The school transition

The transition from primary to secondary school is a landmark occasion in the life of a young person, with a change in social relationships, interaction with a new environment and new ways of learning often shaping their future social and professional path.

International research has found that the quality of a young person’s transition between primary and secondary school has significant implications for educational outcomes, often with positive outcomes linked to higher engagement and higher achievement and negative experiences reflecting the opposite.

Given that this period of a person’s life is so critical, it is important that robust information on how young people in Ireland are adjusting to second-level education and the influence of the education system on their lives, exists and can inform policy.

Adjustment to secondary education is often shaped by the circumstances of an individual within universal factors such as puberty development and the structure from which education is delivered. The Off to a Good Start report, compiled by the ESRI’s Professor Emer Smyth, aims to provide an analysis of the transition within the Irish educational system and aid policy development on the appropriate curriculum and support structures to address any variations in the quality of experience young people encounter during transition.

The report draws on two datasets of the Growing Up in Ireland Child Cohort and addresses the three main research questions:

  1. To what extent are young people’s social relationships – with their parents, peers and teachers – associated with their adjustment to second-level education?
  2. Is young people’s engagement with school at age 13 related to their earlier experiences at primary level?
  3. To what extent are the ease of transition and consequent engagement with school associated with experiences of second-level education?


Broadly summarising the report’s findings, it was evident that often any problems or anxieties felt by a young person in relation to the transition are either not passed on to, or recognised by the parent. Few parents reported transition difficulties in relation to settling in and coping with schoolwork, however, one in five young people reported feeling anxious about making new friends and missed friends from primary school. There is also a notable shift in academic confidence, with 13-year-olds, on average, reporting that they were less confident in their academic abilities when faced with the new demands of the junior cycle than they had been when in primary school

As expected, notable differences were found in relation to gender and background of children undergoing transition. Some of the main findings include:

  • girls were more likely to experience transition difficulties, including a drop in confidence as learners;
  • those from families of unemployment or low-level education had more difficult transitions that their counterparts;
  • immigrants were more likely to experience transition difficulties but stable levels of self-confidence in learning; and
  • those with special educational needs experienced the greatest difficulties, and the largest decline in learning confidence.

Social interactions were found to be key to transitional positivity. Those young people with bigger friendship groups appeared to switch easier and parents being formally involved in the school (parent teacher meetings, concert attendance etc), was also associated with fewer problems. Teacher interaction also played a crucial role, frequent praise and positive feedback acted as a settling factor for young people, while those who were reprimanded had a greater tendency to decline in their academic self-confidence.


Gender was a significant factor in the number of young people reporting to like school ‘very much’. While school engagement attitudes were widely positive, 35 per cent of girls reflected the highest level of positivity towards school engagement compared to just 23 per cent of boys. Negative attitudes to school were more likely to be found in young people from families of lower education levels and lone-parent families, as was lower attendance. Only 54 per cent of children with special educational needs had a ‘positive’ attitude to school compared to 63 per cent of their peers.

Attitudes and engagement with primary school was influential on secondary school experience. Young people with a negative attitude to school, their teachers and school subjects at the age of nine were likely to reflect these attitudes in second-level education. The foundational skills of literacy and numeracy taught at primary level were also influential on engagement of the second-level engagement curriculum. Low reading test scores at nine-years-old were more likely to correlate with negative attitudes about school by the age of 13. Low maths score, transitioning into a negative attitude towards maths, were particularly influential on later engagement with the subject.

However, early secondary school experiences were also influential on the overall experience. Greater negativity was recognised in those who tended to be reprimanded more or not given positive feedback, as it was when a young person failed to engage with specific subjects.

Pupils in their second year of second-level were more likely to be disengaged with school and have a lower attendance than in their first year. The status of a school (i.e. gender mix, language medium and social mix) appeared to be less influential on the opinion of the young person than the quality of school experiences. “However, greater transition difficulties and more negative attitudes to school were found among young people who had moved from an Urban Band 1 Department primary school to a Department second-level school,” the report states.

Negative attitudes to school were more likely to be found in young people from families of lower education levels and lone-parent families, as was lower attendance.


Summarising the findings of the report, the author says that an engaging primary school experience often provides the basis for a positive transition to secondary school. Maths stands out as a key area in which engagement at an early level is important to a later positive experience and the report suggests value in rethinking the approach to maths at primary-level to enhance interest and skills as a young person ages.

Similarly, literacy and numeracy skills appear to be a strong basis for a positive transition experience and reinforces the current education policy priority through the national literacy and numeracy strategy.

Further considerations need to be given to the current funding being attributed to bridging the gap in skills between Department and non-Department schools, and the influence of social inequality on outcomes and experience.

A further finding points to the need for greater inclusion measures for young people with special needs in mainstream second-level schools, as attitudes between them and their peers differ greatly on school, academic self-image and engagement with social subjects.

Finally, the report suggests a need for junior-cycle reform based on the levels of disparity in engagement between first and second year pupils, suggesting a broader repertoire of teaching and assessment methods to engage young people. It says: “The findings highlight the importance of underpinning such reform with an emphasis on bringing about a more positive school climate, moving away from the use of more negative sanctions, which appear to further alienate young people.”

*Source: Off to a Good Start? Primary School Experiences and the Transition to Second-Level Education. Emer Smyth, Economic and Social Research Institute.

About Author


Related Posts