Big Fish, Little Fish, Cardboard Box: The Risk of KS2/KS3 Transition

Big Fish Little Fish Cardboard Boxaa

I can’t be certain but I’m pretty sure the dance move referenced in the title of this post is a familiar one to most. If you’re a teacher or connected to an educational establishment of some sort, no doubt this piece of simple choreography will have featured at a number of work Christmas parties, or, if you have a quick rummage through some archived home video footage, I’m sure it would appear in the background somewhere.

aaBig Fish Little Fishaa
For the rigid dads, the well-rehearsed side-steppers or the uncomfortable public movers, it’s great. It offers a welcome blast of structure in the middle of a music track in which, for some, a whole three and a half minutes of freestyle is far too daunting. However, for the more advanced, the rhythm lovers and the naturally gifted movers, this prescriptive routine is a cumbersome straight jacket. The expectation to follow somebody else’s stiff series of lifeless arm gestures leaves them feeling confined. The beautifully-liberated butterfly that once carelessly flitted across the dance floor quickly becomes a caged creature, restricted by bars and limited by reduced expectations.


While only a metaphor, this is the best way I can describe my lingering concern for the transition between KS2 and KS3. In a previous post (here), I described my career change from primary to secondary teaching. I don’t regret it for a minute. I loved many things about working with younger students but, for me personally, I get great satisfaction out of my role as Literacy Leader, working closely with slightly older students and staff to raise literacy levels across the school.

Having taught at the upper end of KS2, preparing classes of Year 6 students for SATs and subsequently the impending school transfer, but also welcoming in new classes of Year 7s the other side of the transition, I’ve seen it from both sides. I’m privileged to have experienced this ‘coming of age’ journey as an observer, recognising those students that would once consider themselves the ‘big fish’ in their comfortable bubble of primary school familiarity, inevitably shrink into a new ‘little fish’ identity, in what can often feel like a strange new world of awkwardness and unfamiliarity.
KS2 transferaa

I’m keen to point out here that I’ve little doubt there are many schools, like my own, that have great transition programmes in place for new students. I know for sure that where I teach, we have a number of different pathways for new starters and do our best to draw the most useful information out of our baseline testing and feedback from feeder primary schools in order to best support our students. It is crucial to build a strong foundation of pastoral support early on to minimise turbulence in this delicate transfer.

However, I do feel compelled to share a quick reflection.

I sometimes wonder if there’s a bizarre warp-like divide between primary and secondary. While we claim to understand bits about each other, in reality there is very little crossover between the two. And, in the profession we’re in working with vulnerable young people, I’m not sure that the norm of minimal overlap is the best way forward. Both educationally and socially, I’m convinced that when students reach the end of Year 6, they are incredibly capable of so much. And yet, by the time they reach secondary, they appear almost inept at packing their own bag or chewing their own food. It seems to me that, in addition to the natural 6-week summer ‘dip’ in educational performance, when they arrive at Year 7 (at least initially), they can perhaps sometimes feel confined by this sense of  a cage or by the ‘cardboard box-inducing’ expectations placed upon them. The fact they are now the ‘little ones’ again after a year of feeling like they ruled the school can lead students towards conforming to this ‘brand new’ label that is sometimes prescribed.

box-girl aa

I’m extremely pleased that as part of an INSET day approaching, my school Leadership Team have decided to send staff out into local primary schools, to get an idea of the way they run and the pedagogy that is common across them. I firmly believe this is going to have some really positive effects and am excited by the potential outcomes.

As a keen advocate of the much-discussed concept of a ‘Growth Mindset’ by Carol Dweck (see here), explored in some fantastic blogs highlighted below, I am of the belief that the education experience should not be limited by our teacher-led expectations. Over-assessment and repeated reference to predicted grades are both common causes for a reduced interest in learning and result in either a strained, a half-hearted or even reluctant push for excellence. Joe Kirby quotes Dylan Wiliam, reminding us of the unhealthy relationship we can develop with levels (and thus model to our impressionable students), in his excellent post on how assessment is shackling schools here.  This current educational debate is often raised in relation to upper KS3/KS4 students who are nearing GCSEs and beyond.
However, my experience of transition leads me to hope otherwise. This extremely powerful concept of a ‘growth mindset’ over a fixed one asserts that constant reference to target grades and fixed expectations is not constructive in developing a student’s belief that they can always reach greater success. This freedom-giving approach to learning is one that needs to be taught and nurtured from early on in the educational journey. In my current role where I am – based in the SEN department, I would hope that mainstream teachers at all levels, would treat our students who possess real learning obstacles in just the same way as their peers, encouraging them to realise that ‘the possibilities are endless’ for them too (to steal a well-known publicity slogan). And it’s up to us, as facilitators of learning, to establish a comfortable learning environment that offers appropriate scaffolding for ALL students to achieve their full potential.

To me, the teacher who can model a successful transition between KS2 and KS3 is one that has mastered the sensitive balance – not only in establishing a comfortable environment by recognising the real needs of these ‘little fish’ in their big new tank, but also recognising the potential they have to be the ‘big fish’ again very quickly, given the right conditions.


Mindset aa

Alex Quigley, in his brilliant post on “‘The Butterfly Effect’ in Schools” references Ron Berger’s ‘The Ethic of Excellence’ and asks:

What conditions do I need to create for ‘butterflies’ to flourish?”

This is a healthy question we need to be asking ourselves regularly – and responding to – in order to minimise the possibility of trapping students into that metaphorical cardboard box. It is possible, in my opinion, to lift the lid on learning and success by developing a culture across the entire school that subscribes to the notion of limitless expectations.


10 thoughts on “Big Fish, Little Fish, Cardboard Box: The Risk of KS2/KS3 Transition

  1. Found this interesting – thank you.

    I was a deputy in a 4-18 school and then head of a 7-18 school. There are definitely some advantages of all-through schools when it comes to KS2/KS3 transition. Do you have any thoughts about this?

    1. Jill,

      Thanks for your comment. After receiving a lot of interest on this post via twitter etc. I’ve decided to do a ‘Part 2’ to this post, going into more specific detail about how I see the transition from KS2 to KS3 improving.

      Your question re all-through schools is a good one, and one I’m not sure I’m fully decided on. There’s obvious pros and cons to both. In 4-18 schools, you have the benefit of familiarity… the site, daily routines, staff, peers, journey to and from school, understanding of behaviour expectations, knowledge of pastoral support avenues etc. Clearly there are many reasons why this is a positive option for some.

      Drawbacks could include: missing out on the opportunity to start afresh with the onset of teen years, not being exposed to wider views and life perspectives from having new classmates/teachers, less of a need to develop independence due to remaining in the same environment, less opportunity to explore alternative subjects or visit places that may be available in other establishments. etc.

      I’d be keen to research this further in relation to performance success at KS4/KS5, considering the ideal to nurture a ‘growth mindset’ in students. Is it stimulated by such a big change or stilted, I wonder?

      Interested to hear your own thoughts on the above…

      I won’t ramble on as would rather formulate thoughts into a sequel here, but I do think there’s a number of incredibly simple things that schools (both primary and secondary) could put in place, led by the leadership at the top and adopted by staff at all levels, that could seriously improve the delicate process of transition. For me, the ‘takeaway’ here is that, essentially, communication is what it’s all about… be that between junior-middle school teachers or primary-secondary. It’s a rocky time for everyone – staff, parents and not least, the students! Anything we can do to ensure a smooth bridge is built has surely got to be a good thing?


  2. Look forward to your sequel, Josie – but just a few thoughts about the all-through set up:

    The advantages of the 4-18 or 7-18 school is the single ethos and the fact that you build a sense of ‘belonging’ across all key stages. But each key stage is different in that the teaching is delivered by sector specialists who know how best to cater for children in that age range, under the ‘one school’ umbrella. So what is on offer does change/develop as the children change, and in my experience they don’t get bored/think it’s ‘more of the same’.

    It does have all sorts of opportunities in terms of communication (which I agree is key) and relationship-building. In the school where I was head, the Junior School subject co-ordinators liaised closely with the Senior School Heads of Dept, to mutual benefit. Some Senior School subject specialists taught across the Junior School too (eg PE, Music, Drama, some MFL) and in Year 6 we did more to prepare pupils for Year 7 – eg they had Bio, Phys and Chem lessons (as opposed to Science) taught by Senior School specialists in Senior School labs.

    We worked hard on continuity/coherence and trying to ensure pupils didn’t go through the ‘bored or bewildered’ stage I had sometimes experienced in Year 7 in 11-18 schools.

    We did have numbers of new pupils joining in Year 5, Year 7 and Year 9, so the community did change and was ‘refreshed’ in some ways – and we needed to ensure that those who hadn’t had the 7-18 experience weren’t disadvantaged.

    I’m not saying it’s a perfect system – you still need to work hard on communication, but having teachers teaching across the key stages was a good way of building understanding and mutual respect.

  3. ..and I should have said the pastoral continuity/support was excellent – staff tutoring Year 7 pupils certainly weren’t starting from a low knowledge base, though they DID try to give pupils the opportunity to make a fresh start if their Junior School years hadn’t been as positive as they could have been.

  4. Hi Josie
    Thanks for bringing your blog to my attention I enjoyed reading it.
    My blog was really a bit of therapy and I have written more about transition in another post on caring teaching.
    The importance of a good transition from Primary to Secondary is difficult to underestimate. We spend a lot of school resource on developing this and trying to capture any child flagged as vulnerable be that through social need or academic need. Where we have made big progress this year is making sure that the curriculum is more exciting and challenging when they get into classes.

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