Life is just one long line of transitions

Growing up involves negotiating various "rites of passage", some of which are encountered in the education system. Attending school for the first time, making the transition from primary to secondary, or from secondary to work, college or university - all these are significant life events for young people and it is easy for adults to forget the feelings they engender.

For many youngsters, the feelings are a strange mixture of anticipation and apprehension. They are excited at the prospect of meeting new people, learning new things, exploring a new environment. At the same time, they worry about whether they will manage to cope in unfamiliar settings. Will they get lost, or struggle with the work, or find themselves subject to bullying?

Schools now do a great deal to ensure that transitions are managed much more effectively than used to be the case. There is generally good communication between nurseries and primary schools, and between secondary schools and their associated primaries. It is standard practice to offer a programme of visits and events for both pupils and parents, in order to convey information, answer questions and provide an opportunity to get to know staff.

"Buddy" systems, where older pupils act as guides and mentors to younger pupils, are increasingly common. The old "sink or swim" philosophy no longer has much currency.

All of these provisions are to be welcomed and represent a genuine attempt to reduce the fears and uncertainties which imminent change generally entails. But there are always some casualties. Even the best designed systems cannot guarantee to reach the inner worlds of children who are shy, anxious, or resistant to any form of official provision.

Often the anxieties or hostilities of these young people will have their origins outside the school environment, in home circumstances that make education seem alien, difficult, boring or oppressive. And for looked-after children, the problems are compounded. Induction programmes do not work for everyone.

There is another important limitation on the efforts of schools and teachers to make transitions as easy as possible. Rites of passage, by their very nature, are challenging and difficult for most people. That is why they mark significant points of development. The process of negotiating them has to be personal: in the final analysis, it has to be done by the individual on his or her own. It is that personal engagement that makes the episode worth while, that ensures it is a learning experience and that prepares the ground for the next stage of development.

These observations are not confined to childhood and adolescence. For adults, too, life is a series of transitions - in friendships, relationships, locations, employment, retirement, bereavement. Coping with setbacks is an inevitable part of that process. Indeed dealing with adversity, while it is not a pleasant experience at the time, can be a source of strength in the longer term.

Even if it were possible, therefore, to insulate children from all the anxieties associated with transitions, it would not be desirable. It would fail to prepare them for the challenges of life beyond school. That is not to argue that we should return to a sink or swim philosophy, but it is to suggest that we need to be realistic about what we can hope to achieve.

Children deserve to be protected and supported, but the aspiration to create an entirely "risk-free" environment, whether in a physical or a psychological sense, is not in their best interests. Knowing when to intervene and when to stand back calls for careful judgment by parents and teachers. And sometimes we get it wrong.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at Paisley University.

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