Big school, big trauma: give an 11-year-old a hand to hold

This week lots of little fish swim into the secondary school pool. Celia Dodd asks how it feels - and how the transition can be eased
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The Independent Online
This week 11-year-olds all over the country start secondary school. For many children - and their parents - it will be every bit as traumatic as starting school at the age of four or five. Even the bravest admit to feeling a bit apprehensive about being a small fish in a very big pond; the less confident are worried about everything, from the towering fifth- formers and the dinner arrangements, to fights on the bus, getting lost and that legendary induction ritual, the pushing of heads down toilets.

Such fears are not new. A study in the early Eighties identified five sources of anxiety: the size of the new school; the system of discipline; the work demands; fear of being bullied and fear of losing friends. Professor John Rudduck, interviewing pupils 10 years later, found that little has changed, and even fifth-formers harbour vivid memories of the embarrassments of transition.

Over the past 20 years, many schools - but unfortunately not all - have woken up to the potentially damaging effects of an unhappy transition and do what they can to minimise the trauma.

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, believes a well thought-out transition programme can be effective in helping pupils to settle. But, he says, "some schools do virtually nothing, while others have elaborate programmes, which include meetings between primary and secondary teachers to get more continuity in the curriculum. Best practice should include secondary teachers going into primary schools and vice versa. Where they do this, teachers often have a very good understanding of the environment the children are coming from.

"It's also very important for Year 6 children to spend a day experiencing a fairly normal if slightly staged secondary school day so that they don't have weeks of anxiety over the summer wondering whether they're going to Mars." These days many schools try to keep friends together in tutor groups (unless it is thought to be a bad idea) and give out welcome booklets and maps of the school - a simple but reassuring tactic.

Jean Ruddock, director of research at Homerton College, Cambridge, also welcomes teachers' efforts. But in her view the emphasis on the social side of transition needs to be balanced by more thought about learning: "The social and psychological upheavals of the first few terms of secondary schooling are so preoccupying that it is difficult for students to focus on the seriousness of learning.... It is no easy task for teachers and students to balance the various pressures and excitements of transition in ways that allow classroom learning to have some priority."

Mr Wragg believes the majority of children settle within a week or two. But he warns: "There are certain children who don't adjust. It's important to be vigilant for those individuals who haven't made the adjustment for whatever reason - perhaps because they were in a very small primary school. They need careful guidance over a longer period."

Many schools regard a fall-off in performance as a sign that a child is not settling. They should also look out for children who seem isolated at break times as well as in class. It can be difficult for secondary teachers, who have limited contact with pupils, to recognise individual problems. So it is also up to parents to pick up on whether children are making friends, struggling with the work, or genuinely reluctant to go to school after the first couple of weeks. If they are concerned they should talk to the school.

HOW PARENTS CAN HELP

Put a copy of the timetable and the homework timetable up in the kitchen as well as copies in the child's room.

Encourage him to pack his bag the night before. Don't do it yourself, but remind him if equipment needs preparation, such as cleaning football boots, and to put kit in the wash well in advance.

Help him to manage his own time. Some children need a break before doing homework; others are better off getting straight down to it. Make sure there is a quiet place, with a desk if possible. If not, most schools have facilities for children to do homework on site. Music is an acceptable background; television is not. Do not help with homework, but take an interest.

Make sure your child has everything he needs to be independent: an alarm clock; a watch (a vital aid to punctuality at different lessons); a phone card to contact you if he is late; a fully equipped pencil case.

Above all, encourage him to talk and make sure he knows that if there are problems, his tutor is there to help. If you are worried, do not be afraid of ringing the school; most secondaries are more approachable than parents think. Many hold Year 7 parents' evenings within weeks of term starting.

Somewhere that feels familiar

Many of the 170 pupils grasping booklets welcoming them to Dayncourt School in Nottinghamshire this week come from small rural primaries with as few as 30 on the roll; for them, secondary school can be a real culture shock. Dayncourt makes particular efforts to integrate them, adopting the generally accepted approach to transition that involves keeping the first two years, 7 and 8, separate for assembly, most lessons and lunch.

It is not total segregation, though older pupils are encouraged to keep away. At break, Years 7 and 8 can mix with the rest of the school if they choose, but they can always retreat to their own base.

Wendy Dewick, transfer co-ordinator, has built on the primary liaison programme since she took on the role three years ago. One of the chief aims is to maintain good communication with primaries about "the things you can gain by word of mouth which can't be put in records". Emphasis is also put on talking to the children themselves.

Teachers and pupils from Dayncourt pay three visits to each of the feeder primaries during the spring term. She says it is during the second visit, when the reality of impending change has sunk in, that the children tend to be most apprehensive.

The third visit is probably the most valuable. Children from Dayncourt work with groups of four or five primary children, answering their questions and concerns. "In their own classrooms they ask questions openly, and I think hearing answers directly from children who they probably know anyway [because they used to be at the school themselves] is reassuring. It's best to sort out any concerns before the summer."

Like most schools, Dayncourt is careful to respect teachers' and pupils' views on friends they would like to be grouped with.

In the summer term, primary pupils visit Dayncourt in their new tutor groups. This has advantages over the more usual practice of inviting all the children transferring from the same primary to visit together. It gives pupils a head start in getting to know new faces in their group. The day is spent in activities designed to weld the group together. The children also use the swimming pool and laboratories to get a taste of new, exciting facilities available.

Getting to know one another

The ex-pupils of Meridian County Primary on the Sussex coast have a head start. They are already familiar with some of their new secondary teachers, who visit Meridian regularly to take maths and English lessons with Year 6. They will also have used the secondary school laboratories for the occasional science lesson.

Equally important, the secondary schoolteachers understand the environment from which the children have come. One day each year, the secondary schools close to allow their teachers to spend a day in one of the feeder primaries to watch how they work.

This exchange of teachers and pupils is at attempt to address one of the biggest adjustments for children - leaving an informal classroom setting for a more formal culture. It is part of a programme instigated by schools in the area, such as Meridian, which are continually looking for ways to make transition easier. Efforts focus on bridging the gulf between the different approaches to learning.

Children start formal homework in Year 5 - and are taught how to handle it. Meridian's headteacher, Angela Mills, says: "We train them to be quite assertive about understanding what they've got to do, and not to be scared to tell the teacher that they need it explained again. We also teach them to be organised." Year 6 children also become used to having different teachers for subjects such as PE, music and French.

Mrs Mills would like secondary schools to make similar efforts to meet her halfway: "We've constantly said, is there any way you could adapt our way of working so that the children in Year 7 are eased into secondary school in a more effective way, so that you don't lose this tremendous enthusiasm that they've got [when they leave here]? We're continually trying to promote the exchange of teachers and develop the dialogue."

When the children have visited their new school in the summer term, they discuss their reactions individually with their teacher. Mrs Mills says there is usually a group of about six who feel worried, and they are taken back for a second look. This year, one very anxious girl went on six visits. "We do as many visits as it takes to get it right," says Mrs Mills.

A family atmosphere - and no gangs

Highfield School in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, takes an unusual approach to assimilating its 150 new pupils every September. While many schools cocoon Years 7 and 8 in a separate lower school unit, Highfield pursues a policy of immediate integration.

Tutor groups - the focus for day-to-day pastoral care - are organised vertically, so new 11-year-olds are grouped with a small number of children from each of the year groups from 12- to 16-year-olds. Tutor groups meet at the beginning and end of each day; the rest of the time the children are taught in conventional year groups.

The headteacher, Gaynor Cashin, was sceptical when she inherited the system 18 months ago but now believes that by breaking down the barriers between the ages, vertical tutor groups make the first year at secondary school a much less daunting experience. "It prevents cohorts of kids of the same age going around in gangs. The children like it because the older ones tell them the truth about the school and look after them. It's very much a family atmosphere. And because there is only a handful of new ones in each group every year, the tutor can keep a closer eye on them."

Sally Reichardt started at Highfield two years ago. She is in the same tutor group as her two elder sisters; it is school policy to keep siblings together if that is what they want. She remembers her first term. "It's a big jump coming up from primary school to here, which is about eight times the size. It's scary - the big children are scary. But because you're all in the same tutor group, you begin to realise you're all the same. Now if I see one of the first years I recognise, I ask if they want a hand. It makes you feel big. They look up to you because you know something and can help."

During the summer term before they start at Highfield, primary pupils visit the school for a day's induction, when they are shown round by a Year 7 member of their tutor group - a familiar face to latch on to in September. Children are likely to have the same tutor until they are 16. This offers a reassuringly consistent point of contact for parents, who often feel out of touch with secondary school business. The only obvious disadvantage is that it's not always possible to keep friends from feeder primaries together. And it has to be said that the system might not work so well in a school with a less caring and co-operative atmosphere.

Miss Cashin says that one of her chief concerns is to combat the falling- off in academic performance, which can be a feature of the transitional year. She says the national curriculum is just beginning to make transition easier because it gives secondary schools a clearer picture of what children have done before, and because assessments are more consistent.

"Schools make great efforts when pupils are transferring," she says. "I am concerned that we should continue our efforts throughout the year, and not just for the first month or so." Quality managers have been introduced to keep track of individual achievement across all subjects, which is inevitably much more of a problem for secondary teachers.

To bridge the enormous gulf between one primary teacher for all subjects and myriad secondary specialists, English, history and geography are taught by the same teacher for the first year. According to Miss Cashin: "It was felt that a new teacher for every single subject was too much. It helps to iron out difficulties early because one teacher seeing children in different situations gets quite a broad view."

Colin Fairley, 11, starting at a west London comprehensive this week, moved to the middle school he left in July at the age of eight.

"I'll be very nervous on my first day, not knowing anybody. I hope I'll make friends quite soon and not be wandering round the playground on my own. I just want to fit in right and not be made fun of.

"I am worried about being bullied. All these stories go round - and because no one at my last school is going there they all say it's a rubbish school, you shouldn't go there, it's violent, and stuff like that. It's not true, they just say stuff like that to scare you. There are quite a few bullies, probably. But I'll just keep out of their way. There's a Year 7 block and we've got our own playground - it's like our own little school.

"My first impression was that it was big, interesting and just looked different from my last school. I wanted something different. I've really forgotten about my last school, and I'm looking forward to trying out new stuff and doing my best at sport. The work is going to be a bit hard, but I'll adjust to it.

"When I started my last school, it took about three weeks until anyone even started talking to me. It was really lonely. Once I made friends, it got much better - but it took quite a long time. You really need friends to enjoy school."

James Bateson, 11, is starting Soham Village College in Cambridgeshire. It will be his fourth change; his previous two schools were small rural primaries.

"I've been thinking about my new school a lot over the summer. It's going to be really exciting, being an adult - well, kind of an adult. My first impression on the induction day was that there were lots of big people; they all seemed very tall. But they were all very nice. And the school is absolutely huge. If I got lost I'll ask a teacher.

"When I wake up on my first day, I'll be very excited. I might be a bit nervous on the bus, especially just before we get to the school, because I haven't got any friends there. I'm the only one from my primary school going. The induction day helped because it's not very nice when you just have to start and don't know anything about it. We had lessons and went on a maths search of the school so we got to know our way around. I ate all my packed lunch at snack time because I didn't know where a clock was.

"I am worried about people coming up in big gangs and being nasty. Hopefully, they won't get me! I'm also worried about being told off and getting detention. I'm not used to homework, that's another problem. We get an hour or two a day; if you don't do it I think you get really told off. And if you forget things you get killed. That's quite different from junior school. I'm going to have to learn to be responsible about organising my stuff.

"I think I'll be treated differently from my last school. They'll be much stricter and the work will be much harder. I don't worry about it that much. I think it helps that I've changed schools before."

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