The programme helping to ease the primary to secondary school transition

Second level is a big change in a student’s life and preventing regression is key to success

This September around 70,000 children are embarking on one of life’s significant changes: the start of secondary school.

After eight years of being surrounded by classmates they have known since junior infants, they are catapulted into an unfamiliar world of lockers, complicated timetables, new demands from teachers, new social circles and - as if that wasn’t enough - puberty,

The effect of transition from primary to post-primary school has alarmed educators with evidence that many children end up regressing in their first year.

Research by UK academic Maurice Galton reported that up to 40 per cent of pupils experienced a “hiatus” in academic progress during the first couple of months at second level.


A study by the ESRI also found that at least 20 per cent of students take a long period to settle in, particularly pupils with less self-confidence and poor self-image or those from Traveller or non-Irish backgrounds.

Issues such as bullying, separation from friends, long commutes and different teaching styles are all issues which have emerged as challenges in bridging the primary/secondary divide.

These issues can have long-term effects on student well-being and academic performance, according to research.

This year, a series of new initiatives are underway in schools and youth clubs to help young people make this transition a success, especially in disadvantaged areas.

Parents teaching parents

In Limerick, home school liaison teachers are working with parents to help their children make the journey as smooth as possible.

Parents learn about the transfer process, filling out the post-primary application forms, understanding the education system in Ireland, how schools operate and run, how to get the best from the education system, the exam process, the points system and the CAO.

Austin Newman, a home-school liaison teacher at St John’s Girls and Infant Boys School, Limerick city, is part of a team which has trained more than 20 parents to deliver this programme.

“Some parents might not have finished secondary school or they might have a bad taste in their mouth about education. School may not have been for them but they still want the best for their children so we want to help bridge the gap,” he says.

Training parents is key, as parents are more likely to listen to each other, he says.

“It’s so much more powerful because there’s an element of trust, and relationships build between the parents delivering it. They trust them, they know them – they are neighbours, colleagues and friends.”

The transfer programme is helping parents feel more confident and empowered about their child’s transfer from primary to post-primary, Newman says.

A big issue for parents in Limerick, for example, is securing a place for their child in secondary school, with waiting lists the norm.

“We’re trying to help alleviate any fears parents might have about school choice as they may put a certain school on top of their list but a choice further down could be a better fit for their child,” he says.

Irish Youth Foundation

The Irish Youth Foundation is also funding new programmes that are supporting young people in moving to second-level.

Niall McLoughin, the foundation’s chief executive, says the Next Step programme is based on a toolkit which is being made available for free online to groups working with young people in youth work settings.

The programme, which runs from sixth-class right to the end of first year, encourages young people to build self-confidence, as well to express any fears or concerns they may have.

At the Solas Project in Dublin’s south-west inner city, the youth group says it has been using the programme to help dozens of young people.

In working with some young people in prison, project workers found a striking pattern of them who linked many of their difficulties to adjusting to second-level.

“It’s a complete upset to what they are used to: new faces, longer commutes, extra homework. And combine that with whatever they may be going through at home or elsewhere,” says Derek Murphy, project co-ordinator with the Solas Project.

Now, the organisation works with local schools and teachers and provides a series of after-school activities all the way up to the end of first-year, using the Next Step toolkit.

“We do supported homework and there’s the option to talk through things with mentors and volunteers, whether it’s bullying, confidence issues, whatever. The idea is to make sure no one feels alone and to create a supportive environment.”

Alex (13) is one of the young people who has taken part. She says she had a tough time in primary school, but has adjust ed well to second-level.

“ It’s been great to talk about things going through my head. When you talk, it makes you feel better,” she says.

“I’m going into second year and I feel much better than last year. I did get a bit bullied, but I was able to cope with it. I used to be very quiet... now, I’m really loud!”

Dylan, who is also starting second year, says it has helped boost his self-belief.

He has flourished in his first year: he was moved up to a higher class mid-way through the year; and then he got a place on the school chess team. He even won a tournament along the way.

“It’s been good. I enjoy school... It’s all been great,” he says.

Janice Hughes: ‘I didn’t realise the options that were there or about school choice’

When her son was due to start secondary school, Janice Hughes says she didn’t know much about what was involved.

Due to the demand for school places in Limerick, for example, parents are required to fill out a CAO-type form listing secondary school preferences for their child.

“I went to just one open night at a secondary school. They handed me the form and I filled it in; I didn’t realise the options that were there or about school choice,” she says.

After taking part in the home-school liaison programme, all that has changed. Now, she helps other parents to prepare for the journey into second-level.

“It’s an amazing course and I’d recommend it to anyone. It prepares you in ways beyond your child going to primary school,” she says.

“It lets you see what options there are for your child and what supports are there for parents. Some parents themselves may not have had the best experience at school or didn’t complete all their education so it’s a great resource to be able to come along and ask questions and get advice that you need.”

Parents learn about open nights, school waiting lists, transport to schools, services for children with special needs, school lockers and all the things they need to know about bridging the gap between primary and secondary school, she says.

Open nights held at secondary schools can be intimidating and overwhelming for some parents. Hughes says the programme helps allay those concerns.

“When you go to an open night, there are so many parents there. You go there with your child and may not be sure what to ask or to check if the school has special needs facilities for instance.

“We help research schools and parents come back to us at the workshops and are better informed about where to send their child to school.”

In numbers: Primary to secondary school 25%: Proportion of second years who "like school very much", according to the Growing Up in Ireland study. 36%: Proportion of first years who "love school very much"

40%: Proportion of children whose academic progress can stall when they move to second level, based on UK research

20%: Proportion of students who take a month or more to settle into second level, based on ESRI research.