'The current transition system asks too much of our vulnerable pupils – and they need our support'

We can't keep throwing young lives away by failing to bend our systems around them – fragile and vulnerable children need extra support when dealing with the transition from primary to secondary, writes one headteacher

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I used to always swan through the end of September and beginning of October engrossed in the oversight of new beginnings. But, in recent years, I have become more aware of the devastating effects of separations and transitions happening around me.

Last year, on the final weekend in September, my eldest child went to university.

The experience of moving day was intensely conflictive: packing his life into a car, driving down the motorway to an unfamiliar city, arriving in sterile university halls, shoehorning his belongings into a box-like room, trying to inject a sense of him into the room, buying bags full of food and cramming them into his allocated kitchen shelves, taking him for a last lunch before he left us and watching his nervously excited hyper-vigilance as his fellow adventurers arrived. It all hurt my heart in a way I had never expected.

How could I feel so proud and so wrecked at the same time? The conflict created a sense of surrealism as, like an automaton, I moved through the jobs of the day, each one bringing us closer to that moment of letting go. All around me were other parents, carrying out the same tasks, in varying degrees of shocked confusion, preparing for that moment of separation.

When it came, my head was telling me to get it done quickly and to look forward with optimism. So, with sunglasses on to hide the pain that leaked from my eyes, I forced out our goodbyes and held on to my husband, forcing myself to walk away.

It felt as if my head was quietly performing open-heart surgery without anaesthetic, leaving part of it writhing on the floor of the corridor outside his room. All the way home I hurt and quietly cried, it took days to stop feeling so wounded but, like any wound, it healed. 

He has grown, and his rich experiences and lovely new friends have all added fresh colour and dynamism to the tapestry of our family life.

During the beginning of term, I watched last year’s Year 6 return to tell us of their adventures at high school. It was a joy to see their rapid maturation and a source of considerable pride. It is lovely to see them taking this move in their stride, especially when I remember their distraught tears and those of their parents at the end of the summer term.

They were a delightful year group but, at the point of separation from the security of their primary school years, they were overwhelmed by a sense of trepidation and were inconsolable.

Our cluster of schools have worked closely with local high schools to create a more positive and smooth transition, and this has certainly improved the experience of separation and transition for the majority of children.

However, at the same time, I get daily reports from the families of two of our pupils moving into Year 8, for whom this transition has not worked. It is early days for the current Year 7, but I am fearful that some of them will find their bright start tarnishing by the end of their induction year.

Each year, I despair as some of our bright but challenging and vulnerable young people, who we battled to support through the challenges of their lives and academia, fall by the wayside and find themselves permanently excluded, passed from school to school, ending up homeschooled or in pupil referral units.

If I were to devise a system most likely to induce failure for our children from chaotic, turbulent home lives, it could not be worse than the one in place.

Children who have lived with domestic violence, who have fought for food or attention and who may have suffered multiple separations and grief are often hyper-vigilant, lack self-esteem, struggle to trust new people and are panicked by change or uncertainty.

Our current systems can ask too much of these children: they must make their way around a large and unfamiliar building, worrying that they will get into trouble if they get lost. They are expected to cope with the differences in the teaching style of five or six different adults in a day, some of whom they will like better than others. It asks them to navigate corridors brimming with children, who they will scrutinise for any sign of verbal or physical aggression. And it will expect them to have all of the right equipment for each of the different lessons they will face whether the chaos of their minds or their homes support them in this or not.

I would love to create a halfway house for these vulnerable children. I know that most children, though nervous, manage the move well and grow in the process. However, some of our children's own fragility and vulnerability mean that this transition is too demanding and will break them. This creates considerable chaos and stress for their fellow pupils, teachers and families.

There are sufficient numbers of these children in most schools to justify an alternative form of organisation that matches them, that fits their needs rather than just expecting them to fit our systems. I know that some schools already create halfway house arrangements where children will stay in one or two rooms over the day with a minimum of staff changes and that these arrangements can last for as long or short a time as required.

Some schools have a mentor that works across Year 6 and 7, joint funded, to accompany a child and offer a point of contact for child and parent alike. Other schools offer peer-mentor schemes with positive older mentors to work with them through Year 6 and 7 to offer support and act as a positive role model. There are many ways of easing these transitions to ensure that we do not keep throwing young lives away by failing to bend our systems around them.

And it's not just our pupils who need support through these transitions.

We can do more to assist our parents through these periods of change. All of our academic inductions are a build up to departure: from waving them into their first classroom, through photographing their wait for their first bus trip into high school in their ill-fitting uniform, to watching them struggle stiffly to prom in their strangely adult and beautiful finery. That is why even though these experiences are so wonderful for parents to watch, they hurt.

My own experiences have caused me to readdress how we manage transition and separation. As a teacher, I sometimes feel impatient, wishing that parents would just leave quickly and not protract the difficulties of separation, that they would just go and let us get on with our job.

I am glad that nobody stood behind me as I said goodbye to my son, that I was allowed to get on with it without being judged, but also glad that the procedures and systems of induction day moved me on swiftly and imperceptibly. I hope that in our school, we can avoid tuts of frustration and afford our parents the same privilege of a sensitive and mercifully well-managed separation.

What helped me to heal was knowing that he was having a great time and that he would be back soon. I think that next year we will send photographs to the newly arrived children’s parents with the caption, “Look, I’m having a great time. See you soon.”

Siobhan Collingwood is the headteacher of Morecambe Bay Community Primary School, winner of the Creative School of the Year category at the 2017 Tes Schools Awards. 

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