Moving on up

20th July 2007 at 01:00
Going to big school can be scary, but feeder schools in Perthshire have teamed up to run a residential that smoothes the transition. Su Clark reports

with fewer than 550 pupils, Breadalbane Academy in Aberfeldy, Perthshire is hardly big in comparison with other Scottish schools. But to three little girls coming up from Kinloch Rannoch Primary in Pitlochry, where they are the only P7 pupils, the prospect is daunting.

The story is the same for many other feeder primaries. Counting the out-of district requests, there will be just over 80 children starting at the secondary school in August, coming from at least eight primaries. Glenlyon Primary in Aberfeldy is sending one pupil. To her, Breadalbane must seem huge.

"It can appear as if it is a really big school to many of these pupils, some of whom come from small rural communities," says Harry Davidson, principal teacher of guidance. "They will be travelling quite a distance to get here and meeting a new set of children and adults. We've also got children coming in from Blairgowrie and Crieff. They could have known nobody. It can be scary."

But the staff at Breadalbane are well aware of the intimidation some pupils may feel, which is why they spend so much time and energy ensuring the transition is as painless as possible. There are sports days and taster timetable days. But the most innovative approach happens in the last few weeks of P7, when all the children moving up to the academy go away on a residential.

This year, 81 pupils went to Lochgoilhead. The cost was subsidised to ensure every child who wanted to go could. To aid their transition and help build confidence, support workers went to the school. "It has been happening for a few years, and makes the children less apprehensive about the move. They come back full of it," says Anne Burrell, head of Kenmore Primary in Aberfeldy.

"It is an opportunity to make friends with other children they may have met once or twice before at sporting activities or at shared events. It gives them more time to build friendships."

Sharon Lamb, head of Kinloch Rannoch, is equally enthusiastic. She has experienced it as a teacher and as a parent. Four years ago her daughter Abigail was in P7.

"It can be difficult for children living in such rural communities quite isolating. We had moved up from England, so it was even worse for my daughter," says Mrs Lamb. "But she loved it and made some good friends. She is in France at the moment, sharing a room with a friend she made at Lochgoilhead all those years ago."

The focus of the five days is fun, and includes activities such as hill walking, sailing, mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing and abseiling. A lot of the activities include getting wet, something the Scottish weather doesn't spoil. There is an old-fashioned campfire, which the children can sit round and sing songs.

"A big part of it is about team-building, working together," says Mrs Lamb. "But with the emphasis on fun."

The teachers are relieved of most of their responsibility for the children by trained specialists, which makes it much less onerous for them. "We can concentrate on getting to know the children," says Mr Davidson. "The centre runs all the activities, supported by our staff, and they know how to take the pupils out of their comfort zone in a safe way."

The secondary school, however, always takes a large number of its staff, with some coming for a day or two and others for the duration, so that they can meet the children and vice versa. This makes it easier for the primaries, some of which have composite classes, so find it difficult to release teachers.

The planning starts weeks before, with meetings between Breadalbane staff and teachers from the primaries. According to Moira Duncan, head of the primary school within the academy and organiser of the trip, this is one of the most crucial elements.

"I gather as much information as I can in the weeks leading up to the residential, so I can mix them up without taking them away from their friendship groups completely," she explains. "This is important as we want them to interact with one another, so they all know each other well by the end."

She admits that it doesn't always work out as planned, but the key is flexibility. "This is an opportunity for the secondary school to see how friendships are developing, and they use this time to gather information that will influence how the classes are made up at secondary school," she adds. "But it is also necessary for us to be flexible and respond quickly to any situations as they arise."

Over the subsequent weeks, the school works with what they have gleaned from the trip, and any further information from the primary teachers, to establish the classes.

"It is incredible to see these children at the end of the week. They are so happy, self-confident and relaxed with the teachers and excited about moving up," says Mr Davidson. "In some cases, when they do start back after the summer, you have to remind them that they are back in school. But it has a great impact on their social development so much more than simply being together for a day or two and going home in the evening."

The feedback from the children echoes what Mr Davidson and P7 pupils in previous years have said.

"I think Lochgoilhead has helped prepare me for secondary because I've made new friends from other schools, who I will meet there," says Jenni Ross from P7 at Breadalbane.

Her classmate Duncan Grace agrees. "I think it was great because we got to know people and we got to experience rock climbing and things we had never done before."

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