What to do if school makes your child sad

You might think you're doing your children a favour by moving them to a `better' school but research shows that the more times a pupil makes a change, the worse their exam results will be. And if they do cope academically, will they have any friends in the playground?
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The Independent Online
If you're thinking of moving your child to a different school, think again. It may seem like the solution to all your educational nightmares, but for every parent who swears it was the best thing they ever did there is another who admits that the move didn't do the child any favours.

Yet increasing numbers of children are on the move. In many instances it's totally unavoidable - families move house, jobs are relocated. In others it's pure parental choice - the dream of the cosy village school away from the inner city or the highly desirable primary on the other side of the tracks.

Research presented earlier this month concludes that progress among primary school pupils is affected by changing to different schools. Its author, Dr Pamela Sammons, reader in education at the Institute of Education in London, says : "There is certainly evidence that mobility has an adverse impact on attainment and clearly the greater the number of changes of schools the more that can be."

Her findings, based on studies of 3,000 pupils in more than 70 primary schools, are reflected in local authority research on older pupils which shows that higher mobility also relates to lower results at GCSE.

Parents who have been moved around a lot as children often try not to do the same for their own offspring. Julia Bateson, who now has four children, changed schools at least ten times because her father's work as a surgeon meant frequent moves for the family. So, when Julia moved out of London to a Cambridgeshire village five years ago she tried to minimise the disruption for her own children, now aged between seven and 15.

"It wasn't that the other children were horrible to me, it was just that I never really belonged to a group - and as a child I couldn't work out why," says Julia.

"I remember from a very early age always being the new girl and all eyes being on me; I was often quite lonely. I did make friends, but as soon as I got used to them I'd move again."

With her own children she wanted to keep changes to a minimum because she felt she did well despite moving schools and not because of it. So, when the family moved out of London, Julia was disappointed that they couldn't move straight to the village they now live in but had to move temporarily to Norfolk where the children did nine months at a village school.

"The first move didn't do them any favours," she says. "They felt like outsiders and it was generally fairly disruptive for them, especially for Charles, who was nine at the time. He did meet abuse from the other children and had a terrible time."

But Julia was also concerned about James, the eldest, because the family had moved out of a middle school system. James ended up going to five schools in three years.

Does this mean that parents should avoid change at all costs? Not necessarily - but they should think long and hard about unnecessary moves, according to Professor Charles Desforges of the Department of Education at Exeter University.

He says: "Moving schools can be damaging, and it often is. There is a lot of good evidence that when perfectly normal transitions take place, say between primary and secondary school, the rate of progress in attainment is very much delayed - some children actually go backwards. Sometimes a change is unavoidable and sometimes it's better to move because a child is getting on really badly in a school. But it is best to limit the number of changes and to change in September if possible."

Parents tend to be nervous about moving secondary school children for fear of damaging their GCSE results. Julia Bateson says that moving becomes more disruptive the older a child is. Julia believes she definitely suffered at A-level because she had to effectively start again. She was faced with a completely different syllabus from her previous school. Her results weren't as good as she had hoped. She had also moved from a comprehensive to a private school where there were all kinds of rules. "I was used to going out to get chips at lunchtime and wandering around doing what I wanted," she says. "So I just rebelled. I was often in the headmaster's office."

There's an assumption that at primary level the odd move doesn't matter that much. But Professor Desforges insists that the effects of disruption on young children should not be underestimated: "The risk to academic progress can be a problem right the way through - in the early years children are laying down the foundations of mathematics and literacy and it's not a good idea to mess them about. Of course children are very adaptable and it's a good thing that they meet new settings and new people and learn all sorts of adjustments. But moving does carry a risk."

Julia Bateson found there were some advantages to being moved around a lot by her parents. In some ways she had an amazing education, she thinks. When she was nine she went to school in Mississippi which she loved, she says. "And because it was a life of forever getting used to new people it gave me social skills and prepared me very well for adult life. In that way it was a real advantage, because I learned to make friends quickly and I didn't feel threatened out of my environment. If you can't rely on always having a close friend you have to find internal strength."

The lonely times for her were always playtimes. She loved it in the classroom where it didn't matter that she was on her own. You didn't have to have friends there. In fact, she's sure that one of the reasons she did well at school was that she threw herself into her work.

When it came to her own children, although they may have suffered initially from moving, they don't seem to have been affected in the long run. When they finally moved to the school in the village where they live now they made friends quickly and slotted in very easily academically. They soon caught up with the little work they had missed. The bits they had to repeat simply made them feel more confident.

Professor Desforges points out that the success of any move depends on efficient communication between the old and new schools. It's surprising that the passing on of thorough records is not routine and it's often up to parents to ask. Ideally a record should include an appraisal of the child's achievements and strengths, samples of work and a detailed account of the curriculum that has been covered.

Many schools - particularly those with a fluid population - implement policies which really help pupils get through the shock of the new. Phil Hamill is head of Talavera Junior School in Aldershot, which has a 30- 40 per cent turnover of pupils every year from up to 50 different schools, thanks to a catchment area which takes in several army barracks.

He says: "Some of it is planned and some of it is just having your eyes wide open and watching the new children carefully."

Before records arrive, teachers at Talavera interview parents to find out as much as they can about the new child, and carry out baseline assessments in core subjects during the first fortnight. Each child is assigned a buddy to show them round in the first few weeks - with some 11-year-olds on their eighth school, buddies are generally sympathetic about the traumas of being new.

At Talavera, teachers regularly deal with huge gaps in foundation subjects, as well as children who have done the Romans to death. But Phil Hamill is less concerned about the effect of moving on academic progress than the social side. He says: "I find that if children move around a lot they start to give up listening - to another set of rules, another way of doing things. We work quite hard on that.

"Friendships among the children are OK until there is a conflict. Then there isn't the depth of relationship to say, `I'll forgive you for that'. Instead it's an immediate `I want to get you back because I don't know you well enough to be able to forgive you'. It is difficult. But it doesn't take much to turn these kids on to learning, even though they don't have the luxury of continuity and progression."

IF YOU'RE THINKING ABOUT MOVING

1 Look at all the options carefully and decide which school would suit your child best. Be realistic: some children cope better with change than others.

2 If possible, move the child at the beginning of the new school year.

3 Ask the new school about its policies for settling in new pupils. Schools with a low pupil turnover are more likely to have ad-hoc arrangements, such as assigning a pupil to look after your child, than a formal policy.

4 Make sure the school you're leaving is prompt in sending on records.

5 Have faith in your decision. Try not to pass any doubts you may have on to your child.

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