Helping children navigate the move from primary to secondary school has never been more important

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We’ve got to be much better between primary and secondary at that building up of independence and expectation, so we prepare children better for secondary school.

Debi Bailey

The move from primary to secondary school is one of the most important stages in a child’s education. But for some children, it can also be one of the most stressful.

The current cohort of Year 6 and Year 7 pupils are experiencing a school transition like no other. Those who started secondary school last September were not able to visit their new ‘big school’ in advance. And when they did finally get there, most had only a term with their teachers and classmates before they had to return to home schooling. Similarly, those starting secondary school this autumn will do so without many of the normal preparations, and additional support may be needed to ensure their journey to the next phase of education runs smoothly.

These already challenging circumstances are further compounded by wider issues related to the pandemic. Those from more disadvantaged backgrounds have often been learning in less-than-ideal environments. They may have lost relatives to the pandemic. Their parents may have lost their jobs. They may even have been subjected to abuse. The attainment gap which pre-dated the crisis has become wider over lockdown and many teachers are worried at the academic, social and emotional impact of such a prolonged period out of school.

This is the prospect facing teachers as children returned to school this month. But with so much focus on “catching up” will there be time to consider the mental health and wellbeing of these children?

Debi Bailey, CEO of a group of schools in Newcastle’s East End says the past year has confirmed the importance of transition, particularly in relation to pastoral care.

“I think transition is more important than ever and we’ve really got to get it right,” she says. “Yes, the learning is key, and they’ve got to have the ability to access the learning when they go into secondary, but for me it’s about relationships, interpersonal skills, resilience, independence and confidence. These are the elements that are most important.”

Debi’s schools have recently received funding from SHINE for a three-year project that aims to tackle some of the problems that can be heightened by a move between schools. The work will begin as soon as children are back at school.

The project will assess children in Years 4 to 7, to gauge their attitudes to themselves and their learning. A psychometric tool – Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) – will be used to spot attitudinal or emotional issues in children.

“It will help us identify fragile learners and discover hidden barriers to learning,” says Debi. “Some pupils may have become disengaged and lost their confidence, others may have been through a period of heightened anxiety. PASS will enable us to measure these attitudes, so we can offer the most appropriate pastoral support.”

Tailored interventions will be introduced for children depending on their individual needs and the curriculum may be adapted to better suit their requirements.

“It’s about the much earlier identification of young people who are struggling a little bit with their self-confidence, or their social skills, etc,” explains Debi. “It also enables us to be much more proactive in the support that we put in place.”

The ultimate aim of the project is that successful transition into secondary school and beyond, because if children transition successfully into secondary, they are much more likely to be successful there and therefore go on to future success after school.

Debi Bailey

Debi says she was first struck by the scale of the impact transition can have on children around five years ago, when she saw Sarah*, a girl in a secondary school class who she had taught at primary.

“She was a lovely girl when I taught her. A little loud, perhaps, but she was very intelligent. I could see huge potential in her.

“But when I saw her in secondary school, I hardly recognised her. She was defiant…it was like this hard barrier had come up and she wasn’t engaging in her learning.

“I took her outside and had a chat with her. And I think, honestly, they just hadn’t quite got her at secondary. They hadn’t understood what made her tick, what she needed. She needed to be challenged. She was a very bright girl but perhaps there was more we could have done to understand her needs and champion her.

“I remember thinking, it was such a shame. She’d just gone into herself and her potential had been lost.”

Debi believes that if teachers can build a better understanding of the children in their care, problems can be identified that would otherwise be missed.

“Children go from a primary school where the students have, at most, regular contact with three adults, to having, often, contact with five different adults each day. So, young children who aren’t as secure in themselves really struggle quite quickly.

“We’ve got to be much better between primary and secondary at that building up of independence and expectation, so we prepare children better for secondary school.

“This is what we’re hoping this project will do – enable us to identify those young people who perhaps don’t have the tools that they need and give them those tools, because you’ve got to be independent and you’ve got to be resilient. When that’s not the case, that’s often where we see children unravelling a little bit in secondary school.”

And Debi is acutely aware that the problems this year are bigger than ever.

“The current Year 7s had a hugely disrupted transition into secondary school and they’ve had two terms without any real settled education in secondary school. That’s going to be massive as they journey through secondary.

“So Covid has heightened the need for this project. It’s very timely in that respect.

“We’re desperate to just get on. I want all our children to have completed their first PASS by Easter so we can get some evaluation carried out.”

And Debi is hopeful that even in these difficult times, the project can make a real difference to the futures of many children in the years ahead.

“The ultimate aim of the project is that successful transition into secondary school and beyond, because if children transition successfully into secondary, they are much more likely to be successful there and therefore go on to future success after school.

“In future I hope that children like Sarah won’t slip through the net and their potential won’t be lost. We’ll be able to identify those red flags earlier and gain a far better understanding of all our students.

 

*Not her real name.