Twice a week I have lunch with a small group of pupils. One pupil is chosen, largely at random, and is invited to bring some friends to offer support and help sustain conversation. Once adolescent shyness is overcome these are pleasant and, for me at least, quite informative events. Unusual facts are unearthed; curious hobbies are celebrated and vigorous opinions are voiced. I particularly enjoyed my first lunch this term with a group of Year 7 pupils (S1 in Birkdale parlance) as I was able to enquire about their experience of joining the school. The boys are pleasingly positive about the experience, at least to me, although they were quick to articulate their pre-term fears: getting lost, getting into trouble with the teachers and struggling to make friends.
The transition from primary to secondary school is profound and, for all but the most confident 11 year old, truly terrifying. The difference in scale is considerable with many secondary schools numbering more than 1500 students and even a large urban primary school less than one third of this size. The difference in physical stature between the newcomers and the swaggering U6 students, emerging from the remarkable bodily transformations wrought by adolescence, is very evident and must surely be slightly intimidating however kind the older students are. The buildings are also much larger and more difficult to navigate with a number of separate departments to move between. Each subject lesson brings a new teacher and, despite the moderating effect of school policies, a myriad of minor variations in rules, practice and routine to be mastered reflecting the demands of the subject and the preferences of the teacher. This makes extra-ordinary demands on the organisational skills of the young pupil and some need a great deal of extra help to master them; these skills will, of course, stand them in good stead for later life when as adults they will have to juggle the competing demands of work, leisure and family with real fluency. Avoiding infringing rules and turning up at the right place with the right equipment occupies the new starter far more than any real learning for at least a week! It is no surprise that academic progress may dip in the first year of secondary school https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/182413/DFE-RR096.pdf
At Birkdale we review the process annually to continually try to improve the experience for the boys. The overwhelming majority of the boys at our Prep School move to the Senior School allowing for a considerable amount of coordination between the 2 schools; liaison over curricula prevents duplication of work and ensures that there is an appropriate degree of challenge; specialist teaching in the Prep School prepares the pupils for the wide range of different teachers in the secondary environment and we are fortunate enough to have several teachers who teach in both schools, helping to align expectations and practices between the 2 schools. I also take assemblies at the Prep School to try to ensure that the boys will at least recognise me, and my sense of humour, on arrival at the Senior School; as a secondary teacher, delivering these assemblies is beyond my normal experience and quite a challenge! For those joining the Senior School from other primary schools we run several induction days and events and try to make good use of existing friendship groups and other information from the feeder school to smooth the transition. Form tutors and form rooms help to give a sense of familiar territory to the new entrants and we have toyed with trying to reduce the number of teachers or rooms experienced by the youngest students. Of course, the desire to deploy specialist teachers and subject-specific resources militates against this but digital technologies are beginning to free teachers and students from rigid departmental areas.
The primary-secondary transition is equally significant for parents. Gone are the school gate conversations with primary teachers to be replaced with a familiarisation meeting with a form tutor and email or telephone conversations. Parents must adjust to a culture in which they will, inevitably, know less about the detail of their son’s day and walk the tight rope between supporting their son with organisation and homework and becoming so involved that they prevent their son from developing the independence and learning skills needed for success in the secondary environment. Parents also miss the opportunities to socialise with other parents at the start and end of the school day; at Birkdale we organise a welcome evening for parents to try to address this and allow at least the possibility for new friendships to be forged.
I also lunch regularly with U6 students, many of whom have already applied for university courses and are contemplating the radical transition of leaving home and living independently with real appetite, having outgrown the narrow confines of school life. Perhaps personal growth requires a series of episodes of becoming confident within one set of circumstances and surroundings only to move on and be initially daunted by the next.