An investigation into children's positioning and agency in changing school contexts: primary to secondary school transition

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


Transition from primary to secondary school is a major milestone in children’s educational journeys. Transitions are characterised by psychological adjustments to changing expectations and a perceived dip in academic achievement whilst forming new relationships (Riglin et al. 2013, West et al. 2010). Topping (2011) emphasises that there are differences in the expectations and perceptions of teachers and children. However, there is limited evidence about children’s experiences of changing schools from an agentic point of view whereby children are seen as actively shaping their positioning in the contexts they occupy.
This paper uses transition as a lens to capture children’s agency in the process of changing contexts. A group of students were followed from Year 6 into Year 7 with a particular focus on their agency and engagement in formal interactions with teachers and more informal situations with their peers. A series of qualitative case studies were developed to illustrate different transition pathways and positioning trajectories. The study identified mismatches between the way that teachers position children and how children see themselves in their schools, highlighting the relational nature of experiences. This paper focuses on two children whose stories, elicited through children’s voice methods and analysed through the theoretical frameworks of Bourdieu (Grenfell 2012) and Bernstein (2000), highlight mismatches in children’s experiences and teachers’ perceptions of the children. The first case study illustrates a child positioned by her teachers as the ‘ideal student’ in relation to her academic engagement. However, her positioning was intentional to accrue relevant capital from being viewed in a particularly positive light. In exploring her experiences of schooling, she appeared to question the authority and pedagogic intentions of teachers presenting different positioning from that assigned by teachers. The second case study focuses on a child who was largely invisible in his primary school. The change of school contexts provided him with an opportunity to negotiate fresh positions, accumulating relevant social capital and friendships. This led to recognition on both academic and personal level, whereby he was seen as capable but in need of guidance in order to fit into educational discourses and address his ‘eagerness’ to be noticed.
The findings illustrate the unique engagement and positioning of children in the context of changing schools. By focusing on agency, the study raises questions about how children experience schooling if they are seen as successful based on arbitrary positioning in relation to academic success or as needing guidance to fit into dominant pedagogic discourses. I argue that children’s agency and positioning in school contexts is much more complex that the notion of an ‘ideal’ or ‘too eager’ student. What emerged was that teachers were more preoccupied with children’s disengagement and need to mould their positioning to fit within pedagogic discourses rather than individual agency as a resource. Thus children’s agency not being recognised raises questions about the organisation of classrooms and power imbalance in teacher-student relationships.
Period11 Sep 2019
Event titleBritish Educational Research Association Annual Conference 2019
Event typeConference
LocationManchester, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational