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Transition to secondary school

Updated: Jun 3

In early March social media and messaging apps were full of messages about which secondary school various Year 6s had "got", Parents and carers delighted, relieved, upset, concerned, cross.... a whole range of emotions. Whichever secondary school your son or daughter is going to in September, your thoughts as a parent/carer turn to the future - how will your child make a really positive transition to a new stage of their education?


I have seen this over many years, with hundreds and hundreds of children, including my own, and, for most young people the transition to high school is an exciting, slightly nervous, but generally very positive experience. Sometimes it can be more challenging, however, and this is particularly the case if your child has additional needs, struggles with their mental health or if you believe that they may need additional support to settle into secondary school.


As parents and carers, this is the time to begin to find common ground with the school, to build positive relationships so that you can collaborate intelligently as the year progresses.


So, from experience, here are some initial pointers:


Everyone wants it to go well. Generally, children want to do well in their new school. Parents and carers definitely want their child to succeed. Secondary school staff want their new students to succeed. The tensions arise between the desire from the school for students to conform and fit in and the need to address the individual needs of each child. For example, there will be a lot of general messages about "expectations" and "standards" - the question is how the school balances those necessary general messages with the individual needs of each child. Some schools do this well, others not so well, Mistakes may be made as the school gets to know your child, but look for kindness and a willingness to make reasonable individual adjustments as your child settles in. Start from the positive perspective that it is going to go well and talk to the school about any queries or concerns.


Relationships are key. At primary school you will generally have had a relationship with the school via the class teacher. At secondary level there will be a far greater number of staff that your child comes into contact with on a daily basis. This can be really confusing for parents and carers when you want to sort something out! Transition to secondary is usually led by a Head of Year supported by a range of form tutors and other staff. Bearing in mind that the Head of Year will potentially have hundreds of students to get to know it is well worth establishing a positive relationship with them, or anyone he or she identifies as a key contact so that you know who to talk to about any issues going forward. It is not possible to be in contact with individual class teachers, generally, at secondary level - the number of students that most teachers see on a weekly basis makes that unworkable. Find out who your point of contact is, particularly if your child has any form of additional need and build a positive relationship with them.


What if my child got additional support when at primary? If your child has an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) at primary then you would expect someone from the secondary school to attend their EHCP review. In some ways this is more straightforward - you will hopefully have had extensive discussions around provision whilst choosing the school in the first place so you and the school should be well-acquainted. This issue is more around those whose got additional support from an in-class TA (teaching assistant) or other provision whilst at primary, but did not need or receive an EHCP - in other words the primary school would identify them as being in receipt of SEND Support (or "on the SEN register"). Hopefully again there has already been some discussion, but if not, now is the time to make contact with the Head of Year and SENDCO at the secondary to discuss need. Some children benefit from the move to secondary and do not need additional support; some find the opposite - whichever it is you need a good relationship with the key staff so that you can discuss need as Year 7 progresses. There are excellent resources supporting the transition of students with SEND - for example from Lynn McCann at Reachout ASC - her blog post on this is here and her transition booklet for autistic students is here.


Gathering information. Now that your child has a place at the secondary school the school will gather as much information as they can about them. You will be asked for all the basic stuff - contact details, medical etc.... The school will set about obtaining the information from the primary school and a good transition process will involve a member of the secondary school staff talking to the primary school directly and often going in to see the children and teacher in their Year 6 class. This depends upon the number of feeder schools, number of children from each school and impact on the primary school, but it is often particularly useful (indeed necessary) when the child has known additional needs.. You need to be aware that this is going on behind the scenes. Some families worry that the primary school will give over information or perceptions that will damage their child's chances at secondary school - that is unlikely. Everyone involved knows that children change as they grow up and often transition to secondary can be a "fresh start" for some children. A good secondary school will make sensible use of the information that they are given from all sources to help to form a picture of of your child and to help them to settle into their new school. If you have concerns about this or feel that the primary school does not have the whole picture, then get in touch with the contact at the secondary (usually the Head of Year) to update them.


Planning Change is always challenging so it is really important to make sure that you understand the process so you can interpret it for your child. In the summer term there will be transition day(s) where all the new Year 7s go into their new school. There will be parents/carers sessions to meet the form tutors, listen to the headteacher, get uniform etc.... - these will vary in format from school to school. Some schools will run a "summer school" during the summer holidays. For students with known special educational needs there will probably be additional small group or individual visits. Many schools have "buddy" systems where individual new Year7s are paired up with slightly older students who often make contact before they arrive. Most secondary schools do some assessment of their new students either during the transition process or just after they arrive after September. Make sure that you know what is going on - communication from the school should tell you, or the school website. If unclear, get in touch with the named contact (usually the Head of Year) and make a plan so that you can talk it through with your child. There are some useful resources to help you - I have identified the ones from Lynn McCann above and there are useful resources from Anna Freud and from Young Minds for example.


Communication. Secondary schools often seem big and impersonal. They usually don't mean to be - they just have a lot of students and staff by comparison with most primaries! You sometimes want to ring up and speak to someone about something and that is challenging for a school to manage - as I said, a Head of Year might have a year group of a couple of hundred students - and schools are very busy places so people are not usually available when you want them to be! Secondary schools therefore do a lot of their communication by email, which seems impersonal, but it is often the best way to manage a stream of communication. This is why it is so important to know who your point of contact is - Head of Year, form tutor, SENDCO.... - they may not be able to address your issue directly, but they are the person you have a positive relationship with at the school and they will be able to redirect your concern.


This is about finding common ground, as I said at the top. You want to establish strong and positive relationships with at least one key adult in the secondary school so that you can work together intelligently as the year progresses. Accept that sometimes mistakes will be made - with good faith and collaboration between home and school most issues can be resolved. Secondary schools often seem very regimented and unyielding places - and there is definitely a need to establish good routines and positive behaviours for learning. All children are individuals and have their own individual needs, however, and at some times these may make it hard for your child to "fit in" with the school systems. What you need is positive relationships with key adults so that you can work together so that your child thrives.


Good luck! If you would like additional help and guidance, please get in touch.


James Harris


The Finding Common Ground project provides independent advice to parents and carers leading to significantly improved relationships between families and schools in the best interests of young people. Please contact advice@findingcommonground.org.uk or see www.findingcommonground.org.uk


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