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The impact of primary-secondary transition on students’ wellbeing

Researchers: Dr Ros McLellan

By Nuffield Foundation

Project overview

This longitudinal study tracked changes in wellbeing among 1,100 students as they moved from primary to secondary school.

Key findings
  • Survey findings revealed that while students’ perceptions of their wellbeing outside school remained more or less constant, their wellbeing in the school context declined considerably over the year
  • The work schools were doing to ease transfer was generally effective for the immediate transition period. However, they were less successful at maintaining wellbeing over the first year at secondary school
  • The four schools that took part in the study were equally effective in maintaining wellbeing over the transition period and showed a similar decline over the Year 7 period
  • Boys overall reported higher frequencies of eudaimonic wellbeing (i.e. self-actualisation and fulfilling potential) at all testing points and this was seen across all schools.
  • Consider transfer from primary to secondary school as a status passage and give consideration to the balance of continuity and discontinuity to enable students to feel they have successfully transitioned to a new status. Also take into account the developmental needs of youngsters and phase changes gradually
  • Consider transition as an on-going process comprising a number of stages that is not just about the first term in secondary school (i.e. preparation, initial encounters, adjustment and stabilisation)
  • Focus particularly on social aspects in the preparation and initial encounters (induction days and first few days at secondary school) rather than on curriculum or pedagogy
  • During initial encounters and the adjustment phases students not only need to encounter autonomy-supportive teaching, but also need to be taught how to be efficient autonomous learners. This includes how to work independently, take notes, and so on
  • Vulnerable students need on-going support, particularly in the socio-emotional sphere
  • Although important for all students, particularly attend to how to help girls feel they can achieve their potential and involve them in this process.


  • Dr Ros McLellan
    University of Cambridge

  • Director, Education
    Nuffield Foundation

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