New Growing Up In Ireland Research Examines How to Help Young People Adjust to Second-Level Education

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Strong maths skills at primary level and positive student-teacher relationships at second level key to transition 

Growing Up in Ireland today (19 October 2017) publishes a new report from the study on young people’s transition from primary to second-level education: Off to a Good Start? Primary School Experiences and the Transition to Second-Level Education, by Emer Smyth, ESRI. The report is being launched by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone, TD, at an event held at the ESRI.

The transition to second-level education is a major landmark in young people’s lives, as they adjust to new teachers, new school subjects and new friends. Off to a Good Start? looks at the way in which primary school experiences can provide a crucial foundation for a successful transition to second-level education. The findings are based on interviews conducted with young people when they were 9 and 13 years of age, as well as interviews with their parents and questionnaires completed by their principals and teachers. The report emphasises young people’s own views and perspectives, highlighting important issues for policy development and school practice.

Transition difficulties

  • Most young people settle well into the new school but around a fifth are anxious about making new friends and miss their primary school friends.
  • Young people become less confident about their own academic abilities as they move into second-level education and face new academic demands.
  • Girls experience greater transition difficulties than boys. Transition difficulties are greater among those from more disadvantaged backgrounds and among young people with special educational needs.
  • Children who were better at maths at the age of 9 settle into second-level education more easily, while those who disliked their primary teacher or school subjects become less confident over the transition period.
  • Social relationships play a protective role over this period of change. Young people have fewer transition difficulties if they have more friends and if they have better communication with their parents. The quality of interaction with second-level teachers plays a crucial role: those who receive frequent praise or positive feedback from their teachers settle in better while those who are ‘given out to’ or reprimanded more often lose self-confidence in their ability to do schoolwork.

Attitudes to school

  • Thirteen year olds are broadly positive about school; 66 per cent of girls and 57 per cent of boys like school ‘very much’ or ‘quite a bit’.
  • More negative attitudes to school and poorer levels of school attendance are found among those from families with lower levels of education and from lone parent families.
  • Young people with special educational needs have more negative attitudes to school than their peers.
  • Primary school experiences set the tone for later experiences; young people who were already negative about school, their teachers and school subjects at the age of nine are more likely to be negative about their experiences within second-level education. Those with low reading test scores at nine are more negative about school at the age of 13. Having low maths test scores and more negative attitudes to maths at the age of 9 are found to be particularly important in shaping later engagement with the subject.
  • Second-level school experiences also significantly influence attitudes to school and school subjects. Relationships with teachers are crucial, with more negative attitudes to school and school subjects found among those who received more reprimands and less positive feedback from their second-level teachers. Finding second-level subjects, especially maths and Irish, uninteresting and difficult also seems to fuel a negative attitude to school.
  • Second year students are found to be more negative about school than those in first year.

Implications for policy

  • The study findings indicate the importance of providing an engaging primary school experience for all as a basis for later engagement. Early experience of maths emerges as particularly important, pointing to the potential value in rethinking approaches to maths teaching at primary level to enhance interest and skills.
  • The findings point to challenges in ensuring the inclusion of young people with special educational needs in mainstream second-level schools, with significant differences from their peers in attitudes to school, academic self-image and engagement with school subjects.
  • Young people’s experiences and outcomes are shaped by their social background. The majority of students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not attend DEIS schools, highlighting the importance of providing some assistance for disadvantaged groups across all schools.
  • The dip in student engagement found in second year reinforces the case for junior cycle reform and for the use of a broader repertoire of teaching and assessment methods to engage young people. The findings highlight the importance of underpinning such reform with a more positive school climate, with a move away from the use of more negative sanctions which appear to further alienate young people.

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone TD, said:

“Changing from primary to secondary school is a key moment in a child’s life. This report explores what factors help or hinder children during this transition and their school engagement at second level.  It generates some important insights about the role of early school experiences, as well as difficulties encountered by particular groups. One of the key findings shows that young people’s school experiences and outcomes are shaped by their social background. This research will help inform policy on supports for children, young people and their families.  It will also ensure that the 1.38 billion euro that we will invest in children and young people in the coming year will be focused on achieving the best possible results for them. More broadly, the report’s findings will be of great value to policy makers and educators committed to better educational outcomes for all.”

Emer Smyth, author of the report and Research Professor, ESRI, said:

“How children get on in primary school sets the tone for their later educational success. Primary education provides them with the literacy and numeracy skills they need to engage with learning at second-level. Children can disengage from school and their school subjects even at this early stage, making it difficult to reengage them later on. At second level, building positive student-teacher relationships is critical in supporting young people to feel more confident as learners and helping them to thrive in the new environment of second-level school.”


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