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Research School Network: Children and change: how can we prepare for transition in 2021? Polly Crowther considers our responsibility to get transition right


Children and change: how can we prepare for transition in 2021?

Polly Crowther considers our responsibility to get transition right

For children and teachers the last year may have felt like a constant barrage of transitions. For children in Reception and Year 1, much of their formal education will have been disrupted. In Early Years, access to family, play groups and playgrounds has reduced. In September 2021 we have a particular responsibility to get transition right.

Why does transition matter?

Children’s recent experiences are one factor in the importance of transition. The EEF report, Closing the Attainment Gap, highlights transition as a time of risk for vulnerable learners. For parents and children, the transition from home to school can influence a lifetime. Children who find transition the most difficult may be those who are not academically ready for the next level.

In maths and literacy, understanding the previous year’s pedagogy can help. Pupils whose progress has been most affected by Covid-19 measures may be those we already know to be affected by transitions. Getting to know our pupils will be key.

How can we plan for transition?

Settings and schools are cognisant of the importance of transition as a process, not an event. How many Reception teachers have marvelled at wide-eyed and attentive faces on day one, enthusiastic exploration on day two, only to witness gate-grabbing tears on day three? Risquez (2008) would identify this with the adjustment curve’ experienced by university students. Here, a honeymoon’ period is followed by culture shock, then acceptance and integration (so long as the right support is in place).

Polly 2

What does this support look like in Early Years and Primary? Schools and settings need to prioritise from the huge range of possible activities. It is simple enough to find a tick-list of transition activities. Yet reviewing the evidence can help us to take a step back and consider what is important in our context. The EPPSE study developed a theoretical model based on primary-secondary transitions. Nevertheless, it can provide a helpful framework for primary and early years.

Institutional, social and curriculum transitions

The model puts the change pupils experience into three categories:


Institutional transition includes administration and logistical changes. These can be especially challenging for pupils facing barriers to engaging with school. Effort in making this understandable in the early days is a solid investment. Letters, booklets, tours and meetings might cover location and access, key people, paperwork and communications channels. Conversation between institutions can be very helpful. It can secure institutional knowledge of individual pupils and their needs.

Many early years and primary schools pay special attention to social transition. Relationships are key and can be built over time: before, during and after the new school year. Home visits can play an important role in building relationships. Of course, it’s not just the adults. Children benefit from meeting one another and learning about sharing a learning environment. In Early Years, we benefit from a framework that dedicates time to this throughout the phase. It can help if parents to understand the social and behaviour expectations, too.

Polly 3

Curriculum transition is complicated – I include pedagogy (as implied in Evangelou’s EPPSE model.Galton 1999, would separate them). Children entering Nursery or Reception will bring a wide range of experiences. Pupils going into Year 1 experience change in the language of their subjects and how they learn them. In maths and literacy deepening teachers’ understanding of earlier years’ pedagogy can be helpful. Time invested now in supporting teachers to develop this knowledge can pay dividends.


Starting early years or primary school is a huge moment for a child and their family. Their experience can set the tone for a lifetime’s experience of education. It is especially important for children who face barriers to education. It is a big responsibility, but one that we can approach using evidence. Some simple questions can help us plan ahead:

  • What changes for our children and families about the school or setting (institutional transition)?
  • What should/​can we learn from their previous institutions?
  • What social transitions are children in our context likely to have experienced? Are they used to being part of a learning community?
  • How can we build relationships with our children and families before, during and after the start of the school year?
  • What previous education and care have they experienced? How is their curriculum and pedagogy likely to change?

These questions can help us to consider the particular needs of our setting. We can then identify which activities are going to have the greatest impact.

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