Westbourne Academy used funding from the Opportunity Area to improve transition between primary and secondary school.
Starting secondary school is one of the most significant and critical changes for students. Leaving the primary school setting, where students have had the same teacher for the majority of their day, to joining the secondary setting where there are numerous teachers, different classrooms and new rules can be challenging for all students, not just the vulnerable groups. From experience, we have had students who have found the process challenging for a variety of reasons:
- Anxiety and worry about starting a school.
- Vulnerable learners who have struggled to access full time education within the primary setting.
- Behavioural needs.
- Starting a new school without their friends.
- SEN needs are rising year on year and we are having more students with complex needs.
At Westbourne, we have worked extensively on modifying and adapting our transition programme to ensure that we can meet the needs of our new students. With the demands of the new GCSEs and the focus purely on end of year examinations, it has become more difficult for subject specialist teaching staff to have the time and flexibility to visit primary schools. Additionally, the GCSE exams do not finish until late June and the induction days for the new intake are normally in the first week of July.
During the academic year, we decided to pilot the use of Transition Teaching Assistants who would be linked to a main feeder school and be a point of contact for Year Six staff but who could also go in on a regular basis to meet students and deliver workshops. This was funded by the IOA. Each of our main feeders had two Teaching Assistants attached. These two Teaching Assistants will remain the Transition TAs for their primary school, which will ensure continuity and sustainability. We decided on this model for the following reasons:
- There is more flexibility in using Teaching Assistants as opposed to teachers, as they can visit the school more regularly and build up working relationships with the primary staff and students.
- Teaching Assistants often have limited opportunities for professional development – this model gave them ownership and empowerment to deliver sessions within the school. As this was a pilot, each pair adopted a different approach and it was pleasing to see how the different approaches worked.
- The Teaching Assistants are able to see the students in the classroom environment and identify strategies which are useful but also look at how we can best support our more vulnerable learners.
As this was a pilot, Transition TAs had the opportunity to trial their ideas. In one school, the TAs went in and actively supported the classes in their own setting. School staff identified those students who were worried about coming up to secondary school, which enabled our staff to work with them in their own setting and allay their fears. Staff members commented that those students, who they were most concerned about in terms of transition, felt much happier and more comfortable in coming up to secondary school.
In other schools, TAs ran sessions on the topic of ‘All About Me’, which enabled them to find out information about the new cohort; students really enjoyed these sessions.
English and Maths sessions were also delivered in the primary schools by the TAs who were specialist within those areas. The TAs took ownership for the sessions based on their knowledge and understanding from supporting students at secondary school. They created PowerPoints and various different activities to engage and enthuse the students. This was also extremely beneficial as we could see the work produced by students and identify areas of strength and weakness.
One of the TAs embraced this opportunity and created a bank of PowerPoint presentations on different subjects and the school. For example, she created a PowerPoint introducing students to Spanish and learning a couple of initial phrases. These PowerPoints can then be used by all Transition TAs.
We also invested in resources to support the programme. We purchased ‘Worry Monsters’ which could be used by students to talk about their concerns and issues.
This programme was offered to some of our ‘main’ non feeder primary schools (schools where we have ten students or more coming to Westbourne) but it was problematic as some of these schools already had existing arrangements with their main feeders, or felt that logistically it could be difficult to manage. However, we still felt that we needed to offer a different programme and we developed a bespoke provision where the two Senior Teaching Assistants visited each primary school, delivered a session and then offered each school an opportunity for a further visit at Westbourne if needed. Four of our ‘main’ non feeder primary schools participated in this programme.
An invitation to afternoon tea
Alongside the SENCO, the two Senior Teaching Assistants also organised an afternoon tea for Year Six parents and students, a week before the induction days for parents who had any concerns or felt that their child needed extra visits. A flyer was created and distributed to the feeder schools. We were really pleased with the participation rate. We had run a similar event during the previous academic year and had only two parents. Last academic year, we had an uptake of twenty five parents, which represented excellent progress.
Creating a student guide
Our student guide was outdated. Although the guide was comprehensive in terms of information, it didn’t really engage the target audience, especially those students who struggle with reading lots of information. Our student guide has been completely revamped and is concise and informative. Initially, this was solely for SEND and vulnerable learners but this was given out to all students. This guide was extremely well received by both parents and students. The use of visuals means that it can support our vulnerable learners more effectively.
Outdoor Learning Days
Last academic year, with funding from the IOA Essential Life Skills programme, we have also run an outdoor learning day for our most vulnerable learners at transition. These learners include students who had been identified as struggling with coming to high school, school refusers and those with anxiety issues. Students spent the day at Westbourne participating in a variety of different activities including den building, etc. This programme has certainly had an impact on attendance. Students who participated in the programme had 100% attendance in the Autumn term, which is remarkable considering we had students who had poor attendance at primary school or who were on part time timetables. There were some students with significant issues in terms of anxiety, which has affected their attendance in school, but they have also managed 100% attendance.
We received some positive feedback from our primary colleagues. For example, the following quote ‘The children simply loved it and the change in their attitudes towards coming up to Westbourne in September and for the next two days is significant – which is fantastic’.
Following on from this, we have established an Eco-therapy group in Year Seven for those students who we were concerned about in terms of either wellbeing or academic achievement. Through the Eco-therapy programme, they have a weekly session in the garden, where they learn vital skills such as collaborative working and problem solving. We had some students who lacked confidence and they thrived in this setting. It is clear that the Eco-therapy has an impact on students in terms of attendance and academic attainment. For example, we put a student on the programme whose attendance was below 80%. When he started the Eco-therapy, his attendance rose to nearly 90%.
How do we know our approach works?
In previous years, we have had students who have struggled with the transition days or who have refused to attend the days because of anxiety. Additionally, we have had students who have had meltdowns or who we have had to attempt to coax out of cars, etc. All students attended both induction days without any concerns and this was the first time this has happened. At the start of the academic year 2019, we have had no issues. Historically, our more vulnerable learners have traditionally struggled at the start of Year Seven and there have been in the past issues with attendance. 95% of our vulnerable learners had 100% attendance within the first term. Furthermore, there have been very few behavioural incidents – 95% of students have had no negative points since starting Westbourne within the first term.
Undoubtedly, the most important outcome from this project is the ongoing dialogue between the primary schools and us in terms of the primaries alerting us to concerns with students or whether there is a change we need to be aware of. This has helped us with ensuring that all students have the easiest transition into secondary school.
How we have adapted transition in the light of COVID-19
COVID-19 has left us with an unprecedented challenge in terms of transition. School closures have left us unable to continue with our Transition TA work and consequently, we have been unable to have the face to face contact with students. Our induction days cannot take place meaning for our latest Year Seven students, their first encounter with Westbourne will be the first day back in September. We have had to formulate a quick response to ensure that we can make transition as easy as possible for our new cohort.
Sharing of information between schools has changed. We would normally be visiting the schools to speak to key staff and see students in action. Instead, our SENCO and Assistant Principal in charge of KS3 have spoken to all feeder schools, either through phone calls or virtually, via platforms such as ‘Zoom’ or ‘Microsoft Teams’. This has been extremely beneficial in ensuring that we have comprehensive information, in order to best support students when they start Westbourne.
Parental engagement is crucial and we have ensured that as many parents as possible have had an individual meeting via an online platform, via WhatsApp or via a phone call. This provides both parents and students with an opportunity to talk through any concerns or ask any questions. Additionally, the SENCO and a Senior HLTA have completed the phone calls for more vulnerable learners, so that they can discuss the provision for students and allay any concerns. This has been positive as we can ensure the best provision is in place to meet students’ needs. Likewise, our EAL coordinator has had conversations with EAL parents and has been able to support them with the transition process.
This year, we will not be meeting students face to face. With this in mind, we have created the ‘This Is Me’ project, which allows students to make a presentation about themselves in any format, e.g. PowerPoint, film, Word document or sculpture. There is then a dedicated email address where student submissions can be sent. The work will be shared with the Heads of House and Pastoral Leads so that they can learn about the students in their houses. All our feeder primaries have embraced this and we have even had one of our feeder schools who emailed us the following comment “We really like the idea of this and are hoping to set a similar project for all the children in our school, if this is okay?” We are considering using this activity next year as a bridging unit between primary and secondary school.
We are in the process of establishing a virtual guide and tour to Westbourne. The tour takes students around the academy and allows them to click on key areas around the school, so they can familiarise themselves with their new setting. The virtual guide will be an amalgamation of the student guide which we created last year with the revised parent guide, which has been written by the SENCO and the Admissions Manager. This will also give students information about each departmental area and each subject area will be setting a task which can be completed over the summer holidays. Additionally, we are also setting the ‘Westbourne Wonder Transition Challenge’, which allows students to complete activities related to different subject areas, but also promotes activities for physical and emotional wellbeing. Furthermore, all students are in Houses and each House has completed a welcome video to introduce themselves to students and communicate the ethos of the House and the academy.
We are obviously conscious that we need to offer extra support to parents to deal with any last minute queries or allay any concerns. We are currently thinking about holding a picnic or afternoon tea event with full social distancing before the end of the Summer Term and possibly repeating the event towards the end of the summer holidays as well.
To support our more vulnerable learners, one of our Teaching Assistants has created a Year Six Social Story about Transition. This has been shared with Suffolk County Council and is on the Suffolk Learning website as an example of good practice. SENDIASS have also shared our work when they are talking to parents about transition. Our Teaching Assistant has also created another social story for students in other year groups about coming back to school in September, which is also being shared within the county. Our ASD mentor has also supported some ASD students through phone calls and has also devised a guide for ASD students and their families. He is also asking for feedback from families so he can best support students when they start Westbourne.
Finally, we are in the process of creating keyrings for all Year Six students who will be attending Westbourne. These keyrings were given to selected students prior to lockdown who found them extremely useful. We will be providing them for the whole of Year Seven as something which can support them with coming to Westbourne and which they can refer to when needed.
Maxine Abbott and Richard Hawkes