Education: Time to bring the big school down to size

How to prepare for that crucial first day at the secondary.
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All of a sudden your big 11-year-old looks small again. It may be the new uniform -- bought slightly large to allow for growing room. It may be the new, super-size schoolbag. Or maybe you realise he's twigged something more important: he's no longer top dog at his old primary school, but a really very small pup at his brand new secondary. Something like 85 per cent of his 1,000 or 1,500 schoolfellows are going to be bigger and cleverer than him, and a whole lot more sophisticated.

No wonder children, and their parents, regard the changeover from year six to year seven as a daunting prospect, academically and socially. Just how are they going to cope with all the new work, new routines, new people?

"Most pupils settle amazingly quickly," says Peter Downes, former president of the Secondary Heads Association, and co-author of a book for parents of secondary school age children. "Parents sometimes remember their own transition and worry that things will be the same. They aren't. Secondary schools these days are well aware of the potential difficulties and make a lot of effort to overcome them."

Academically, the National Curriculum has resulted in greater continuity, and better liaison with feeder primaries means that the secondary school is more aware of its new pupils' achievements and any gaps in them. Year sevens need to get used to more homework, a foreign language, and a range of different teaching styles with their new subject teachers. But the curriculum itself should follow a natural progression.

Pupils themselves will probably have had the opportunity to see the school and meet their form tutor. Most secondary schools offer induction programmes and visits that run during the last term or so of primary school. Children are even asked which friends they want to stay with, so they can be put into the same form.

Heaton Manor School in Newcastle upon Tyne has a fairly typical set- up. They ask children for the names of up to three friends they want to stick with. "Parents can feel reassured that we spend a lot of time getting the right mix," says one of the year seven tutors, Hughie MacBride. "It's important that there's a limit on the number of friends put together, though, so that we can spread the pupils from different feeder schools throughout all the forms."

How about finding their way round? Secondary schools are so big, with endless miles of anonymous corridors. "Yes, they can find that bewildering at first. We generally tell them to give it a fortnight - by then there's no problem."

Rumours about gruesome initiation ceremonies are almost always ill-founded, says Peter Downes, yet they persist to an extent that they scare some year sevens. "When I was head at Hinchingbrooke School in Cambridgeshire," he recalls, "parents told us their children had heard the year sevens always got thrown into the holly bush on the first day. It wasn't true, but for reassurance' sake, I told them we'd post a teacher by the bush anyway - and we did." If your child has heard something nasty, you can tell him it's highly unlikely to have any truth in it, and to report any bullying or rough-housing straight away. All children, and parents, should know before the first day the chain of command of the school staff. Particularly important is the name of the person to contact with a social or settling- in worry, and the one you see with any academic work concerns. In a secondary school they're likely to be two different people.

Some important information can be gleaned from the school brochure or prospectus, which your child will have been given along with the uniform and equipment list; there may be a parents' guide or welcome letter, too (check the bottom of your child's schoolbag for any printed stuff that hasn't been passed on to you). Go through the information with your child a few days before the start of term so you're both clear about any rules or guidance.

Nigel Mellor, an educational psychologist from North Tyneside, says that children with even minor special needs may need extra support in year seven. The more easy-going primary school day may have been manageable, but at secondary school things are different. "It can place huge demands on their organisational skills," he says, "and it's hard for them to get their act together. The two-week timetable may be difficult for them to cope with, plus all the things they have to remember to bring with them - equipment, notes, books, sports gear." He's in favour of a "buddy system" for all children, not just those with special needs, which teams up year sevens with sixth-formers who can cast a watchful eye over them and support them through the tricky bits of the first term. Good primary schools should have liaised with the secondary school about any children expected to have a harder time than average, but parents may also want to make an appointment themselves to talk to the form tutor.

One important thing you can do now, to ease the transition, is to practise getting to school, says Peter Downes.

"The journey to and from school is often a source of anxiety. Year seven is a good time, if it hasn't yet happened, for a child to go unaccompanied to school if possible. Do a practice journey there and back, checking any necessary transport changes, and decide which roads are safest." It's good to team up with friends to share the journey to school, too - makes it more fun, and arriving at school in a group is less scary than being alone.

Once he has started, it's natural to want to ask your child about his day, and to seek reassurance that he's not having a terrible time. But resist this, if you can. "Over-anxious grilling is not helpful," says Peter Downes, "and it could make your child anxious."

`Help Your Child Through Secondary School' by Peter Downes and Carey Bennet is published by Hodder & Stoughton at pounds 6.99

Start as you Mean to Go On

HELP YOUR child establish good routines from the start, says Peter Downes. Make sure he or she:

l packs bags the night before, giving time for last-minute washing and drying of games kit, and tracking down any necessary books or equipment

l gets to bed early - 11-year-olds get exhausted at secondary school. Compared to their day at primary school, they walk around more, they meet more people, and they work harder

l gets up in time to have a good breakfast, to prevent sluggish learning

l doesn't watch breakfast TV - it encourages a short attention span, and hypes children up

l gets the habit of writing all homework instructions down carefully in his or her diary or day book

l learns good work patterns, including working in a room where it is possible to concentrate