Lost in transition?


Signposting the way to a smooth transfer to mainstream secondary school for the child with Down’s syndrome

As it becomes increasingly the norm for children with Down’s syndrome (DS) to complete their primary education in mainstream primary schools, there is an ever increasing expectation that these children will transfer into mainstream secondary schools along with their peers.

The reaction of secondary schools has been very mixed. Many teachers find the idea of including such a child daunting and can be quite apprehensive. However, as the numbers of well included children increase every year, experience shows that teachers do have the skills to understand these pupils particular needs and are able to teach them effectively alongside their classmates.

Research confirms that children with DS do better both academically and socially in inclusive settings, leading to a more rounded and enabling experience which takes them forward into further education (FE) and adult life more effectively.

However, many schools continue to put parents off giving their children this opportunity, due to uncertainty and a fear that making the appropriate adjustments will be beyond the skill of their staff. To families looking for secondary placements, the thought of a busy secondary school environment is even more daunting when it is accompanied by an unwelcoming and uncertain attitude from staff members at the receiving school. Many primary schools can also be nervous that vulnerable children may not cope in the hurly burly of a secondary setting. It remains true that very few youngsters with DS are ever assessed as “ready” for the next step in their life, until they are actually propelled into it .

So how can we prepare for a successful transition from primary to secondary school, and what will make it easier for the child, the school and teaching staff to feel successful and positive about the experience?

Start planning early
Year 5 is the time to start looking at prospective secondary schools, prior to the annual review. The most sensible option is the school to which most of the children from the primary school feed into, as the child will be well supported by the familiar peer group and friends. The Year 5 review should, ideally, include both primary and secondary staff to facilitate a seamless plan which takes into account the pupil’s strengths, successes and needs. A planning meeting should soon follow to allow primary and secondary staff to set tasks and ensure that everyone knows who has responsibility for them.

It is important that secondary staff have an opportunity to see the child operating in the familiar and secure primary setting to appreciate the adjustments which have been made. The primary school can pass on a personal profile of the child, describing skills and weaknesses. Exchange days for the teaching assistants (TAs) to share experiences can also be a big help.

Year 6 review meeting
The Year 6 review should be held in the autumn term to ensure that there is enough time to develop and implement the transition plan. It should include everybody involved with the child from primary and  secondary and consider:

  • how home-school communication is managed and enabled
  • how support staff will be organised to ensure continuity
  • how to access the curriculum and maintain targets and individual education plan (IEP) goals
  • how to arrange secondary groupings to ensure that the child will have familiar and supportive peers
  • how to arrange additional visits to maximise the child’s knowledge and experience of the new setting
  • how secondary school staff will develop an understanding of the specific learning profile of the child with DS
  • available lunchtime options (queuing at canteen versus packed lunch)
  • what alternatives there are to the playground (such as lunch clubs and nurture groups).

Staff training in secondary school
Some staff members may feel anxious, inexperienced or simply lacking in confidence. Part of the transition plan must include training. Consider formal INSET on subjects such as learning profile, use of support and differentiation.

Learning support
The use of TAs in primary and secondary can be very different. Secondary schools often use a number of  subject based TAs rather than one child based TA. The use of a key worker TA has been very successful in some schools where this TA will usually spend 60 per cent or more of their time with the child, and will have time to liaise with the other, often subject based, staff who will work with the pupil during the week. A range of TAs in this pattern will avoid over dependency, allow the development of subject expertise and provide flexibility in the event of staff absence.

Social inclusion
The development and maintenance of friendships should always be a focus and be included in the child’s IEP. Many children with DS will require help and support at lunch and break times, free study periods and other times when social skills are paramount.

Partnership and communication
The demands and pressures of secondary school are greater than those in primary school, and staff, pupils and parents may take longer to adjust to the new routines and environment, so establishing good communication is even more important than before. Apart from the statutory annual review, are there other routine strategies that would help to make everybody feel involved and positive about the transition? Do the parents know what the child needs to bring to school on each day? Does the child know the timetable or have access to a visual one? Does the staff know how to let parents know about changes to routine, and does everybody know who to get in touch with when problems or questions arise? A home-school communication book would be an essential for children with communication and memory difficulties.

Often overlooked, homework is a particular area of concern. All homework tasks should be written down in full with a clear explanation of exactly what is expected of the child, which may well not be the same as for other pupils. This individualised approach should make the task meaningful, relevant and achievable.

What helps to make secondary inclusion successful?
Understanding the purpose of mainstream inclusion for pupils with DS is essential. Plenty of recent publications (see below) describe clearly the profile and needs of these pupils, as well as strategies for their successful inclusion and examples of good practice.

Alternative accreditation accommodates the less academic child. Asdan and similar schemes have proved immensely successful with a whole range of children in secondary school, including those with DS. Teachers are permitted to modify programmes of study to provide all pupils with relevant and appropriately challenging work at each key stage.

Further information
Bob Black is Education Officer at the Down’s Syndrome Association (DSA).

Useful publications from the DSA:
Including Children with Down’s syndrome: Secondary.
Education Support Pack for Schools: Mainstream – Primary and Secondary.
Alternative Accreditation at Key Stage 4.
Transition from Primary to Secondary School.

Useful websites:


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