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Jason Lowe asks how can we support students in their transition from GCSE to A-level studies?





“I expected it to be harder, but I don’t think I was expecting it to be as different as it was. I wasn’t expecting there to be as much independent stuff……I knew it was going to be harder but not this much harder”

Many students find the transition between KS4 and KS5 a challenge. Based on exam data, progress in Year 13 is always better than in Year 13. A number of students fail one or more subjects with some leaving Sixth Form at the end of Year 12. With the move to linear A-levels, we need to ensure that progress is consistent across the key stage in order to ensure that student achievement is maximised. This research is intended to be largely localised to our own context and is intended to produce ideas and strategies for all A-level teachers to support transition for all students.

Relevant Reading/Influences

Although research has been carried out on educational transition, it is mainly focused on the primary to secondary transition (occurring at age 9-14 depending on country), and in some small degree on the secondary to tertiary transition (occurring at age 18-19). As a result, the transition between GCSE and A-level studies at 16-17 is significantly under-represented in educational research. The National Foundation for Educational Research’s own literature review “did not identify any individual research studies focusing specifically on post-16 transition” (K. Evans, George, Sharp, Morris`, & Marshall, 2010, p. 35) and found that in the most part research in the this area focused on engaging students who were, or were at risk of being, not in education, employment or training (NEET) (K. Evans et al., 2010, p. 42).


  • Survey Y12 and Y13 students with a view to seeing the difference between them – the idea being that having completed Y12, the Y13 student responses would identify areas which they felt would have been useful in their transition from GCSE to A-level study.
  • Identify the key areas which students feel they need further support in – it is surprising that so many do struggle on and do not ask for support when they need it as they do not wish to be perceived as failing.
  • Follow up with student panels towards the end of the academic year
  • Share findings with staff

Impact on Learning

The results of the October survey were shared with all staff (see Appendix ) – highlighted in particular were the areas which Y12 students seemed to need further clarity.  There appeared to be a lack of consistency in terms of students’ knowledge of some basic areas – such as the content of modules and how they would be assessed.  Although this information was, when checked, shared with the students, it points to the fact that they need constant reinforcement in terms of what they are learning and why they are learning it – in other words connect all learning to ‘the big picture’.

Speaking to student panels after this, the following areas caused the most difficulty for them in terms of making progress – they are organised hierarchically:


  1. Difficulty of work
  2. Time management
  3. Motivation to work
  4. Volume of homework
  5. Pace of work in lessons
  6. Personal organisation
  7. Distractions from friends
  8. Needing to ask for help outside of lessons
  9. Knowing where to access support


I therefore explicitly addressed each of these areas in my own teaching; this provides a challenge for all A-level teachers – balancing content with developing study and organisational skills; however, most students soon follow guidance and consequently reported that their confidence in their studies improved. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this is in motivation to work. We assume that students who have opted to study A-levels and who have exams ahead of them have all the motivation they need; not so in a number of cases. Work in this area is a wider issue and one which requires further consideration as, I would argue, it is this factor which ensures the most success in students.


A number of (often hidden) factors have an impact on a successful transition from GCSE to A-level; how much, for example does the Year Leader from 7-11 affect the dynamic and personality of a Y12 group? Some broad and areas can be addressed however; therefore A-level teachers should bear in mind the following areas when approaching there long and short term planning and delivery of their subject:


Main challenges faced by students in transition

  • Academic challenge
  • Heavy workload
  • Lack of support from staff

Definition of a successful transition

  • Having a level of performance comparable to their performance at school
  • Developing a friendship network
  • Developing into independent learners, particularly the ability to seek help
  • Managing workload effectively

Risk factors for transition

  • Prior performance
  • Study skills
  • Academic orientation and motivation
  • Expectations

Next Steps

With significant change to A-levels commencing September 2015 and with it no opportunity to resit, transition is ever more important.


Survey results:

How clear are you on the content of your courses?

J Lowe Graph 1

How clear are you on the assessment of your courses?

Y12 Y13
Very Clear 10 37
Clear 39 54
Some Knowledge 47 9
Unsure 4 0


J Lowe Graph 2

J Lowe Graph 3

How clear are you on how to make and organise your notes?

Y12 Y13
Very Clear 24 49
Clear 56 43
Some Knowledge 15 9
Unsure 5 0

Graph 4

How clear are you on how to develop your subject knowledge through further reading/activities?

Y12 Y13
Very Clear 16 23
Clear 49 65
Some Knowledge 29 14
Unsure 5 0


J Lowe Graph 5