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Action needed to support vulnerable children through primary-secondary school transitions


3 min read Partner content

The number of children experiencing poor emotional wellbeing during their transition from primary to secondary school is rising rapidly, a leading educational psychology expert has warned.

Drawing on research she has led at The University of Manchester, Dr Charlotte Bagnall highlights that the danger is most acute for vulnerable children such as those with special educational needs, adverse childhood experiences or in receipt of Pupil Premium Funding.

But in an article published by the University’s policy engagement unit Policy@Manchester, she stresses that greater knowledge of how best to support vulnerable children “has the potential to improve the mental health and educational trajectories of children across the life course, reducing long-term inequalities.”

Dr Bagnall observes that “children with social, emotional and mental health difficulties and without an education, health and care plan are also disproportionately more likely to be excluded and/or suspended” during the period of transition. However, better “collaboration and communication channels across systems and stakeholders” can improve matters. 

The University of Manchester academic makes three recommendations for education policymakers to consider as means of easing some of the principal difficulties experienced by children when moving from primary to secondary schools.

First, she advocates “an early-intervention, gradual and sensitive primary-secondary school transition curriculum, from the beginning of Year 5 to the end of Year 7.”  Following her own research in 2020, support for this approach as a “promising school-based intervention” has been referenced in recent NICE and Health Policy Scotland guidelines.

Dr Bagnall argues: “The Department for Education and local authorities should work with educators to further develop and implement this transition curriculum more widely. As part of this transition, curriculum lessons should focus on developing children’s awareness, knowledge and ability to cope with the multiple changes experienced over primary-secondary school transition, by practicing skills, asking questions and discussing their feelings. This can help children feel prepared, but not overwhelmed by their next chapter.”

Second, she calls for a “systemic approach to primary-secondary school transitions provision” with “emotional wellbeing central to this.”  She adds: “It is recommended that both universal and targeted support for children’s emotional wellbeing should be at the forefront of transition provision, and this should not end as children leave primary school. This support should help children to recognise, understand and manage their emotions.”

And third, as a tool to support the most vulnerable children at the earliest possible stage, she reveals that her University of Manchester research team are developing “a scale to measure children’s emotional wellbeing in the context of primary-secondary school transitions.”

She explains: “This novel instrument, which will be named Primary-Secondary School Transitions Emotional Wellbeing Scale (P-S WELLS), will add distinct practical value at a community level by developing a tool and manual to build capacity for educational practitioners to obtain immediate insight into the universal support their class needs and identification of specific children who need additional support. Education policymakers and local authorities should engage with the development and rollout of this instrument and advocate to embed this into a transition curriculum.”

‘Supporting Vulnerable Children over Primary-Secondary School Transitions’ by Dr Charlotte Bagnall can be read free of charge on the Policy@Manchester website


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