Making the Jump
Martin Reader, Headmaster of Wellington School in Somerset, looks at how parents can best help their child through the process of transition - from home to school, prep to senior school, home life to boarding life.
One of the most difficult aspects of education for any child is transition - home to school, prep to senior school, home life to boarding life. Whilst moving on should never be without challenge, change is generally recognised as a major underlying factor for causing stress. Managing change should be one of the most fundamental aspects schools address, to help make growing up and education a rich, enjoyable experience. Each change encountered during a child's journey through school and life should be negotiated with as confident and relaxed an attitude as possible. To achieve this, a series of processes need to be in place within a school and across key stages and phases. In this article, I will look at how these policies are normally implemented at the key transition stages, with some useful points for parents to remember.
Communicating a sense of orderly progression to parents is vital in reassuring them that their children are not starting from the beginning at each point of change. What a relief to know each stage is a stepping stone following an easily recognised route, not a series of leaps of faith with a very uncomfortable tumble before equilibrium is reached once more. Schools and parents together are gradually preparing children to fly the nest and be independent: it's about managing transition in partnership, without being overprotective. Fortunately, schools have the incredible advantage of a rich foundation of prior knowledge and have seen pupils successfully make these transitions before. Naturally pupils vary in almost every way imaginable and this is not to belittle the anxieties of a family for whom this may be a daunting first time - starting school, coping with change in the family, becoming a boarder - but the school's solid experience and the processes in place should help reassure families that advice will be appropriate, common pitfalls can be avoided and staff monitor situations with sensitivity, taking whatever steps are necessary. In the past I sometimes underestimated the anxiety felt by many parents when their child makes a major move. Information that we take for granted, plans or policies that are in place year after year have not been communicated sufficiently. It is never a wilful omission, and all schools are eager to get it right for children and their parents, so parents should not feel unsure about asking questions and seeking clarification. For Heads, it is very frustrating to discover a problem or a query has gone from gentle simmer to boil because parents did not want to be perceived as pushy. Likewise, the school really does need to know if a child has particular social, health or learning concerns. Sometimes parents are reluctant to share information thinking that it may prejudice entry or a teacher's judgement - after all a new school means a fresh start. We all hope that this will be true and if schools are well prepared, they can give the best possible care. In short, a partnership in communication is a crucial starting point.
The first transition stage is from home to school or nursery. Even before children begin school, it is vital that parents are helped by the school to relax and trust them in managing this major first step for their child. Inviting parents of young children to start visiting a school as early as possible, and a regular schedule of events that encourages this relationship, starts a warm professional relationship on the best footing. It is where the partnership between school and parents begins. Pre-school Play Days, Open Mornings, open invitations to Christmas and summer fairs all help young people identify with 'their' school, develop a sense of excitement and anticipation and remove anxiety about that first major change. Making meetings a social occasion also means parents start to build the friendships that sustain them as they meet the changes in a mutually supportive environment.
The second stage comes after the first hurdles have been cleared, and the child is happily ensconced in school. Ensuring that pupils move with confidence from year group to year group and later on to senior school, are all of paramount importance. Parents can trust the school to manage the transitions and they themselves can play a significant role. Research has shown, for example, that children supported by their families during the long summer holidays in activities such as reading, guided play, visits to museums, continue to develop and progress. Children who are not supported in this way can take months to catch up.
As children progress through the key stages there will be inevitable changes to the pattern of learning. Homework and projects become more structured and subjects are introduced as more is expected of the children. Coupled with this is the ever expanding range of exciting activities which becomes so appealing that children want to do absolutely everything. They are not expected to. The aim is to get them used to working independently and to make choices. Exhausted children with no time to themselves do not face change well, so it is important that parents help children to establish sensible routines. Within a boarding school, house parents will always ensure this balance is met.
One issue children face every year is a change of class often accompanied by an anxiety about a separation from long established friends. Schools have different policies on whether to keep classes together and often decisions depend on whether the make-up of the class is creating the right atmosphere. And I can remember several occasions when one parent has said her child must be with Freddie, when Freddie's mum is adamant they shouldn't be together! My personal view is that it is good for children to change classes on a regular basis, learning to adapt to new dynamics and to make new friends, preparing for the bigger changes ahead. Children need to be reassured that they will make friends and that there is always play time!
It is my experience that good prep schools will have already built on the qualities of resilience and independence and the social skills necessary to face that next huge milestone, the start of senior school life. Nonetheless, moving from a small, friendly prep school to what appears to be a large, scary, senior school can be daunting. It is important to remember that it is usual for large senior schools to organise themselves into smaller units, houses, sections or forms with either a house parent or personal tutor who meet on a regular basis. This allows children to make friends quickly and for parents to have one familiar point of contact who knows their child.
Many schools now offer taster days and nights and these allow boys and girls to get a closer look and to begin to get used to the idea of a bigger school. Once places have been accepted, there is usually an induction day during the summer term and this helps them navigate the site, meet some of their teachers and a few friends. Schools are often happy for new pupils to attend concerts, plays and fixtures and all of these help children to settle in. However, be wary of too many visits. It is important that the last few months at prep school are really enjoyed and that familiarity does not dull anticipation.
At my school (Wellington School, Somerset), as with lots of schools now, pupils may join at three and remain until after their eighteenth birthday. On the surface a 'through school' appears to answer many of the problems of changing school, yet considerable work must still be done to ensure that transition between the stages is smooth. Rites of passage and growing up must be respected. How then to balance the need for change and the need for children of all ages to embrace change and use it to their benefit? Planning to develop confidence alongside competence at all levels is key, playing a vital role in the process of change, and informing discussions in and around the staff rooms and classrooms in school.
This gradual development of confidence is crucial. I think the great strength of the independent sector is its commitment to a multi-dimensional education which coaxes children into new situations and teams, allows them to find and nurture their talents and, along with the successes, experience a few minor knocks. We need to remember that transition can happen at any time, not just at the beginning of a year. Not being selected for the A team for the first time, a poor set of reports, the onset of puberty, perhaps a family trauma can all push a child off balance. With growing confidence they will be more able to meet the challenges that face them. Ultimately, what both prep and senior schools are trying to achieve is that at the end of school the children have flourished and are fully equipped and itching to leave.
Of course, so far we have only considered transition in terms of a child's progression through the various year groups during the school career. Another form of transition is when there is a desire to move from being a day pupil to becoming a boarder. Concerned parents often approach us looking for guidance about distinguishing between what is safe, what is appropriate danger and what should at all costs be avoided. The boarding lifestyle appears to offer a great solution, providing an environment where children are safe to learn how to take risks - a vital developmental factor. If it is available, flexi-boarding allows pupils the chance to discover what it is really like. As the name suggests, it enables pupils to take advantage of the boarding experience but for just a few nights, rather than a solid week or term at a time. Parents often use this facility if they are away, but flexi boarding also works well for parents who are both working and want their child to take advantage of particular sporting, drama or other after school activities. Boarding, whether flexi- or full-time, also allows a child to become more involved in the whole school community. As one pupil commented to me, 'I never thought I would feel so much part of a community in such a short space of time.' But parents need to be warned about their child trying out the boarding route, as it can frequently be the beginning of negotiations of the sort only teens and pre-teens can muster - starting with 'but why can't I board?!'
It's then that you realise change is already underway...