Exploring and explaining ‘dips’ in motivation
and performance in primary and secondary
Chris Doddington Homerton College, Cambridge
Julia Flutter Homerton College, Cambridge
Jean Rudduck Homerton College, Cambridge
n the drive to raise standards, the Chief Inspector has recently highlighted
I a particular aspect of schooling that needs attention – ‘dips’ in progress in
years 3–4 of primary schooling and in year 8 of secondary schooling. Where
the Chief Inspector identiﬁes the dips on the basis of performance data we
identiﬁed them on the basis of interview data, and where he explains them
largely in terms of ‘unsatisfactory teaching’ we think there are grounds for
broadening the explanation to include issues of school organisation and pupil
In this article we argue that, at particular stages in their school career, both
secondary and primary school pupils’ commitment to learning can become
vulnerable. During post-transitional periods in particular – when pupils have
adjusted to a new regime – organisational features of schooling can combine
with developmental features to produce a restlessness which may affect moti-
vation and performance.
In exploring these issues we use Goffman’s concept of ‘school career’. Its
value, as Goffman (1961, p. 119) explains, is its ‘two-sidedness’: one side is
linked with such things as ‘image of self and self-identity’ while the other con-
cerns the relationship of the individual to the ‘institutional complex’. Hence
pupils’ time in school can be looked at not only in terms of chronological
movement where the yearly passage to another class promises academic pro -
gressionbut also in terms of social progressionand whether pupils’ enhanced
sense of social competence and maturity is being recognised and respected in
the day-to-day encounters of school and classroom.
The year 8 phenomenon
First we look at the situation in secondary schools, using our own research
evidence to open up the issues. One study that we shall draw on1 was con-
ducted in three secondary schools – one in each of three Local Education
Authorities (LEAs) in the Midlands and north of England. It involved one
class in each school and the pupils were followed from year 8 through to the
end of year 11. They were interviewed once a term and the interview data
were contextualised through information gathered from teachers as well as 29
through analysis of school records and documents (see Rudduck et al., 1996).
The advantage of a longitudinal study was that it enabled us to focus on the
pupils’ experiences across the ﬁve years of secondary schooling. (Year 7 was
handled through retrospective comment but the experience of joining ‘the
big school’ was sufﬁciently powerful to prompt easy and vivid recall.)
Our ﬁndings were checked out through interviews with year 8 pupils in
schools taking part in other projects. Pupils’ view of and responses to year 8
were remarkably similar across schools. Data from the longitudinal study are
referenced MYW (‘Making Your Way through Secondary School Study’);
data from the Effective Learning Project2 (supported by Cambridgeshire
LEA) are referenced CAM; data from the Challenge of Year 8 Project3 (sup-
ported by Lincolnshire LEA) are referenced LIN.
Several things emerged from the data that help us to understand why in
year 8 (or towards the end of year 7 and into year 9) some pupils have prob-
lems with motivation and engagement, and hence with performance. First,
we look at issues to do with aspects of school organisation and then at issues
that are to do with pupils’ personal and social development.
Issues to do with school organisation
Year 8: a year which lacks a distinct identity
Data from the longitudinal study suggest that pupils’ engagement with school
tends to peak in years 7 and 11, with the chance to choose subjects (options)
providing a pick-me-up towards the end of year 9. In year 7 pupils’ attention
is captured by the social novelties and risks of the new school (see Harris and
In the past ten years schools have done an enormous amount to ease the
uncertainties of transition but, ironically, teachers’ attempts to ensure that
pupils feel ‘at home’ are balanced by the joining rituals instigated by older
pupils, which ensure that newcomers do not feel comfortable in the new
setting. The new school is exciting but the excitement is laced with anxiety –
as is clear from the words of an 11 year old, interviewed by a journalist, who
has already visited his new school for a day:
The school is absolutely huge. … I ate all my packed lunch at snack time
because I didn’t know where a clock was. … I am worried about people com-
ing up in big gangs. … I’m not used to homework, that’s another problem.
… And if you forget things you get killed. [But] it’s going to be really excit-
ing … [Independent, 7 September 1995]
The excitements of classroom learning may well be in competition with the
excitements of new spaces, new resources, new friends and new teachers.
Engagement is strong again in years 10 and 11 but this time it is driven by
the need to get good grades, and for many pupils it is sustained through
pressure and stress. What is missing for many pupils between the two high
30 points of engagement is a clear understanding of the continuities of learning,
not only in terms of content but also in terms of ways of working. This may
not be surprising, given that each year of secondary schooling is ‘fenced off’
and made relatively self-contained.
The problem is compounded by the lack of a clear and compelling identity
for year 8. ‘In year 7 it’s all new, in year 9 you are doing your options, in year
10 you are starting your GCSEs and in year 11 you are there’ (Y8, CAM).
Year 8 has neither the engaging novelty of year 7 nor the promise of owner-
ship through option choices of year 9; nor does it have the ‘real world’
urgency of years 10 and 11, with their opportunities for exploring the work-
place and their preparation for the ‘serious’ work of the examinations. There
are no obvious excitements and challenges in year 8 that year 7 pupils can
look forward to – except those that individual schools construct. This is the
time when routine sets in, when engagement can ﬂag. ‘You think, “Oh God!
I’ve got this today!” and so on. It gets really boring and you don’t feel excited
any more coming to school’ (Y8, MYW).
Year 8 is a year which teachers claim is about consolidation, but consoli-
dation is not a particularly challenging experience – especially if it means, for
some pupils, revisiting work they did in year 7 or even in year 6.
Year 8 as a ‘not very important’ year
There is a feeling, then, among some pupils that nothing particularly signiﬁ-
cant is happening in year 8 in terms of learning. Indeed, it seems that year 8
may unwittingly be presented, and sometimes treated, as a ‘not very impor-
Some anecdotal evidence helps to make the point. A parent asked her year
8 son why he had so little homework in the summer term and he said that
teachers were tied up with ‘important stuff’ with years 10 and 11. Although
we can understand the pressure on teachers, the situation clearly made the
year 8 pupil feel that his own work was less important. By reinforcing the
impression that the year 11 examinations are what really matters, schools
may be conveying the unintended message to pupils that the earlier years
don’t matter so much – that they are ‘on the back burner’ years.
Year 7 is where you settle in. Year 8 you are settled, which is not that impor-
tant, but once you get to year 9 I think that is where it starts getting more
important. [Y8, CAM]
Year 8 is like our last year of not doing. It’s like being a child again really,
isn’t it? [Y8, CAM]
I always feel like – oh, I shouldn’t be working this hard because it’s only year
8. [Y8, CAM]
Stafﬁng policies may also be contributing to the sense that year 8 is not a very
important year. Some head teachers have said that they usually put their most
challenging teachers with the top sets and/or with the examination groups;
they also think about which teachers are good with year 7 pupils. But it seems
that relatively little attention is paid to the kind of teacher that year 8s need. 31
Our argument is that by the end of year 7 pupils are ready for challenge;
if they are not stretched and excited by the academic content of lessons their
attention can turn away from learning. And later come the regrets: year 10
and 11 pupils who had messed about in years 8 and 9 often found that it was
difﬁcult to catch up.
I wish I’d have kept working a lot harder and actually got a thirst for learn-
ing. I think I just got lax. I think I saw how easy I could take it and just took
the easy life for a couple of years. [Y8, MYW]
I used to mess around quite a lot because I didn’t really think. But it’s too
late now, isn’t it? [Y8, MYW[
Year 8 may be a pivotal year when pupils need to be helped to think and act
strategically in relation to their learning and to understand how a commitment
to learning now can enhance their prospects later. It is a time when pupils may
value opportunities to learn skills of organisation and self-direction. At the
same time schools need to ensure that they are sustaining the view, in all that
they say and do, that year 8 is important and that year 8 pupils matter.
Issues to do with pupils and their sense of themselves as learners
Year 8 is when pupils, no longer the youngest in the school, are conscious of
‘growing up’. They respond positively to opportunities to exercise choice and
to feel some sense of control over their learning. They value occasions when
they are given responsibility, whether for hearing a younger pupil read or
helping to organise a charity event within the school. They like projects and
residential trips. (These often involve an element of challenge and self-direc-
tion.) They want, in their words, ‘to be treated more like an adult’. If this
aspiration is not recognised pupils may seek respect within peer-group hier-
archies and value systems – and their desire for esteem may be expressed in
bullying or through focusing on achievement in activities that readily win
peer-group acclaim but which can, in some circumstances, fuel an anti-acad-
emic learning culture.
Indeed, this is a time when there can be, for many, a tension between the
pull of the peer group and the demands of work in classrooms. By the end of
year 7 pupils ‘know the ropes’ in their new school; it is a time to explore new
friendships and alliances. Andy Hargreaves has arrived at a similar analysis
in relation to pupils in Canadian schools. He suggests, echoing our ﬁndings,
that this is the time when students want to broaden their horizons by mov-
ing outside the tight boundary of the year cohort to meet other students in
school (1996, p. 14). And, as we know, different groups can hold different
attitudes to school work – and the strength of peer pressure can make it dif-
ﬁcult for individual pupils to be seen to commit themselves to ‘academic’
learning. This is a time when pupils use the reactions of signiﬁcant others to
shape their own behaviour (the idea of the ‘mirrored self’: Erikson, 1968).
Teachers and members of the peer group can both be ‘signiﬁcant others’ and
32 it is helpful if both groups value a commitment to learning.
Moreover, at a time when pupils are interested in testing out their own
power, as individuals and as a group, having a good relationship with teach-
ers can be an important element in their commitment to learning; it may help
them to resist the ‘school work isn’t cool’ perspective that often emerges –
and ﬂourishes – at this time.
The years 3–4 phenomenon
What do we know about the dip in primary schools? Shortly after the publi-
cation of the Chief Inspector’s annual report (where he suggests that the dip
can be explained by poor teaching) we consulted, opportunistically, some
heads of local primary schools. We also gathered some relevant data in a
small-scale study4 designed to look at strategies developed by primary schools
to establish a positive learning culture throughout the school. Although the
data are somewhat limited it seemed worth citing some responses, if only to
suggest that the situation is as complex as it is in secondary school.
It is clear that teachers recognise a slowing of pupils’ progress at certain
points in Key Stage 2 (KS2) – with some schools identifying the problems in
year 3 and others in year 4. Some teachers cited reading test results as evi-
dence and others their observations that some pupils seem to be less engaged.
Different teachers offered different explanations of the dip. Some attrib-
uted it to the side effects of the Key Stage 1 tests in year 2; others thought it
was a consequence, direct or indirect, of a transition experience – either
because pupils were moving to a different phase of learning in the primary
sector or because they suffered a temporary loss of conﬁdence caused by a
change in the teaching of reading. And others linked the dip to a burgeoning
interest in peer relationships which could divert interest from classroom
learning. We discuss each of these, brieﬂy, in turn.
Some questions were raised about the dip in relation to the pressure on
teachers to ensure that pupils do well in the KS1 tests in year 2 and in the
KS2 tests in year 6. One head teacher claimed that the dip was ‘caused or at
least exacerbated by “hot-housing” for Key Stage 1 SATs’: children in year 2
are pressed to perform well in certain limited areas for the SATs and this
pressure can produce a certain amount of inﬂated achievement and artiﬁcially
heightened expectation. After the six-week holiday children drop back to
their ‘natural’ levels of achievement. Year 3 teaching is in fact targeted, the
argument goes, to the pupils’ ‘real’ level but there may be what looks like a
dip in performance. Another teacher also thought, although for different rea-
sons, that the dip was a consequence of the year 2 tests: ‘People are only
interested now in end of Key Stage results’ and, because of the tests, ‘Some
schools are packing year 2 classes with extra help. This means classroom
assistance is diverted from other areas of the school, such as years 3 and 4.’
In short, in the ‘in-between years’ – as in secondary schools – the academic
challenge may be relaxed and during the lull pupils may look around and ﬁnd
other interests to pursue and other sources of social satisfaction.
Other comments opened up the idea of transition that was so strong in the 33
secondary school data. We should not forget the upheaval that some pupils
may experience at year 3 as a consequence of either a change of school or a
change of teaching within the same school. One head teacher said that the
KS2 curriculum required a marked change of gear: ‘It certainly feels signiﬁ-
cantly heavier from the teacher’s point of view, and I’m sure the children are
picking this up too.’ The disturbance associated with such a move may well
contribute to a downturn in performance. The sense of upheaval is probably
strongest where pupils move away from a separate infants’ school where
there is a coherent, positive and very distinct early-years learning culture
whose values and principles are shared by all the staff. Such periods of tran-
sition are potentially disturbing, as pupils give their energy and attention to
getting used to new teachers and a new site. And if the energy is not also sus-
tained by the excitements of academic learning, then commitment – and per-
formance – may waver.
There is also the possibility of a transition from one teaching and learning
style, which pupils are familiar with, to another. Take reading as an example.
Recognising the ‘dip’, some teachers support the argument that the reper-
toire of skills built from ‘look and say’ methods and the ‘dissection’ strategy
of ‘analytical phonics’ runs out as a support mechanism at a certain stage in
reading development – most commonly in years 3 and 4. At this point chil-
dren can lose their sense of independence, suffer some loss of conﬁdence, and
this in turn can – temporarily – affect progress.
Whereas some teachers, as we have seen, saw the ‘dip’ as a function of the
way that Key Stage tests can distort teaching and learning, or as a temporary
effect of transition, others saw it as reﬂecting a phase of social curiosity and
a preoccupation with friendships that could result in some pupils distancing
themselves from classroom learning:
By [age] 7–8 children are beginning to be more social and to look to their
friends for approval.
Year 4 is the worst year for children falling out as friends.
At the same time, pupils, once they feel ‘established’ in their new school,
often say that they want to be treated more like an adult and to be trusted
with more responsibility. At such a stage, if learning is not captivating, pupils
can become distracted by the concern with their own status and with their
relationships with their peers. This seems to be true of secondary school
pupils as well as of primary pupils.
We look ﬁrst at a review of research into motivation in the middle years of
secondary schooling (Anderman and Maehr, 1994) and then at research
focusing on the experiences and attitudes of younger pupils.
The distinct contribution of Anderman and Maehr’s review is the bringing
34 together of issues of school organisation and motivation – a relationship that
our own research has also highlighted. Overall, they say, ‘the literature
supports the view of decreased investment [by pupils] in academic activities
and increased investment in non-academic activities during the middle
grades’ (p. 288).
The authors also underline the importance of ‘investing effort’ at this stage
– for this is the time when patterns of achievement open up or close down
particular pathways to careers:
School investment during the middle [years] may have serious and enduring
effects on shaping career patterns and life choices. That this lack of invest-
ment all too often eventuates in dropping out of school before graduation
is disturbing, if not frightening. [p. 289]
They suggest that explanations for the ‘disturbing downturn in motivation at
this time’ (p. 288) lie largely in the mismatch between the environment of
learning in the school (broadly conceived) and pupils’ ‘heightened awareness
of emerging adulthood’ (p. 287): ‘declines in motivation during adolescence
are associated with contextual/environmental factors … motivation is not
merely a function of pubertal changes’ (p. 288, referring to Urdan et al.,
1995). Early adolescence, they say, is characterised by a period of socio-
cognitive development which is best ‘nurtured by a strong sense of autonomy,
independence, self-determination, and social interaction’ (p. 294). However,
the typical school environment of the ‘in-between’ years (year 8 in secondary
and years 3–4 in primary) has relatively few opportunities for pupils to make
important decisions – hence, in our secondary school study, the signiﬁcance
for pupils of the option choices, however restricted, during year 9.
Lee et al.’s research in elementary schools in the United States (their sample
included pupils aged 7, 9 and 11) also explores the importance to pupils’
motivation at particular stages in their development, and in their school
careers, of opportunities to make decisions. They argue that pupils’ social
aspirations (e.g. their desire to be treated like an adult as they grow older and
to be given more responsibility) are not matched by the organisational frame-
works and assumptions of schools. Two studies (Lee et al., 1983, p. 839, dis-
cussing Cussen, 1977, and Wolfson and Nash, 1968) ‘found that children see
themselves as relatively inactive decision makers … and as having fewer deci-
sion-making prerogatives than teachers see them as having’. The authors ask
why relatively straightforward opportunities to engage younger pupils in
decision-making are not taken more frequently: activities such as
helping to decide what should be put on the bulletin board, where to go on
a class trip, and what to make during art period do not require extraordi-
nary expertise on the part of children, but they may make demands on insti-
tutional time and on other ingrained patterns of institutional authority
They conclude, however, that such activities ‘provide valuable occasions for
learning about democratic processes’ (Lee et al., 1983, p. 846). 35
Pupils’ desire for more opportunities for self-determination once they are
established in a new phase of schooling and a new school is, suggest Lee et
al., ‘probably reﬂective of their developing sense of autonomy and personal
competence, combined with an increasing familiarity with the school
environment’. The absence of concomitant increments in their actual pre-
rogatives suggests that schools fail to support the child’s emerging expression
of competence (1983, p. 845); as pupils become older their awareness of the
mismatch may strengthen, or trigger, an inclination to disengage.
In short, the phenomenon of the dip is recognised outside our own edu-
cation system, and may be the outcome of a complex set of organisational
and development factors.
Other possible explanations of the year 3–4 dip come from the work of
Blake (1994) and Davies and Brember (1997) – although neither directly
addresses performance ‘dips’. Blake found that pupils starting KS2 work
were more preoccupied with social relations than younger pupils had been.
‘They talk a lot about arguing and breaking friendships, about competition
and jealousy’ (1994, p. 54). This parallels our observation that pupils in year
8 were also preoccupied with trying out new friendships after the initial
desire to stay close to the friends they had known in primary school. Blake’s
interview data also underline the extent of anxiety surrounding periods of
transition. Davies and Brember (1997) raise some interesting questions about
pupils’ self-esteem at this stage. Their argument is that pupils’ self-esteem is
lowered if they are not receiving as much attention from teachers, and that
the lowering of self-esteem can affect motivation – an idea that picks up on
comments made by one head teacher whom we interviewed who said (see
earlier) that ancillary support was targeted at the pre-SAT classes and that
after the KS1 SATs pupils might feel that they had less teacher attention.
To summarise: research in secondary schools discussed above:
1 Highlights the signiﬁcance of the middle period of schooling for pupils’
2 Offers further evidence of a ‘downturn’ in motivation at this stage of
pupils’ school careers.
3 Explains the ‘dip’ in terms of the mismatch between the traditional
environment of the school and pupils’ emerging sense of adulthood.
4 Emphasises the importance for pupils of social interactions and afﬁlia-
tions at this stage in their school careers.
While endorsing the accounts presented by Anderman and Maehr we would
also emphasise in relation to schooling in Britain the importance of:
5 Each year having a clear and academically compelling identity that moti-
vates pupils as they move forward.
6 Ensuring that pupils do not see work relating directly to tests and exam-
ination as the only ‘stuff that counts’.
The research that we looked at into motivation and engagement among
36 younger pupils drew attention to:
1 The impact on motivation of a gap between pupils’ expectations of hav-
ing more responsibility and the actuality.
2 The impact on pupils’ progress of their preoccupation with friendships in
years 3 and 4.
It also underlines:
3 The potential destabilisation that can occur as a result of ‘in school’ tran-
sitions as pupils move from one style of teaching to another or from the
lower primary to the upper primary school with all the attendant status
A small-scale study has been started where we can look in greater depth at
the nature of the dip in primary school, teachers’ perceptions of it and pupils’
experience of it and set the accounts alongside the participating schools’
performance data. What we can say at the moment is that teachers in both
primary and secondary schools who have identiﬁed a dip in motivation
and/or performance at around year 8 and years 3 and 4 are actively trying
to do something about it. We would conclude – and we think that teachers
and researchers would be in agreement – that the situation is complex and
worth trying to understand. It does seem to be about more than just ‘poor
1 A list of the project’s publications is available from Jean Rudduck and Julia Flut-
ter at Homerton College, Cambridge CB2 2PH.
2 The project involved seventeen primary and secondary schools. Three themes
were explored: What makes a piece of work ‘good’? What stops some pupils work-
ing hard in school? What do they ﬁnd exciting in their learning? Details of the
report are available from Homerton College.
3 Nine Lincolnshire head teachers have been meeting over the course of a year to
develop work that focuses on year 8.
4 A study led by Chris Doddington and funded by the Nufﬁeld Foundation is look-
ing at primary schools’ strategies for developing a positive learning culture.
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dle grades’, Review of Educational Research64 (2), 287–309.
Blake, D. (1994), ‘Children’s attitudes to school at Key Stages 1 and 2’, Primary
Teaching Studies, autumn, 50–8.
Cussen, M. P. (1977), ‘A comparative study of student and teacher perceptions
regarding decision-making in selected open and traditional classrooms’, paper pre-
sented at the AERA annual conference, New York, April.
Davies, J., and Brember, I. (1997), ‘Did the SATs lower Year 2 children’s self-esteem?
A four-year cross-sectional study’, Research in Education 57, 1–11.
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Hargreaves, A. (1996), ‘Revisiting voice’, Researcher25 (1), 12–19. 37
Harris, S., and Rudduck, J. (1993), ‘Establishing the seriousness of learning in the
early years of secondary schooling’, British Journal of Educational Psychology63
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perceptions of their actual and ideal school experience’, Journal of Education and
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Address for correspondence
Chris Doddington, Homerton College, Cambridge CB2 2PH. E-mail JAEd100@