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Transitions between school settings

Learners’ progress through middle school is marked by transitions between different school settings. The transition from primary to secondary school can be especially challenging. The Ministry’s research (Easing the Transition from Primary to Secondary Schooling: Helpful Information for Schools to Consider, 2010) shows that most students cope with the immediate transition but become more negative in the second half of year 9. For a significant minority, this is a time of considerable stress. Consequently, it is important to think of the year 8–9 transition as a process rather than an event. Supporting students through this process requires schools to know each learner well and to build positive relationships among students, teachers, families and whānau, and “feeder” and “receiving” schools.

The Ministry’s research shows widening gaps in achievement at secondary school, with some students falling behind as the literacy and numeracy demands of the curriculum increase. Teachers may need support in understanding these demands and how they can help students meet them (Teaching and Learning in Middle Schooling: A Review of the Literature, 2007).

Transitions can be especially difficult for specific groups, such as Māori and Pasifika learners and learners with special needs. Students with sensory disorders such as autism, for example, need extra support to cope with changing classrooms and teachers.

Building interconnected learning communities

A significant finding of the Ministry’s research was the importance of cross-sector partnerships. Structured, frequent, and collegial communication between feeder and receiving schools ensures that students experience continuity in their learning.

It is important to set up systems to ensure that information gathered about learners is relevant, presented in a useful form, and distributed to those who need it. Information about learners’ social networks and development can be as important as data about their learning and achievement. Receiver schools can use this information to decide the best placement of students and plan how to cater to individual learning needs (including any special needs). Teachers and school leaders from feeder and receiving schools can learn about each other’s curriculum and pedagogy and use this information to build greater coherence into their programmes.

Case study

Invercargill schools collaborating on transitions

A story on the Educational Leaders site discusses the introduction of a single transition form for all Invercargill secondary schools. The form streamlines the process for contributing schools while ensuring that secondary schools get the information they need. This is one of several changes in the transition process, including an agreed timeline for key events such as interviews with parents and learners to ensure they are included in decision making. In addition, teachers and school leaders talk to each other and to any relevant support agencies. Secondary schools no longer do their own testing but use the data provided by the contributing schools. Invercargill’s education community meets each year to review the process and make any necessary changes.

For the complete story, see Educational Leaders: Invercargill-schools-collaborate.

Case study

Building relationships at Glen Eden School

In an interview published on the TKI Middle Schooling site, Mark Whitford, associate principal at Glen Eden Intermediate School, describes his school’s transition programme. He emphasises how crucial successful transitions are at this stage in learners’ lives:

Transition for adolescents is incredibly important, and I think as middle school educators we need to make sure that we are giving these students every chance of succeeding … They are going through so many changes – emotionally, physically, and socially – all those aspects of their lives are changing and it’s vital that we give them the tools to succeed.

The school’s focus is on building strong relationships with students, parents, and families, contributing and receiving schools, and outside agencies, as well as between students. The school follows a systematic process informed by ongoing research. The process includes the collection of meaningful information to support the transition process. Students with special education needs receive targeted support, including extra visits to the school before they start there, to help them build the relationships they need to succeed.

You can see Mark’s interview at NZC Online: First steps in transition programme.

> References and other useful resources

Useful resources


Cox, S. and Kennedy, S. (2008). Students’ Achievement as They Transition from Primary to Secondary Schooling. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Cox, S. and Kennedy, S. (2008). The Case of Emily: A Focus on Students as They Transition from Primary to Secondary Schooling. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Research Division, Ministry of Education (2008). A Study of Students’ Transition from Primary to Secondary Schooling. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Research Division, Ministry of Education (2010). Easing the Transition from Primary to Secondary Schooling: Helpful Information for Schools to Consider. Wellington: Ministry of Education.


TKI: Middle Schooling
This website provides case studies, video clips, and research questions to help teachers and school leaders engage with the research about quality teaching for the middle school years and consider its application to practice.

Te Kotahitanga: Making a Difference in Māori Education
See particularly the section on a “Culturally Responsive Pedagogy
of Relationships”.

The New Zealand Association of Intermediate and Middle Schools (AIMS)
This association aims to be the “guardians of years 7–10 students”.


Bishop, R., Berryman, M., Cavanagh, T., and Teddy, L. (2007). Te Kōtahitanga Phase 3 Whanaungatanga: Establishing a Culturally Responsive Pedagogy of Relations in Mainstream Secondary School Classrooms. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Crosnoe, R. (2011). Fitting In, Standing Out: Navigating the Social Challenges of High School to Get an Education. New York: Cambridge University Press. (See also the video clips in which Crosnoe shares his findings and tips for educators and parents.)

Dinham, S. and Rowe, K. (2007). Teaching and Learning in Middle Schooling: A Review of the Literature. Report to the New Zealand Ministry of Education. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Durling, N., Ng, L., and Bishop, P. (2010). The Education of Years 7 to 10 Students: A Focus on Their Teaching and Learning Needs. Summary Report. Report to the Ministry of Education. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Gibbs, R. and Poskitt, J. (2010). Student Engagement in the Middle Years of Schooling (Years 7–10): A Literature Review. Report to the Ministry of Education. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Ministry of Education (2009). Careers Education and Guidance in New Zealand Schools. Careers Services: Wellington.

National Turning Points Center: Center for Collaborative Education (2003). At the Turning Point: The Young Adolescent Learner. Boston: National Turning Points Center.

Office of the Prime Minister‘s Science Advisory Committee (2011). Improving the Transition: Reducing Social and Psychological Morbidity during Adolescence (PDF 1.9MB). A Report from the Prime Minister‘s Chief Science Advisor. Wellington: Office of the Prime Minister‘s Science Advisory Committee.

Download the full print version: Issue 24: August 2012 (PDF, 1 MB)