They’re in gingham dresses, shorts, ankle socks and superhero capes. Cartwheeling across the playground, chasing a football or racing breathless across the field. Uninhibited, flushed full of energy, smeared with suncream and blinking under the shade of their sunhats.
They skip and clap, chanting rhymes and games, or thread daisy chains cross-legged on the long grass. Their voices singing the latest songs drift across the playground under a blue sky with dotted clouds, casting rare shadows over trading-card huddles and feet on concrete careering after wayward hoops and balls.
Skipping ropes slap on tarmac and whoops of laughter erupt as the ball flies over the fence again. Small groups chat and giggle. Others roll with abandon down the grass of the verge. Yet others draw or write studiously, knees as easels, their backs against the sun-warmed walls. A tearing game of tag screams past the dinner-hall doors, and another of stuck-in-the-mud sees scarecrow children momentarily still until they are free to dash shrieking across the green again.
Handfuls of mown grass are heaped into fairy homes, decorated with stones and sticks, or are shoved down an unsuspecting back. It is a blur of movement, noise and chatter. Flushed cheeks rejoin lines when whistles blow, and reluctant footballers traipse back, stained green, carrying the fraying football in the crook of their arm.
The last playtime
But, in a few short weeks, this will not be their playtime.
Come September, they will be moving on. These Year 6 children will no longer be the kings and queens of their primary schools but will be the minnows in the ocean of their secondary school.
Looking at them now, it is almost inconceivable that, in a few dozen days, this cohort will be travelling alone, some checking their new phones, blazer sleeves down to their knuckles as they walk past the field and the playground, navigating their way to their next chapter.
The Year 6 leavers’ assemblies will go some way towards trying to articulate the almost whiplash-speed of this next phase. The inevitable tears shed on the day are both for the nostalgia of simpler times as well as the anxiety and unknown of the new. The clichés of its only seeming moments since they began in Reception will be echoed in school halls across the country. Pangs of realisation that this really is it will be kindling hot tears and burning throats in teachers and parents alike.
The children will be giddy on a cocktail of excitement and hesitancy, enjoying their momentary celebrity status with their rebellious autographed shirts and their performances on stage. For some, it will be too much. Heavy with the weight of change, some are bowed and unable to take part. Some parents are overwhelmed by the end of this stage and weep, the event a catalyst for reflecting on more than just the day itself.
Pigtailed and plaited
Some of the children still seem barely big enough for key stage 2, let alone the move to secondary. Some still have the rounded features of infants or the soft-padded hands and feet of younger children. Some have the latest haircuts but some remain pigtailed and plaited with rainbow bobbles.
For some, this move is long overdue, their limbs too long and now a ludicrous fit for primary, like Alice down the rabbit hole or Gulliver in Lilliput. Some are ready for the challenge and the chance for fresh starts, new adventures and clean slates.
But all are ultimately still little. Many will have caring commitments or regimes of sports or music practice by this age. Many will be capable of cooking a family meal or running an errand alone. Some will already be dreaming of future careers, as pop stars and footballers or as lawyers, doctors and designers. Others can still be found giggling at cartoons with younger siblings or ankle deep in Lego and Barbies.
And yet all of them will soon be navigating their way around seemingly vast buildings to multiple new teachers, alongside other children they don’t know.
And they will be fine. But they will be different.
And that is why, when those assembly halls fill with the families and carers who have dutifully stood at school gates in all weathers, signed forms, wrangled with reading books, ironed years of the same badged uniforms in gradually increasing sizes, packed lunchboxes and sat on miniature chairs through nativities, music performances, harvest festivals and class assemblies, there will be so many who feel the sting of sudden tears.
As they sing those leaving songs, we will see not those 10- and 11-year-olds poised on the brink of new adventures but those four year olds dropped off on the first day. As we scan the school hall, we hear the echoes of every song they ever sang and every part they ever played, from wonky shepherds in nativities to confident performers in end-of-year extravaganzas. We’ll hear not their articulate readings of their favourite memories but their faltering firsts, with wobbling paper in hand.
And, as they stream out on that last day, and we wave off not only the children but some of their families for the last time, it will be the end of an era.
That is, until the next year.
Emma Turner is the research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Trust, Leicestershire