Let them wander in the wilderness

19th March 2004 at 00:00
The rite of passage between primary and secondary should be celebrated, says Robert Holmes

For years teachers have been exhorted to ensure that the transition between primary and secondary school is seamless. This is about ensuring continuity, coherence: about avoiding the dislocation of the summer break; the perceived dip in attainment. It is a focus on sameness; uniformity; to ensure that there is no trauma in moving from P7 to S1. However, in attempting to provide this seamless bridge we are really doing our pupils a great disservice. It is not so much seamless as seem-less.

As a society we have been moving, unquestioningly it seems, towards a culture where we require that the difficulties and challenges in life are removed; softened; taken away. The aim appears to be to try to make living a smooth and carefree process. Difficulties and problems have no place in our well-ordered and managed existence. Instance the incredible increase in consumer credit; the vast profits that pharmaceutical companies make in providing painkillers and other instant remedies. Instance the comfort we take in the prepared and pre-packaged food we eat, without thinking about the chemical consequences.

Do we really want our children to grow up in a world where they are not challenged academically and physically? Where they are not challenged intellectually and emotionally? Where one experience merges painlessly with the next: so that their sense of discrimination is neutralised? The journey through school, through life, is sometimes difficult and demanding - we need to help equip our pupils better by allowing them to experience the diversity of living as much as possible - not as little.

T S Eliot remarked: "What we call the beginning is often the end And to make an end is to make a beginning The end is where we start from." Our journey through life is about change and renewal. Witness the rhythms of the day or the seasons of the year. Once we go from here to there, we find another here which in turn takes us to another there. And so on. That is the richness and unpredictability of life. Let's preserve it. Let's do it by not masking it from our children.

Rites of passage exist in all known societies and perform useful personal, group and social functions, maintaining the equilibrium of society by recognising openly that change has taken place and is often celebrated.

Psychologically, an important aspect of rites is the assistance that they give in moving to a more challenging stage in development. There is assurance in helping to alleviate the anxiety that may exist. We can find examples in religion: the bar mitzvah; confirmation; marriage and baptism.

In death there are many. The Honours List is a modern version of body decoration practised by our ancestors. So let's agree that rites of passage still abound. Why not use such a valuable and recognisable function to develop awareness rather than minimise it?

Primary schools and secondary schools are different. That may be heresy to some, but it is a fact. They are different in size, in organisation, in culture, in aims. They are working with pupils who are at different stages of development and whose needs are entirely different. Relationships are different; classrooms are different; curriculum organisations are different.

Am I labouring the point here? Different is the watchword - not better.

Primary and secondary schools can share the same ethos, the same values and the same goals. They can foster the same kinds of relationships with parents, for example. They can collaborate and work together for the benefit of the pupils. But they cannot be the same. Let's celebrate the difference.

Many Scottish schools will have prizegivings or award ceremonies. Some will have leaver ceremonies. Many secondary schools will have induction programmes for returning senior students. All secondary schools will have a "welcome" programme for new S1 students. All of these programmes and events are aimed at recognising that something is different; something has changed.

They are often billed as a "celebration of achievement". Is reaching the age when you go from the primary to the "big school" not worthy of celebration - and celebration at both stages? Is there not a case to be made for a "graduation ceremony" at the end of P7 as well as for an induction ceremony for S1? Should we not mark this transition much more thoroughly and in so doing support the pupils publicly? Should we not make this time a cause for commemoration and enjoyment?

Robert Frost suggested that you need to be "lost enough to find yourself".

Being lost is not a problem - it is an opportunity to discover more about yourself; about your talents and skills; about the direction you next want to try to travel in. There is not a problem in a P7 pupil being "lost" in a large secondary school. What is important is the climate and culture within that secondary school. What is important is the ethos and value system that supports that pupil's "lost-ness".

If we lived in a tribe in other times, we would expect our young people to be lost in the wilderness or the outback for a while. We would send them there because the health and continuation of the tribe may well depend on what was learnt during that time. That kind of ritual provides status, direction and reassurance for the individual - and does the same thing for the tribe.

Are we afraid to allow this kind of opportunity for our own young people? Are we afraid that something "bad" will happen to them? Do we not trust ourselves enough to have prepared them adequately for the journey?

In The Whitsun Weddings, Philip Larkin describes the "travelling coincidence" of being on the same journey at the same time for the same reason. As the journey comes to a close he talks about some of the travellers being "loosed with all the power that being changed can give".

Change, transition, is a process that ought not to fill us with anxiety, for ourselves or for our young people. Rather, it is an opportunity to make new ways and discover other ideas - to test our resources and ourselves.

One of the things that most irritates students is low expectations of them, the feeling that they are being patronised. We can do something about that in helping them see the bridges from one part of their lives to the next.

We do not need to build the bridges for them; we do not need to make sure the bridge is safe to cross; we do not need to provide them with a map. We just need to feel safe enough ourselves to let them go. They will go where they allow themselves and will arrive in their chosen time.

Let's celebrate the journey. Let's celebrate the arrival - where, when and how it happens.

Robert Holmes is the retired depute rector of Hawick High.

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