How did the first couple of weeks at secondary school go? Just a few weeks into the new term, with still-shiny shoes and slightly too big blazers, most 11-year-olds will still be coming to terms with the huge shift from a big fish in a small pond to tiny fish in a massive pond. It's traumatic for some, it's difficult for many and it's challenging for all. Of course, all transitions have their challenges but the shift from primary to secondary can be seismic and it shouldn't be like this. Our schools are too big and the transition to secondary school happens too soon.
In the middle of July, 11-year-olds at primary school are running around the school fields, liberated from the scourge of Sats and free to play like the children they are. In September, the uniform changes from bright colours to black, from polo shirt to tie and blazer; school hours are lengthened and breaks shortened; homework quickly piled high. The child is left in no doubt: school is now a serious business.
The multifarious influences on the 11-year-olds joining secondary school are subtle but together they add up to an implicit demand to grow up. Playtime becomes break and woe betide you if you get it wrong; lunch hour becomes a more industrious 45 minutes; the cardigan becomes a blazer. At my daughter's school, the pleated skirt becomes a business-like pencil skirt, which totally precludes running around or cycling (it makes walking hard enough).
Secondary school consequences
This flattening of fun, insistence on maturity and increase of uniformity is necessary because there are too many pupils, too little time and too few staff, meaning solutions are designed to suit the school, not the child. Consequently, while ostensibly handing responsibility to children, in fact, they are doing the opposite and not making them think or act independently. Secondary school channels an 11-year-old in the same way a gardener ties a plant to a cane in order to train it to grow a certain way. The result appears impressive and handsome from the outside but it was never meant to grow that way.
Children at 11 are not ready or equipped to think about adult life yet. Why are we so keen to get them there so fast? Why ask a 12-year-old at a parents' evening what job she wants, as my daughter was asked in the summer? Schools explicitly demand their pupils act in a mature way, with the result that most children, naturally seeking adult approval, will toe the line and act maturely. But it's a skin-deep maturity that may make adults' lives easier but leaves the potential for much-unspoken turbulence beneath the surface.
The result is that the 11-year-olds adopt the persona of a young adult in an effort to make themselves fit in. Unsurprisingly, this dissonance is hard to handle and though this dichotomy is felt unconsciously, its evidence is in the clear national picture of worsening mental health in children (and adults). In a reflection of broader society, schools have started noticing the symptoms of mental ill health at last but the most common and expedient reaction is to pathologize, detach and apply a sticking plaster to the symptoms (yes, I'm generalising here, I know some schools are brilliant). Schools must do just enough to postpone the problems until the children have left.
Pre-teen and teen children face innumerable challenges as they seek to find their place in the world, deal with the changes happening in their bodies and minds, and grasp the enormity of what it is to be who they are. Yet the school system only intensifies these pressures and expectations, demanding development happens early, quickly and uniformly. There isn't time or space to be an individual, to allow a child to flourish while being corralled into a homogenous group of pseudo-adults, ushered into the broad opening of a funnel designed to squeeze out, in 7-10 years' time, productive members of the future workforce.
Our local secondary school has 2,000 pupils. The local authority, however, is looking at increasing pupil numbers to 2,500. Yes, 2,500. There are universities smaller than that. With that many pupils to organise, let alone teach, it's no wonder that schools don't have time for the niceties of treating children differently according to their age and development. They're obsessed with turning children into adults as quickly as possible because it's easier to take a single approach than a multi-faceted one. And if we're honest, in this age of dangerously dwindling resources from the government, it's the only pragmatic choice.
Secondary schools would surely better serve the individual needs of their pupils if they were of manageable size. Perhaps then they wouldn't need their youngest pupils to behave like adults. Or, even better, take a leaf out of public schools' book and make the transition between schools at 13. It feels like a much more natural, much less forced moment of growth as 13-year-olds have a growing confidence, some idea of who they might be, more physical presence. The fact that there were 2,000 middle schools in England in the early 1980s, typically with pupils aged 9-13, is an acknowledgement of the critical nature of these years and the advantage to children of not exposing them too soon to high school. It's a shame that the national curriculum and successive governments' obsession with exam and test results override the fulfillment and well-being of children to the extent that there are now fewer than 150 middle schools left.
Is it too much to ask for another couple of years where a child can grow and develop at their own pace, in a smaller community of warmth and safety? Stop asking what they want to be when they grow up, stop obsessing about maturity. Let them learn simply for the pleasure of learning just a little bit longer, let them discover, let them flourish, let them play, let them be happy. Just let them be.
Nick Campion is a parent governor at Hilton Primary School in Derbyshire