The transition from primary to secondary school is known to be worrying for many pupils. They have to adapt to a more challenging school setting with different academic structures and expectations. They have to interact with new teachers and peers leaving behind what is known, secure and routine . A significant minority of pupils experience a range of difficulties in adjusting to secondary school ,evidenced by a drop in performance, unreliable attendance, behaviour problems and increased anxiety.
But its often forgotten that the social and academic challenges for pupils are just as real in the transition from secondary school to college and Higher Education. Young people are moving from one familiar learning environment to another very different one, requiring a different set of skills. For example: self-belief, self-reflection, resilience, critical thinking, independent learning and, crucially, management of expectations.
Many, particularly from the most disadvantaged cohort, are ill prepared for it.
A recent Roundtable this month, hosted by Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of University of Buckingham , chaired by Mary Curnock Cook, looked at the issues affecting students in this transition. Sir Anthony said that in his over 20 years of running secondary schools it had become very clear to him that there was a signal lack of connectivity and understanding between the secondary and Higher Education sectors. Schools don’t think that what happens in Universities has much to do with them, and vice versa. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Research for his booklet for the Social Market Foundation ’Solving the Conundrum: Teaching and learning at British universities’ revealed very low levels of knowledge and interest from HEIs in what is actually happening in schools. Dr Harriet Jones, of UEA, has developed a particular interest in students transition from sixth forms/colleges to Universities, developing Pre-University courses for students which are used in over 300 schools to help prepare students for this transition.
Dr Jones said there was an obvious chronic mismatch between what students expected from university study and what they actually experienced. Surveys have shown that students, before they go to university, really don’t think much about the academic challenges and transition that they face and what skills they may require to cope with their course work at university – instead, they think almost entirely about the social transition. You have to understand young people’s perceptions and expectations to have a deeper understanding of the nature of the challenges they face in transition. For example, a survey referenced by Dr Jones , found that 80% of those young people surveyed thought that all their university work would get personal feedback from a tutor and a similar percentage thought that a tutor would look at the first draft of their work. So, differing expectations are a consistent and widespread problem. Other Surveys, including the NSS, make it abundantly clear that young people believe that Universities are not delivering what they expected they would deliver. This disjunction between their expectations and what they actually experience, needs to be addressed pro-actively. A better and deeper shared understanding between students and universities has to be developed. . They need to be informed – ie, this is what will happen in your first year and this is how you can prepare for it. . Sixth formers are not being told what university is like and how it differs from the school learning environment. In schools they are programmed to be taught by teachers to pass the test and exams. The system is assessment driven. That is what they are used to and prepared for. At University it’s a different learning environment. More of a partnership model where individuals need agency and self-efficacy, working with their tutors to develop as learners, needing more self-motivation and initiative and without the disciplined structure afforded by a school environment.
So, if there is a different approach to teaching and learning why don’t we better prepare young people for it? And who should take responsibility? The answer is probably both schools and universities.
There are worries that a lack of funding in schools, colleges and sixth forms is serving to narrow the curriculum offer, further making it even less likely that pupils will have the skills they need when they arrive in higher education. So there is surely scope for universities to step up to the plate on this and perhaps dedicate some of their outreach funds to address this challenge.
Through Pre-University study courses and support in the first year at University there are a range of interventions that can help. But we first have to acknowledge that a problem exists. The Brilliant Club has been doing some interesting work in this area. In seeking to increase the number of pupils from under-represented backgrounds (those on Pupil Premium etc) progressing to highly-selective universities , it mobilises the PhD community to share its academic expertise with state schools through its Scholars Programme and Researchers in Schools, running academic enrichment programmes. Students do apparently get a real sense of what will be required of them from people who have been through the process who act as mentors.
Dr Jones suggested that good sixth form preparation for HE, might include, for example
- 3 A Levels
- An Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)
- Core Maths
- Pre-University skills course
Much more clearly needs to be done . To be fair some universities are already on the case, but the time has come for a more structured systematic and coherent approach. It needs more leadership from the sector, resources and political backing, to gain real momentum .