Transition Time

So I’ve been thinking back to my first days at secondary school as a new student. I’m a bit reluctant to admit that it would have been 33 years ago in September! Where did that go then?

I was one of just three children from my school heading in to a new year group of over 200 with an eight form entry! My middle school was not one of the main feeder schools, and looking back now I can’t actually recall any ‘extra’ transition work happening because of this. My parents packed me off on the bus on the first day with my older sister and I met up with my two buddies, Lara and Julie, on the school playground. I remember my new burgundy slip-on Clarks shoes. What a trend setter! But….I certainly don’t remember being scared or anxious. Surely I must have been at the time?

I’m currently immersed in managing the transition for what must be my 15th cohort of children across various schools in my career to date. I’ve been able to refine transition procedures a lot because of this experience.  I consider this role as a genuine privilege. I see the students at the very earliest opportunity. I capture the honest and frank impressions from their teachers and more often than not, I get to host the first meetings of new parents. Having all of that knowledge is a huge responsibility. How should it be disseminated to staff? Have I planned enough support? Did I pick up on the discrete messages relayed enough to capture the full needs of each new child? And on..and on….

In my current school, we’ve developed very bespoke arrangements for the Year 6 children coming to us. Three years ago we worked with the Educational Psychology Service in Warwickshire to research the anxieties around transition. A paper was produced as a result of this work. It transpired that the biggest worries about starting secondary school came from parents who had either not been in a ‘scary’ secondary school for years, or who were concerned about how they accessed support if they needed it; seeing teachers on a primary playground each morning certainly prevents small worries from getting bigger. In fact many of the parents questioned at the time had experienced negativity during their own time at secondary school.  They were still carrying this with them and were unconsciously passing this on to their own kids.  Children then told us that they were most worried about getting lost in a new building and having more homework! As such, we’ve added an extra Year 6 event to our calendar where parents and students come to meet SLT more informally over a coffee, and the children are given complete access to the school site so that they can explore and fully look around (yes, every corridor and toilet!). We link this to a treasure hunt for them. They love it! We’re then able to then tackle the more serious concerns around homework and how we support this. We do run seven homework clubs each week and have found these to be invaluable to the new students.

In the weeks running up to the ‘step up’ day, I arrange extra visits for students who been identified by their primary school as needing these. I pre-warn the staff that the children are coming; you’d be amazed how much a welcome greeting by name can mean the them. Our Subject Leader for Art/DT can always be relied upon for this gesture!  Our receptionist is also amazing at this. I have a welcome cookie and drink waiting on their first visit up and I always write a letter or postcard afterwards to tell them how much I’ve enjoyed meeting them.  I now tweet (huge learning curve for a blog another time…) after their visit in the hope that the primary school and parents see this. I plan a larger event for the children coming up to us on their own or in very small groups so that they can begin meeting each other and making new friends. At this, I’m able to ‘manufacture’ the start of new relationships and often by the time students leave, they’ve exchanged email addresses or phone numbers so that they can make contact with each other over the summer holiday. I’ve got 48 children being dropped off for this tomorrow!

For children with special educational needs, we plan any essential documentation in advance of starting. They have numerous guided tours with any new TA support. We send their timetable home to them in advance of September and postcards over the holiday in order to keep in touch.

In honesty, this all takes hours and hours of work. I have a fabulous team though and work very closely with the other SLT members, the pastoral and office staff. We are a genuine team on this. The investment at this stage is worth its weight in gold. We see children blossom with greater confidence and settle much earlier within the school community. They feel able to approach us more easily and we are more able to support their specific needs effectively. I do believe that it saves time in the long run.

In reflecting, I can only wonder how I survived being thrown in at the deep end in my burgundy shoes all those years ago! I did of course, and don’t consider myself negatively affected by my experience luckily. I can only conclude that our Year 6 children are all very lucky today. My story is just one of many interpretations of great transition programmes around secondary schools of course. Our children are very cared for and we all want the very best for their future success.

A top tip for transition leaders – buy from Amazon ‘Simone’s Diary by Helena Pielichaty’. There are some cracking anecdotes for children starting secondary school to be used for a first assembly or an initial gathering of nervous Year 6s!
Sarah Mellors, Deputy Head and SENco at Alcester Academy, Warwickshire