There are a number of key transitions during young peoples' education that shape their learning, development, wellbeing and engagement with school. The two key transitions occur when children move into the Prep year of primary school and when they move from primary into Year 7 of secondary school. Other transitions that can affect a child's school experience include when they transition from grade to grade within a school and when they move between schools.
While a transition is generally considered to be a single event or year of schooling, the process of transitioning usually occurs over a more extended period of time. It involves preparing the child to move, transferring them and their information, and a period after the move during which they settle into their new year level or school. The transitioning process can be both challenging and transformative for the child. The effect on the child's academic outcomes and engagement with school can be monitored to provide an indication of how successfully the transition was made.
The transition into Prep marks the start of a child's formal full-time education and the move away from play-based learning into a more structured learning environment. The move from primary to secondary school usually occurs around the onset of puberty, a time of significant developmental change in the middle years—Year 5 to Year 8. This increases the likelihood of difficulties in adjusting, and can ultimately impact on learning outcomes.
The success of a transition is likely to be influenced by a broad range of factors—including prior learning and achievement, socio-economic and cultural background, disability and learning difficulties, and gender.
The objective of the audit was to examine how effectively early childhood education and care providers, schools and the Department of Education and Training (DET) are supporting the transitions of children in the education system. The audit examined whether DET has developed and implemented an effective and well-researched approach to support schools and early childhood education and care providers, and whether they in turn efficiently and effectively support children and their families during transitions.
DET has developed a comprehensive, well-researched framework to support early‑years transitions. It has improved access to high-quality kindergarten programs and has provided funded programs and resources to support schools. These actions have contributed to improved outcomes for children transitioning into Prep, including their developmental status and academic readiness for school.
In contrast, DET does not have a strategy or framework for managing middle-years transitions. Despite the overall pattern of a decline in engagement and academic outcomes as children move into secondary school, there are some encouraging outcomes associated with middle-years transitions. These include improvements in children's' engagement with school and parents' opinions on how well the schools transitioned their child.
DET's Strategic Plan 2013–17 emphasises the importance of middle-years transitions and its school funding model encourages schools to focus on improving middle-years outcomes. However, it provides little general guidance to schools on how to effectively transition middle-years children. The guidance that it does provide is limited to focusing on supporting transitions for vulnerable cohorts of children, such as those with additional learning needs.
Schools face significant challenges in dealing with student transitions including efficiently transferring and accessing student information, establishing and maintaining effective communications with other schools and early childhood education and care providers, and monitoring student outcomes. The extent to which schools have been effective in dealing with these challenges varies significantly and is highly dependent on the capabilities of the school staff and leadership team. Without a mechanism for better practice being identified and shared, the opportunities for schools and DET to engage in continuous improvement are limited. However, the better support provided by DET for early-years transitions is associated with improved performance in this area.
While the push to increase school autonomy has resulted in some innovative approaches from schools to tackle transition challenges, greater support is needed from DET, particularly for middle-years transitions.
Early-years outcomes have improved
Prep teachers are increasingly assessing new Prep children as being ahead of the expected levels in English and mathematics. In 2013–14 almost all children in Victoria were assessed by their Prep teachers as being at, or six months above, the expected level in English (99 per cent) and mathematics (97 per cent). This standard has been maintained over the past five years.
Since the first assessment in 2009, Victoria has reduced the proportion of Prep children who are considered developmentally vulnerable on one or more of the Australian Early Development Census domains—previously known as the Australian Early Development Index. In 2012, Victoria had the lowest proportion of any state (19.5 per cent), however, this still equates to one in five children entering school with at least one assessed developmental vulnerability. Vulnerable cohorts are particularly at risk of falling further behind during transitions.
Kindergarten participation is strongly associated with improved performance in both developmental and academic readiness for schools. Over the past five years, kindergarten program participation levels have risen from 93 per cent to 96 per cent. DET has exceeded its Budget Paper target each year since 2009, although there are weaknesses in the current measure. More could be done to monitor how well children and their families engage with kindergarten throughout the year, and to assess the quality and effectiveness of particular kindergarten programs. This information would better inform DET's actions to improve early‑years transitions.
Mixed outcomes for middle-years students
For middle-years transitions, a range of academic and wellbeing outcome data is available, including academic performance, engagement with school and parents' assessment of children's transitions.
The two key measures of academic achievement are:
- teacher assessments of performance against the Australian Curriculum/Victorian Essential Learning Standards
- the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results.
Performance across these two measures is mixed. While teacher assessments show a drop in performance immediately following the middle-years transition, NAPLAN results show improvements in literacy and numeracy over the same period. However, the NAPLAN writing results appear to be significantly impacted by the transition—with boys most heavily affected.
There has been a steady overall increase in student engagement with school since 2007. However, there is a notable drop in engagement across the middle-years transition period that has not changed over time. Engagement is strongly correlated with academic achievement.
Despite the widely reported discrepancies in performance between boys and girls around the middle-years transition, DET has not prepared gender-specific guidance for schools. Notably, only one of the eight audited secondary schools monitored gender-based student outcomes. It is difficult to see how DET can expect schools to address this known gap unless it provides clear guidance and improved support to schools to monitor and address the issue.
More needs to be done to address transition challenges
Poor and inconsistent practices for transferring student information
The timely and accurate transfer of academic, engagement and personal information student performance information is critical to the success of a transition. In early‑years transitions, DET has taken a significant step towards facilitating this by introducing a standardised Transition Learning and Development Statement (transition statement) for all children. However, it has not produced a comparable document for middle years, meaning that primary schools prepare material in multiple formats and with varying levels of detail to suit the differing needs of secondary schools.
The timely transfer of information is further hampered by various factors:
- Schools lack understanding about the use and disclosure of information—including compliance with privacy legislation—and there is a corresponding lack of consistency in practice. DET has not provided clear guidance and schools are unsure about what information they can transfer and what permissions they need to do so. As a result, student information is not being transferred as efficiently, effectively or completely as it could be.
- Schools have varying capacities to develop and maintain good relationships with the large numbers of early childhood education and care providers and schools their students transition from. This increases their reliance on written information including, for early years, information in transition statements.
- Schools lack dedicated staff resources to transfer academic, engagement and personal information on each child. Only one of the audited schools had resources dedicated to managing or supporting transitions.
To address these barriers DET needs to:
- provide clearer guidance about information disclosure and privacy legislation
- work closely with schools to understand the information needs and challenges associated with middle-years transitions
- standardise the transition of middle-years student information.
Better support needed for vulnerable cohorts
DET provides guidance, funding and support to assist specific groups of vulnerable students to transition effectively into and between schools. These groups include:
- children with additional or complex needs
- gifted and talented children
- children with a language background other than English
- children from Aboriginal backgrounds—in this report the term Aboriginal refers to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Support for these groups has improved over time, but without more detailed, accurate and timely outcomes information, it is not possible to know what impact this support is having.
DET funds a range of early childhood programs designed to assist students to prepare for the transition to school. While it does not fund specific middle-years transition programs, in 2008 it revised its school funding model to weight it more towards the middle years. It is not clear how schools have applied this weighted funding to support transitioning middle-years students.
DET's most significant funded program is the Program for Students with Disabilities (PSD). This $640 million program supports 22 000 government school students with disabilities. However, each child with PSD funding has this reviewed in Year 6. This means that about half of all PSD students have their funding and support modified or cancelled in the period leading into a major transition. Holding the review in Year 7—once the student has transferred into secondary school—would allow a more accurate assessment of their needs in their new school environment.
More needs to be done to understand transition outcomes
It is important that DET has a good understanding of transition-related outcomes so that it can design policies, programs and approaches to address issues that arise. However, it does not routinely examine outcomes for transitioning students and has no reliable information about the outcomes of particular approaches, strategies or methods used by schools. As such, it is difficult to determine the extent to which the outcomes reported in this audit are a direct result of specific actions designed to improve transitions.
While the Victorian Student Number now allows DET to collect and report more reliable student-level data, it does not extend back into early childhood education and care providers. Therefore, it is not currently possible to link participation in early childhood services to early school performance. DET has advised that it plans to improve child‑level monitoring, which will allow this linkage to occur.
Similarly, early childhood education and care providers and schools need access to timely, relevant data to understand whether their actions are effective. In April 2013, DET launched a new School Information Portal to replace the Performance Assessment Report it previously provided to schools. This new system provides schools with improved access to a wider range of performance information.
While this is a significant step forward in allowing schools to better monitor their performance, none of the audited schools had evaluated their approach to transitioning students using this information.
It is clear that early childhood education and care providers and schools are managing transitions well overall. However, DET's current approach to supporting, guiding and monitoring early childhood education and care providers and schools is not helping to break down some of the more entrenched transition outcomes. A new approach is needed to address these issues. Having achieved sustained improvement in some areas, DET now needs to start focusing on tackling the areas where no gains have been made, including where there are differences in outcomes based on gender, geographic location, culture and language.
That the Department of Education and Training:
- reviews all child-level and service-level data collected by it from maternal and child health services, and early childhood education and care providers in order to:
- ensure that the collected information is sufficient and appropriate for the Department of Education and Training to monitor the impact of these services on children's long-term educational outcomes
- develop reporting requirements to collect and record this information in a way that allows the Department of Education and Training to link child-level data collected prior to school with data collected after school enrolment
- reviews the use of early-years transition statements with a particular focus on:
- adequacy of the information captured
- relationships between early childhood and school‑based educators
- training and development for educators in early childhood and school-based settings to develop a shared understanding of the role of both sectors.
That the Department of Education and Training:
3 & 4. develops and monitors transition-related outcomes for both the early years and the middle years including for children identified as most vulnerable during school transitions
- develops a more comprehensive suite of guidance and resources to support schools to transition middle-years students, including:
- clear advice to schools on the use and disclosure of children's information and data
- a standardised minimum set of data for transitioning students
- developing transition networks with geographically similar schools and sharing best practice approaches across the school system
- reviews and improves its systems to allow more timely access to child-level data for schools
- examines the appropriateness of the timing of the Year 6 review for children who receive funding under the Program for Students with Disabilities, and its impact on transition outcomes.
Submissions and comments received
In addition to progressive engagement during the course of the audit, in accordance with section 16(3) of the Audit Act 1994, we provided a copy of this report to the Department of Education and Training with a request for submissions or comments.
We have considered those views in reaching our audit conclusions and have represented them to the extent relevant and warranted. The Department of Education and Training's full section 16(3) submissions and comments are included in Appendix C.