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Preparing students for secondary school: it’s not just how to get there

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Catrin Doe, School-Home Support, writes…

By the end of the month, parents will have shortlisted their secondary school choices and submitted them ready for next year’s intake. However, according to one in ten school leaders, over half of their children won’t have achieved adequate levels of ‘school readiness’ when they start in September.

This data comes from school leaders service The Key’s 2016 State of Education report. When asked to cite the most common reasons for children being unprepared for secondary school, over half of the school leaders surveyed agreed on lower than expected levels of reading, writing and numeracy. Other common reasons included lack of resilience/self-help (53%), lack of social skills (46%) and low self-esteem/confidence (47%).

Evidently, the concern is a serious one. But how can we improve these statistics?

Engaging with families key to successful transition

Working in partnership with schools to prepare children for the transition to secondary school, we believe the key is parental engagement. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission states in Cracking the code: how schools can improve social mobility (2014), “…. A number of the secondary schools that we visited argued that engaging with families prior to the transition from primary school was very important: the shift to a bigger school with children taught by many teachers rather than only one was a key risk to parents staying involved… research shows that where parents support their children in school, it can make a big difference to outcomes.”

Ideally, we would target parents as soon as their children begin year 6. Choosing the right secondary school is an important element of transition, but many parents are unsure what they’re looking for other than proximity to their home or perhaps Ofsted rating. Whether or not parents are aware of the factors, the transition can be a minefield. We run a course, with the support of the school, which is open to all parents and prepares them and their children for secondary school transition. Once organised with a school, parents can self-refer or teachers can refer a parent if they think someone will particularly benefit.

Choosing the right secondary school is an important element of transition, but many parents are unsure what they’re looking for other than proximity to their home or perhaps Ofsted rating

All parents invited

While the more disadvantaged families are a focus for these sessions to, we have found that they are more likely to attend as part of a wider invite and feel more included if it is a “whole year group” need, being addressed for every parent.

Most parents tend to focus on the educational rather than the pastoral side, so we try to bring both into their awareness. We go over the stages of transition being faced by their child over the coming year and specifically in relation to the imminent task of choosing a school and visiting secondary school open evenings. We encourage parents to ask questions such as what support would be in place for their child, and how SEND assessment works. Where a school engages us to deliver the first session after application deadline, we reflect back on the choices of schools and encourage parents to now ask the questions that still concern them and would have an impact on the positive transition into secondary school for their child.

So what would we suggest next for families whose children are starting secondary school next September?

Positive communication to children

As we all know, the transition to secondary school isn’t just geographical. It’s also social, emotional, and more complex than many parents realise. To get the transition off to a smooth start, we encourage parents to handle the news about their school choices in a mindful way. If they didn’t get their first choice and they communicate this to their children negatively, then parents set their children up to dislike their school from day one.

Instead, we recommend parents communicate news of their school to children in as positive a way as possible. It’s still one of their choices, it’s still a good school – children should be excited. If parents have concerns, we encourage them to visit the school again and talk to the school staff. If they are still unsure after this and decide to appeal against the decision, we ask them to be aware of the impact of their words and actions. Schools do their best to support parents with concerns and by answering any questions they have.

Once parents know which school their child is going to attend, we can get into the details of ‘school readiness’. Parents need to understand the structure of secondary school, both overall (timetabled classes) and the unique structure of the specific school. Who should parents contact? How does the school assess children in the different topics?

In one borough alone, four secondary schools within a three-mile radius of each other had different timeframes for when they assessed year 7 children, and how they recognised achievement and progress in a child’s performance (some still referencing a numeric rating; others using a combination of numeric and descriptive systems).

Parents need to understand the structure of secondary school, both overall (timetabled classes) and the unique structure of the specific school. Who should parents contact? How does the school assess children in the different topics?

“Get to know the school’s systems”

So our advice is that parents need to become familiar with the system used by their school.

We also suggest parents talk to their child’s current primary school about any challenges with their learning needs that need to be addressed and catered for at the secondary school, as well as any personal skill development needs. That way, they can work on it at home and also talk to the secondary school’s pastoral team so the team can get support in place ready for September, rather than waiting for problems to occur. Successful transition is something which involves many individuals, after all, and most schools have staff in place to offer support for different needs.

We also ask parents to prepare financially for the new school, planning for costs such as required uniform and kit so that children have the best start possible.

Children, of course, are the focus of school readiness and they need to be prepared for what is expected of them come September. This takes time to achieve. They need to be prepared for being more responsible, both for their own actions and time management. We ask parents to get them to pack their own bags and plan when they do their own homework in the months approaching transition. With a parent’s help, children should plan their journey to school, thinking about being safe in that journey, and should become responsible for their own clothing and equipment. We also give parents ideas for building self-motivation and resilience.

The final thing which we ask parents to consider is the emotional impact of secondary school transition. We ask them to think about all of the issues which their children may come up against, and give ways to prepare them for overcoming obstacles and facing change. It is useful to speak about how to make new friends, the opportunity of trying new activities, and how parent-child communication about feelings and emotions can be facilitated.

After all, our number one priority is a child’s well-being, and ensuring preparation is emotional as well as practical is the key to a happy child (and parent, and school!) come September.

Catrin Doe is Delivery Officer at School-Home Support (SHS), a charity that helps disadvantaged children and young people overcome barriers to education. As part of their services, ‘Ready for Secondary School’ was designed, piloted and delivered to support parents and children with the transition into secondary school. Catrin and her team of trainers work in partnership with schools and local authorities to deliver the programme.


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