2008) and anxious about more work (Boyd, 2005) – the specific nature of various difficulties experienced by ASN learners can give them a different experience of transitions. Whether ASN pupils experience transitions more negatively than non-ASN pupils is debatable – Forgan and Vaughn (2000) found no difference between self-esteem of pupils with learning disabilities moving to middle school and their control group. However, Maras and Aveling (2006) suggest that having additional needs does not mean that there is more stress overall, but that specific aspects of transition might be more stressful. For instance, they describe pupils on autistic spectrum worried that students at their new school would not understand when they become agitated. Since their anxiety is directly related to their difficulty, listening to their views and acting on them will be beneficial. Providing them with experience of their future school as early as possible might help: for example, Boroughmuir High has an impressive transition programme in place:  Primary 5 pupils attend their Drama and Food Economics Day, in Primary 6 it is Health and Well-Being Day and Primary 7 they attend two periods on Wednesdays over 10 weeks (Anne, Deputy Head)[1]. Anne argues that “they will know a lot the staff when they come here”. Such arrangements can help reduce the shock of the new school experience for ASN children. In addition, arranging for peer buddies for such pupils in the prospective school could be helpful: problems with peer relationships can make a child a bullying target, but having a supportive friend can combat the situation (Hugh-Jones and Smith, 1999, in Mishna, 2003). Coupled with research findings that transition-related anxiety can be decreased by the introduction of peer counselling (Slater and McKeown, 2004), it exemplifies well how listening to, involving ASN learners in transition planning and carrying out such plans accordingly can ease their worries.

Listening to children’s views is seen as one of the crucial aspects of inclusion (Evans, 2007). However, Whitehurst (2006) notes children with severe needs are often not listened to as professionals lack experience or resources. Whilst acquiring the views of children with profound needs requires more planning and care when interpreting their messages, it should not prevent anyone from seeking their voice. Whitehurst suggests determining their preferred way of communication through items, photographs or symbols and further communicating through gestures, body language, facial expressions and behaviour. In her view, professionals need not assume what such children want – their views need to inform our practice. Therefore, at transition times, it is important to remember that all children’s voices should be listened to and arrangements need to be made to facilitate communication. At Greenbank High, for instance, educational welfare officers, health professionals and social workers are involved whenever there are difficulties obtaining children’s views in a straightforward way (Joan, Deputy Head)[2].

Seeking parents’ views to inform the transition practice will be as important as consulting children. Parents spend far more time with their children than any school practitioner ever will and, as such, their input can be invaluable. Unfortunately, experiences of inclusion of parents of children with ASN can be very negative. Duncan (2003) describes parents struggling with the negative attitudes of teachers who confronted them due to their children’s weaknesses, parents frustrated with the amount of people involved, being “passed between” (p.350) various professionals, afraid of receiving more phone calls from schools, lowering their self-esteem. Kenny et al.’s (2005) study with parents of ASN learners revealed that they needed to put huge efforts to support their children’s progress in mainstream schools at the time of transition, sometimes even having to “beg and plead” (p.16). Such findings reveal that parents’ views are frequently neither sought nor valued. Rix (2003), a parent of a child with Down syndrome, provides a good example of what parents might expect of a school. He hopes to be in a partnership with his son’s school, with children being the focal point, expecting the school to recognize “positive contributions” (p.83) that his son can make. He asks for an inclusive school ethos, multidisciplinary collaboration, good teaching practice as the norm and understanding the need for flexibility.

If transition is to be effective, schools need to see parents as their equal partners in decision-making. Partnerships cannot exist when all the decisions are made by one partner only (Phádraig, 2003). One of the ways to facilitate this process can be through making schools a friendlier environment. Illsley and Redford (2005) describe a Drop in for Coffee project in Perth, Scotland, where parents were given opportunity to relax in school rooms and share such (normally hostile to them) spaces with teachers and other professionals (e.g. social and health workers), allowed to truly collaborate in a natural manner, themselves included as agents equal to education-linked professionals. It could be claimed that a similar approach could benefit transition planning if undertaken by schools in the year preceding transitions. Much like parents’ active involvement in IEP meetings is strongly encouraged (Dabkowski, 2004), their similar involvement in the transition arrangements could be highly recommended and a project such as Drop in for Coffee might ease the process. Evans (2007) suggests that parents should be consulted as early as possible and, in addition to standard methods of contacting parents such as letters or questionnaires, meetings could be held at schools, churches or even pubs. She insists that feedback needs to be given to parents in an understandable format. Therefore, it will be crucial at transition projects that parents are asked for an opinion on what worked well and what could be improved in the future.

As mentioned above, both securing children’s views and collaboration with parents will require joint working of practitioners from different fields. Hence, it is vital to analyse the nature and potential dilemmas of multidisciplinary work. In Scotland, children services working together have been long seen as a means to address their social, educational and economic difficulties (Forbes, 2006). Whilst Joan from Greenback High School sees multi-professional practices as improving (“There’s a much more joined-up approach happening; it’s evolving; it’s getting better”), Rose (2011) points to a number of potential dilemmas in such joint collaboration. She introduces the concept of “collective preferences” (p.152), i.e. members of a group putting outcomes for the group before their own. In her study, participants include commitment to a common goal and awareness of who is given which role in the process as important elements of such preferences. Rose indicates a number of dilemmas, however: multi-agency workers need to decide between remaining within their original field and broadening their own practice. Being this new type of professional could evoke feelings of non-belonging to any of the two identities. Specialist perspective, from which many professionals will come, can be difficult to maintain, and the need to be valued for one’s expert contribution is often felt by group members. Finally, professionals make choices regarding which tasks to entrust to less specialist members of the group and which they should retain on the basis of their expertise.

In multidisciplinary pre-transition meetings, such dilemmas need to be acknowledged and discussed for ASN learners’ needs to be properly addressed. Rose suggests that aims of joint work need to be accompanied by clearly stating the procedure to everyone involved. Discussions regarding dilemmas such as those exemplified above need to precede group work, instead of being its repercussion. Professionals may need to assent to acting as non-specialists in this context, even if it means surrendering some of their perceived professionalism. This holds ground, particularly when considering that public services exist to cater to the needs of citizens, not its own convenience (Riddell and Tett, 2001, in Tett, 2005).

In Scotland, through Integrated Community Services (ICS), teachers, social and health workers and others co-operate together for the benefit of children. Tett (2005) describes a successful ICS project where schools, parents, a college, a community education team and voluntary organizations worked together in an attempt to fund a programme – this project was subsequently extended to primary and secondary transitions: an example of how, when well managed, harnessing different types of expertise could facilitate change in children’s lives.

Important contributions that learning support assistants (LSAs) can make to inter-professional work at schools cannot be forgotten. LSAs are frequently recognised as instrumental to inclusive practice at schools: they can acquire an ASN child’s trust, collaborate with teachers and even be involved in writing Individual Educational Plans (Corbett, 2001). As such they can be invaluable in multi-disciplinary meetings in preparation for transition. However, Giangreco et al. (2005) state that LSAs are often unprepared and unqualified to teach children with most severe learning needs. Thus, certain teachers and other professionals might not wish to collaborate with such unqualified adults in multi-professional teams.

On the other hand, one-to-one support provided to children by assistants has been found to shorten the time classroom teachers are involved with pupils (Giangreco and Doyle, 2007), therefore good teachers and assistants’ communication can be crucial to assuring pupils’ social and academic development. Many teachers believe that LSAs positively affect pupils’ attention, support their learning effectively and thus contribute to their academic achievement (Blatchford et al., 2009, in Farrell et al., 2010).

One way to address certain teachers’ mistrust of LSAs is by providing further training to both LSAs and teachers at secondary schools. In the year before transition, such sessions could be delivered by primary support team – they have the knowledge of children making the transfer to the secondary school and therefore can act as experts. Boyd (2005) notes that in Scotland initial teacher education does not involve primary and secondary teacher students working together and calls for more CPD opportunities where staff from both sectors can work together. At such occasions, an exchange of information could also take place, contributing to transition planning. As continuity has been found to be important to ASN pupils making transition to secondary school (Maras and Aveling, 2006), such meetings could be followed by secondary LSAs visiting pupils at their primary schools before transition and primary LSAs visiting them at their new school after transition. The value of such LSAs’ role is strengthened by the fact that parents have been reported to perceive support staff to be an effective link between their children and teachers, especially when being part of a school team supporting pupils’ inclusion (Howes, 2003).

Based on the discussion above, I have created a transition plan for ASN learners moving from an imaginary primary to secondary school. At the beginning, the initial information about the learners is gathered well over 12 months before the transition time. Children’s views are sought: the secondary staff visit them at the primary school 14 months ahead of the transfer and a transition event is organized at the secondary school three months in advance of their move, where they can ask questions and state what would make the transition easier. ASN children meet their school buddies, trained by SfL staff, long before the transfer occurs. Parents are invited to informal tea/coffee meetings long before their participation in multidisciplinary team meetings where they are members equal to all other agencies involved and can voice their questions and anxieties at both the event before the transition (May 2014) and the review meeting (November 2014). Multi-professional teams agree on their working procedures before their meetings begin and receive CPD on the dilemmas of inter-professional collaboration. Finally, LSAs’ importance is elevated by CPD delivered by primary support staff and the continuity of ASN learners’ transition experiences is assured by LSAs and support staff visiting them in their school before and after the transition.

In conclusion, Scottish law requires education authorities to have arrangements in place for times of pupils’ transitions. Achieving this for pupils with ASN will require different agencies working jointly and seeking children’s and parents’ views. These requirements concur with the inclusion principles which ask for the removal of barriers to children’s learning hearing of children’s and parents’ voices. Children with ASN may require independent transition programmes, adapted to their specific needs. I have discussed the issues surrounding obtaining children’s and parents’ views and dilemmas regarding multi-professional collaboration, including collaboration of teachers with LSAs and primary staff and examining potential ways to improve transitions for ASN learners. I have presented a transition plan, attempting to meet all of the aspects of effective transition arrangements.

Whilst children’s views are sought by schools at transition events and at school visits before transfer, not one of the schools I work at has peer buddies programmes for ASN learners at transition times. In my opinion, one of the greatest children’s anxieties regarding secondary schools is that of bullying. Since learners with ASN may often “stand out” and their difficulties may lie in to social adaptability skills, having an understanding person, acting as their friend and counsellor will be important to them and has to be a part of their transition arrangements.

Parents need to have more opportunities to acclimatize themselves to the school environment by participating in informal events such as the proposed Tea/Coffee meetings before transition. In my own experience, parents are frequently estranged from schools, contacted only when there are problems. Creating non-hostile environment at schools will facilitate their active participation in subsequent transition meetings and help them become agents equal to other professionals, aiding transition planning.

CPD delivered to professionals raising awareness of potential team conflicts needs to precede transition planning to ease future collaboration. Further, LSAs need to be involved in these processes – and they need to be provided with more CPD and specialist courses to increase their value in the eyes of certain teachers, improve collaboration in multidisciplinary teams and in classrooms. Too often have I seen assistants treated by teachers as “mere LSAs”. LSAs are deployed to work specifically with ASN children and possess knowledge about their needs that should not be disregarded. Primary support teams need to be able to deliver training to secondary staff – not only will it help the image of LSAs; a greater appreciation of primary knowledge will be fostered amongst the more specialised secondary school teachers, helping future communication and exchange of information about pupils before transition.

Of the three high schools where I currently work, none had a transition policy document in place. In my view, this impedes communication between professionals and prevents those involved from being “on the same page”. I advise that a written transition policy be legally required of every school.

Every element of the transition machinery needs to work for ASN learners to benefit from it fully. Professionals should not lose sight of the fact that the transition processes and inter-professional collaboration need to be guided by pupils’ individual needs in terms of removing barriers to children’s learning and participation, parental involvement and efficient multidisciplinary collaboration.


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for Additional Support Needs pupils

transferring from Highland Primary School to Rosemary High School[3]

in August 2014


Date beginning

What happens?

Who is involved?

Details / action taken

January 2013 Contact other agencies to seek information on ASN children
  • Primary/secondary school SMT and SfL staff
  • Social workers / health services / voluntary organizations and others
  • Feeder primary schools and other organizations contacted by secondary school (email, phone, in-person meetings) regarding prospective ASN students
  • Collating information on ASN learners
March 2013 Invitations to Tea/Coffee meetings sent to parents/carers of primary ASN pupils
  • Primary/secondary school senior management and SfL staff
  • Parents / carers of ASN children
  • Secondary school sends letter inviting parents / carers to informal tea/coffee meetings
  • Arranging for the space (e.g. staff room) to be shared by parents/carers, teaching staff and other professionals
  • Schedule for regular Tea/Cofee meetings set up
June 2013 CPD for members of multi-professional team (including parents of ASN learners) on difficulties and dilemmas of multi-professional team practices
  • Multi-professional team lead worker
  • Multi-professional team workers
  • Parents/carers
  • CPD led by the team’s lead worker
  • Strategies for multi-professional work agreed on and stated clearly before the start of multi-professional team work
June 2013 Secondary school LSAs and teachers go to primary schools to meet ASN children (first visit)
  • LSAs
  • SfL teachers
  • ASN pupils
  • Secondary school LSAs and SfL staff arrange for activities related to transition at the primary school where ASN learners currently attend
  • If needed, dates of next visits are arranged for
June 2013 Meeting with severely disabled children (first meeting)
  • Specialist professionals (e.g. speech and language therapists)
  • SfL teachers
  • ASN pupils
  • Secondary school SfL teachers in collaboration and under guidance from specialist staff acquire (and interpret) views of severely disabled ASN learners (if any) at feeder primary schools
  • If needed, dates of next visits are arranged for
June 2014 Primary SfL teachers (with primary LSAs support) deliver CPD to secondary classroom and SfL teachers
  • Primary and secondary LSAs
  • Primary and secondary classroom teachers
  • Primary and secondary SfL teachers
  • CPD delivered by the primary team
  • Supported by examples of practice provided by LSAs
June 2014 Meetings to plan for transition start
  • Multi-professional team workers (school and other staff)
  • Parents / carers
  • Child-centred, solution-based approach when working
  • Parents participate as an equal agency
  • Schedule for other meetings established
January 2014 SfL PTs train future buddies in ASN children conditions
  • Selected secondary school students
  • Support for learning teachers
  • Optional: Other external specialist practitioners
  • SfL teachers (if needed, supported by professionals from other fields) ensure that future buddies are well-versed in the difficulty that “their” pupils experience and how to help effectively
March 2014 Primary pupils meet with their future buddies
  • Selected secondary school students
  • ASN pupils
  • Both learners have a chance to get to know each other before transition
  • Contact data for buddies and future students is exchanged
May 2014 Transition meeting at secondary school for children and parents held
  • ASN pupils
  • Secondary SfL Teachers
  • Secondary Learning Support Assistants
  • Secondary school senior management team representative(s)
  • Parents / carers
  • ASN pupils’ buddies
  • Pupils receive a tour of the school
  • Buddies present at all times
  • Pupils participate in “treasure hunt” activity – helps them understand where different places are located in the school
  • Both pupils and carers are given opportunities to ask questions
  • Senior management team answers any arising questions
August 2014 New pupils meet with their buddies
  • Selected secondary school students
  • ASN pupils (now at secondary school)
  • Buddies work actively with students for at least the first two weeks at the new school
September 2014 Primary LSAs visit secondary school (and their “old” pupils)
  • Primary LSAs
  • ASN pupils (now at secondary school)
  • Primary LSAs speak to ASN learners and ask about their secondary school experience
November 2014 Transition review meeting for parents and new students after the transition
  • ASN students
  • Secondary SfL Teachers
  • Secondary Learning Support Assistants
  • Secondary school senior management team representative(s)
  • Parents / carers
  • ASN students and their parents can ask questions, report difficulties and possible solutions can be discussed







Interviews with:

Anne, Deputy Head at Boroughmuir High (conducted on 26 April 2012)

Interview with Joan, Deputy Head at Greenbank High (conducted on 1 May 2012)

 List of Questions:

 1.      Do you have a transition planning coordinator? Who is it and what are their responsibilities? Who are they in charge of? Is this person known to the primary pupils and their family?

2.      How early do you begin the transition process?

3.      What is the nature of the collaboration between your secondary school and the prospective pupils’ primary schools? What primary staff are involved?

4.      When you know that a pupil with additional support needs is going to attend your school, what agencies or external professionals are usually involved? Is there a member of such multi-professional teams who is usually be chosen as the lead professional?

5.      Since joint working involves education professionals and those from different domains (e.g. health professionals, social workers), how do you think such collaboration usually progresses? Are you aware of any difficulties in collaboration between teachers / educational staff and those from other fields?

6.      Are the views of children with ASN sought and how does the school usually go about it? How are their opinions incorporated into the transition process?

7.      Are there children with additional needs whose specific difficulties make obtaining their views more challenging? How would the school approach such cases?

8.      How are parents involved in the transition process? How are their views sought? Are there specific events that you organize for parents as well as for the children? Do you feel that collaboration with the parents of children with ASN is different to that with any other primary pupils? Why / why not?

9.      Do you organize any post-transition events for pupils or parents in S1?

10. Are there any specific types of additional needs that you feel make the transition process particularly difficult for such children?

[1] The names of the interviewee and his/her workplace have been altered for confidentiality purposes.

[2] The names of the interviewee and his/her workplace have been altered for confidentiality purposes.

[3] The school names have been invented for the purposes of this assignment

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