In for a big disappointment
Recently, I interviewed a group of 11-year-olds about transferring from an outer London primary to five secondary schools this term. An enthusiastic bunch, I wondered how their new schools had capitalised on their eagerness to move on to big school.
Nine out of the ten children had picked up very positive impressions from the visits they'd made in the summer term on induction or taster days. The tenth was less enthusiastic from the start and had difficulty in recalling with confidence any of his feelings or experiences.
They had faced their first morning with a mixture of eager anticipation and nervousness. Hopes were focused on sports, after-school clubs and a belief that they would be treated in a more grown-up way. They were nervous about getting lost, not knowing anyone and not knowing what was expected of them. Only one was concerned about bullying and none felt unduly threatened by what lay ahead.
Their experiences on that first, impressionable day were remarkably similar. All had lengthy form periods and one, two or three lessons. The form tutors welcomed them, gave out timetables to be copied and introduced the school's rules and practices. What lessons there were involved the distribution of books, folders, and more rules; if there was a lesson in a practical subject, the teacher concentrated on safety regulations and how to behave in labs and technology rooms. Only rarely did anything occur that the children were prepared to describe as work and this was "to see what you can do". On the next and subsequent days there were more lessons but still a preponderance of briefing or preparatory activities.
When I asked them to look back over their first week, seven children were enthusiastic, one "felt OK", one wasn't sure and another was "very disappointed". All said the sessions on the timetable, rules and regulations had been "boring". Crucially, in my view, all expressed disappointment about their first learning experiences.
If the priority for these secondary schools is to induct new pupils into the rules and practices of the institution in a way that avoids distress, then you could say they've done a pretty good job. After all, only one child out of the 10 showed any explicit dissatisfaction.
If, however, these schools want to give their new pupils a "good start" and a productive beginning to their secondary education then a very different picture emerges. Nine eager children were given a safe but stultifying diet in their first week, leavened, only on occasion, by some opportunity to engage their minds. An opportunity was lost; by neglect their enthusiasm was squandered.
In the words of one young optimist "next week will be better and the week after that even more". For his sake, and ours, they had better be.
Chris Curran is a parent and education lecturer at Anglia Polytechnic University. He will be interviewing the pupils again at the end of the first half term.