Siblings open the big school doors

17th March 2006 at 00:00
The experience of an older sister or brother often eases the transition to secondary, says Jane Harrison

A huge unknown building full of huge unknown teenagers, a timetable of unheard-of subjects such as CDT and physics - this used to be the typical experience of a child starting secondary school. Thankfully, times have changed. Nowadays, schools are very aware of the impact of changing from the nurturing environment of the primary school to the anonymity of secondary school, and transition programmes are common.

However, there is currently no standardised measure for "effectiveness" of transition, which makes it difficult to gauge which schools are most successful in this respect. Among Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" is safety, which includes stability, freedom from fear and anxiety. As these are all issues at times of transition, it could explain why children do not perform to their potential.

Talking to children in their first week at high school, it became noticeable that several of those without older siblings commented with dismay on a number of issues, while those with older siblings were generally more relaxed, as they had heard it all before.

I therefore undertook a study to find out how much influence siblings have, compared to parents or schools, to see if those with older siblings are at an initial advantage which may affect their attitude to school in the longer term.

The study involved a sample of 157 P7 children from three urban primary schools in different authorities. Questionnaires were issued to all, followed by interviews with P7 teachers and 11 pupils. There was evidence of school preparation regarding daily routines and new opportunities, particularly from children receiving additional support for transition. New friends were the focus at one school, where a community link worker had arranged P7 "e-buddies" at other feeder schools. There was little evidence of media influence in this sample, nor of community involvement, but this would undoubtedly vary from area to area.

While children appeared to attach the greatest weight to what their parents said, it was not their parents who showed up as having given them their ideas. Only two of the 11 children asked said their siblings told them about bullying, but they all went on to recall stories about bullying.

The gap in ages between siblings played a significant part in the amount and type of information shared. With an age gap of six years or more, some older siblings went out of their way to advise younger siblings in the manner of a parent: "Don't get into fights - they're bigger than you." When the age gap was under four years, the relationship tended to be different, with the younger siblings absorbing information from the older siblings'

mood and reactions when they came home after school.

There was significant evidence in support of the social learning theory. If children can see someone else going through the transition process, they should be more competent when they do so themselves as they will emulate successful behaviour and will be at an advantage.

In the final year at primary school, perhaps the issues highlighted are too prominently related to immediate comfort: getting lost, making new friends, new subjects, knowing the teachers' names; any reference to academic importance stresses the need for "good exam results".

There is little emphasis on the importance of the two years of foundation work underpinning that exam success, so how can children fully understand its importance? Once pupils have learnt the teachers' names, discovered where the classes are to be found and have acquired at least one friend, they may think that they have done all that is required of them. If pupils were better briefed about the need to maintain attainment, they might be more likely to succeed and the dip in attainment would be reduced.

Of course, the children whose attainment and attitude drop might have experienced that anyway with no change in the curriculum, groupings, teaching styles, or environment. Informal conversations with teachers from independent schools, where there are few changes, still report a dip in attainment of most pupils around the age of 11-13, making hormones the most likely reason. Children's eagerness to please teachers gives way to teenage social desirability.

Nevertheless, through further research it will be fascinating to discover whether children benefiting from vicarious experience and fewer surprises maintain a more even academic keel during their first two years at secondary school. Previous experience shapes future expectations, expectations influence attitude, and attitude affects attainment.

Jane Harrison teaches at Denbeath primary in Buckhaven, Fife, and is this year's winner of the George Gray award for the best final year BEd thesis, organised by the General Teaching Council for Scotland and supported by The TES Scotland.

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