Tuesday, 13 April 2021

True Transition Begins in September

Life begins at 40 (apparently) and transition begins in September.

In our first 40 years, we don't think to ourselves that we are preparing for the next 40 years. We get on with life and live in the moment (relatively speaking). This living, in most cases, does prepare us for the next years of life (most of us do plan ahead), however the sole purpose of the 40th year is not to ready oneself for the 41st year (although I'm sure there is some mental preparation to do in order to embrace 40). You don't become 40 until you complete your 40th year - I'm not sure anyone spends 39 pretending they are 40.

The above should be true for transition too.

Primary school, done right, should prepare children for secondary school, however it is not the sole purpose. Year 6 might require some mental adjustments in order to be ready for the concept of being in year 7 but it shouldn't be the year where all the actual changes take place. Year 6 should not be year 7 a year early - year 6 has its own purpose too (not SATs and perhaps the true purpose of year 6 is another blog post for another time).

As I've hinted at above, there are aspects of transition that can take place prior to the starting date - the day they walk through the door of their secondary school - and there is quite a lot of information out there already to help year 6 teachers and parents with this (see Emily Weston's blog post, Transition Talks magazine and Liz Stevenson's blog for good examples). After all, it is important that our year 6 children are mentally ready - optimistic, resilient, excited, ready for a challenge - before they arrive at 'big school'.

However, if you're with me so far, we surely must agree that actually the greatest part of transition work must happen once those year 7s are through our doors at the beginning of September (or the end of August for the keen ones).

When I asked both primary and secondary staff on Twitter What would you expect a new y7 child to be able to do independently when they arrive? the answers were many and various:

However, many answers from secondary staff appeared to me to be focused on the expectation that primary children should arrive knowing how to do some very secondary-specific things. Here are some examples:

  • Read and understand a timetable
  • Pack the correct books and equipment for each day
  • Transition between lessons in different rooms in different parts of the school 
  • Have the habit of checking the time themselves and being on time
  • Understanding how to access lunchtime arrangements
  • To know when and when not to ask for help
  • To know when and when not to ask for permission (e.g. to get out of their seat, to take off items of clothing, to go to the toilet)
  • Be used to a different number of break times and lessons
These expectations, focusing on children's ability to organise and manage the school day despite it being very different to what they are used to, were the focus of many answers. Such expectations will vary from school to school and will even vary from teacher to teacher within each secondary school -children go from learning one school's expectations, and one teacher's expectations, to having to learn a new school's expectations plus 15 different teachers' expectations of the above (even where schools have the most consistent approach to routines, systems and expectations there are bound to be personal differences - see some of the other answers in the Twitter thread for examples of this).

Many such expectations were mentioned seemingly as something which could be talked about at primary school during year 6 so that in year 7 they know exactly what to do.

The problems with this are several-fold:

  • A conversation, no matter how many times it is had, will never trump experience. The only real experience children will get of the above is once they arrive in year 7.
  • Year 6 teachers are often dealing with children heading off to multiple secondary schools - as a result they can only really speak generically about what their class might be facing come September. 
  • Often, or nearly always as is probably the case, year 6 teachers will not have specific knowledge of the routines, systems and expectations of even just one secondary school.
  • Conversations happen at a minimum 5/6 weeks prior to the children actually setting foot in their secondary school - there is a lot of time to forget during that time, especially since the information is highly theoretical and is attached to no true experience.

Of course, there is more that primary schools could do, beyond a conversation. For example:

  • Transition days provide a chance for children to experience a real day in a secondary school, however on those days very few of the above expectations are in place: they don't have to pack a bag full of particular books, or bring the right equipment, or wear the right uniform, or find their way around the school using a timetable and a map. Perhaps transition days could expect more of the above, however doing that may serve to deep anxieties around starting secondary schools rather than put minds at ease - which I do believe should be one of the main purposes of a transition day in the summer term of year 6.
  • The current trend seems to be that primary schools replicate as much of secondary school as possible during year 6: different teachers, different rooms, timetables, a change in pedagogy or classroom environment. However, with all the best will in the world there are many practical limitations to these efforts (building size, staffing etc) and the net result in reality is still this: they have not yet set foot in a secondary school and have not yet had to do full days, full weeks and full terms in what, to begin with, is an unfamiliar environment with potentially alien routines, systems and expectations. In a primary where children are given something intending to represent a year 7 experience, there are still many aspects of primary life that will not replicate secondary life completely (lunchtimes for example). Besides, I would still argue that this approach is the wrong way round, hence my previous blog post and the title and content of this one.
  • Covid seems to have brought about the production of video material which in some ways does away with the aforementioned issues of parents and year 6 teachers not knowing enough about the particular expectations of each secondary school. Video content available online means that children and parents can learn more about secondary life from the comfort of their own homes. This is a positive move, however, as before, does not replicate fully the lived experience that can only be gained by starting secondary school for real.

The fact is that whilst primary schools can go some way to help year 6 children to be secondary-ready, the real bulk of the transition work needs to be done by secondary schools once the children are in year 7. 

September is the time to introduce the new expectations, systems and routines and the key is to be supportive in how they are introduced, following a gradual release of responsibility model. Expecting the finished article in week 1 of year 7 is unrealistic, and kindness and empathy will be required in how new year 7 children become familiar with the new expectations, systems and routines.

And it won't just be a matter of weeks, either. In order to truly embed much of this new secondary-specific practice, children will need months to acclimatise. As I've mentioned in a previous blog post, schools must be aware of the cognitive load that all the newness will put on the brains of these 11- or just-12-year-olds. I know that even as an adult starting a new job in a new school it has taken me months - terms, even - to get to grips with new expectations, systems and routines, even as a deputy head. In fact, each different part of the year brings slight changes to some of the routines and throughout the year there can be constant subtle changes to get used to.

Those of us who work in secondary schools really need to see year 7 as an entire transition year, and we must treat the children with the necessary care and understanding as they learn the ropes. And, as I've also written before, if the expectations are lowered in terms of such practicalities, there is more chance that expectations can be raised when it comes to the all-important curriculum learning that needs to happen in year 7. Plus, if teachers are less stressed out about whether or not a child has read a timetable correctly, packed the right books or tied their tie correctly because they understand that embedding these things will take time, they will have a happier time of it too - no more annoying year 7s.

More from my blog on transition:

Making Secondary Schools Primary-Ready

Three Characteristics of a Supportive KS3 Curriculum

Working Towards a Middle Phase in an All-Through Academy: Potential Logistical Changes for Years 7 and 8

Click the image below to book free tickets for the TransitionEd conference, which I will be speaking at alongside many other wonderful people:


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