The end of the school year is nigh. Though most children will be cock-a-hoop, more than a few will leave with significant foreboding about what amounts to the end of their world as they know it. Whether they are moving from infant to junior or saying goodbye to their child- sized, family-style neighbourhood primary to enter an intimidating, distant secondary school, school transfers and transitions are known to cause children not only anxiety but also to lose ground academically. Of these changes, the one between primary and secondary school is known to have the greatest fall out.
The fall in attainment at secondary transfer comes on top of the normal summer dip that schools see when children are inclined to forget something of what they've learned over the long holidays. As a recent review of the research on the impact of school transfers and transitions on pupil progress and attainment found, while a short-term hiatus in learning is very common, a few children actually fail to achieve better results at the end of the year following transfer than they got one year previously in their feeder schools. Why might this be, does it matter, and what can schools and parents do to help their children manage the change?
The Government is, rightly, worried about it, and it is supporting further research to investigate the problem more thoroughly.
There's no doubt that children have a great deal to take on board when they start secondary school. They have to deal with new curriculum subjects, more teachers and different ones for each subject; they face new teaching styles and unknown expectations for their work, and have to move between rooms with the right books for each lesson: it's an alien social and physical landscape to negotiate, jam-packed with large people.
There are new systems, new rules, new clothes and a much heavier school bag and homework load. Some may need to travel on a bus for the first time, and many will have been parted from close friends who have gone elsewhere.
Zakaria Sheikh, aged 11, is shortly to leave Orion Primary School, a Fresh Start school in Hendon, north London. Though he spoke enthusiastically about the better sports equipment and the chemistry experiments he'd find at his new school, his considered view was: "I'm not really looking forward to it. I'm sad, because this school's just got better, and now we're leaving."
His classmate, Rachael Eyitayo, was similarly divided. "I'm looking forward to the homework, the clubs and learning new things, but I'm worried about not being liked and being late and getting detention. When you walk around to find your class, you might get lost. I'm sad to leave, especially as one of my friends is not coming to my school."
Craig Pickup, who started life in Birmingham, related the size of the change to that earlier move. "It feels like I'm moving city again."
The explanations for the learning plateau in the first year of secondary school can be understood under four headings: developmental, emotional, academic and temporal - the last being the issue of long summers allowing knowledge to be leached out by pleasure or forgotten, for which summer schools are the Government's main answer.
The research review, which was commissioned by the present government from three academics at Homerton College, Cambridge, and published last autumn, identifies many causes but acknowledges that there's more to find out about why children wobble - partly through asking the children themselves.
Developmental explanations suggest the tail-off in learning could be age-related because it is so common, though this idea needs to be tested against 11-year-olds in a middle school system who transfer instead at 13, as the Homerton team now plans to do. Professor Maurice Galton, one of the authors of the Cambridge report, says, "At age 11, hormones kick in …