Making a positive primary to secondary transition in Music

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by Dimitra Kokotsaki

Moving from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 3 can be a big upheaval for many pupils. Schools work hard to ease the transition with a range of policies, plans, mechanisms and strategies. But do they always work?

Research findings published this week in the British Journal of Music Education, suggest that the potential benefits that good quality music education can have on children, may be compromised if the transition to secondary school is not supported effectively.

The study, ‘Pupil voice and attitudes to music during the transition to secondary school’, conducted by lead researcher Dr Dimitra Kokotsaki, from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) is part of a larger project funded by the Nuffield Foundation, aimed at sharing ideas about how the primary-secondary transition in music can be improved and supporting the professional development of teachers through the sharing of expertise.

Enthusiasm and anticipation

Dr Kokotsaki’s study is based on qualitative data gathered through 97 focus-group interviews and questionnaires from pupils in schools in the North East of England. The data was gathered over a two year period and explores which components of pupils’ school music lessons seem to contribute to them feeling happier about music at the beginning of secondary school.

Kokotsaki’s research indicates that Year 6 pupils are enthusiastic about the opportunities of studying music in secondary school. However, these positive pupil attitudes typically felt in the first term of Year 7 decline as the year progresses.

Importantly, this paper specifically highlights the factors which seem to increase pupils’ levels of satisfaction towards music by allowing their voices to be heard at the beginning of secondary school.

Pupil voice research has been recognised in the last fifteen years for its potential, among other benefits, to establish a more collaborative style of teacher-learner relationship.

Exploring pupils’ views

Dr Kokotsaki conducted semi-structured interviews with pupils. Questions were based around key themes, but pupils also had the opportunity to raise any issues that were important to them. The interview questions covered:

  • Pupils’ enjoyment of music in their primary and secondary schools
  • What musical activities pupils were involved in
  • Whether pupils were looking forward to their music lessons
  • What their expectations about music were
  • What they would change if they were given the chance.

Increased expectations

Dr Kokotsaki’s exploration of pupils’ thoughts and feelings about music at the start of secondary school revealed their enthusiasm and positive anticipation about music in their new schools.

Pupils looked forward to the transfer with increased expectations about what secondary school music would offer, with many pupils being impressed by the bigger spaces, the range of musical instruments available in secondary school as well as the subject specialisms of their new teachers.

However, the study found that, regardless of the quality and breadth of their musical life in primary schools, pupils seem to like music less from the end of Year 6 to the end of Year 7.

What pupils most enjoy

Pupil interviews and questionnaires revealed defining components which, when present in music lessons, lead to greater pupil enjoyment and satisfaction.

  1. Pupils were eager to be actively involved in practical work in their music classroom, as opposed to ‘sitting and writing’. This involvement might include:

    • Singing
    • Composing
    • Performing
    • Playing a variety of instruments
    • Making music in groups.
  2. Pupils expressed a desire to be involved in the decision-making process where they felt they had an element of choice regarding the content and the nature of their musical involvement.

  3. It was not just the fun aspect of their music lessons that pupils focused on, but also experiencing a sense of progression and ‘to try to get better at what you already do’ was seen as an important factor.

The teachers’ role is crucial

Significantly, the role of the teacher is considered to be the key determinant of pupils’ musical experiences, as he/she would set the musical tasks to the right level for all pupils to make appropriate progress.

Pupils cited their appreciation of their ‘great, proper teachers’ and teachers helping ’if you get stuck’, as opposed to those pupils who felt they were ‘sent off with a piece of paper and have to do the rhythms but we don’t really get it explained’.

The importance of the music teacher in supporting pupils’ active musical involvement, giving clear guidance and an element of choice to the pupils is clear from this study.

Increasing opportunities for input, choice and decision-making have also been identified as enhancing an individual’s perceived autonomy, self-esteem and motivation, and can provide the most likely route to the enhancement of a student’s quality of life during the transition to secondary school.

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About the author

Dimitra is a lecturer at the School of Education and a member of the Education Evaluation Group at the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University. She teaches undergraduate and postgraduate modules on the Arts in Education. She has been principal investigator or co-investigator in a number of research projects including leading the evaluation of the Restorative Approaches initiative in County Durham and a recent piece of research funded by the Nuffield Foundation about improving the primary-secondary transition in music education at the North East of England. She is one of the authors of the Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit and is currently the lead process evaluation researcher for the Calderdale writing intervention funded by the Education Endowment Foundation.

Her research interests include the identification and improvement of the educational, behavioral and socio-psychological conditions in schools with a specific focus on pupil creativity and engagement.