Who's afraid of big school?

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Children worried about the primary to secondary transition can now get advice from pupils who have 'been there and done it' themselves

The enduring educational myth, passed down the generations, and even now circulating under the radar in your school, is that when Year 6 leavers get to secondary school they will all have their heads shoved down the toilet by "the big kids".

Sharon Riley, an assistant head at Hearsall primary in Coventry, who has seen at least 10 Year 6 classes off into a dozen or so different secondary schools across the city, has heard the toilet scare story many times.

"And the one about having a comb rubbed across your neck," she says. "But I've never heard of anything like that ever actually happening."

Every school goes to great lengths to tell transferring pupils that they will be fine. As always, though, rumour is stronger than any amount of reassurance from authority. It is something that a group of five Year 11 pupils at Dartmouth high school in Sandwell decided to take on when they looked for an idea for this year's Gifted and Talented Entrepreneurs'

Competition run by the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth. They did some research and went on to design and produce what turned out to be the winning entry - a pamphlet calledJA beginner's guide to secondary school - that combines professional production values with the flavour of real experience.

Featuring four cartoon characters - Kieran, Chris, Jamal and Sarah - the pamphlet gives children basic advice about equipment, new friends, what to do about bullying ("Tell someone!") and homework. Its real value, though, lies in the whiff of authenticity - it is researched and written by young people who have been there and done it.

The team was keen to tackle the fears and rumours. Fifteen-year-old Luke Tudor cuts straight to the chase: "When you come to an induction day they're introducing you to the lessons, but what you're scared of is the bigger kids. At primary school you've been one of the bigger ones yourself, but the kids at the top of secondary school are like grown men."

Stephen Binsley agrees: "You get lots of information about schools, but nothing to help with your feelings. There are so many rumours that go round."

Becky Lane, another member of the group, recalls that the rumours were strong enough to cast a cloud over the whole business of moving on. "The summer holidays just weren't the same for me that year," she says.

It was Becky who pointed out that most of the written information is directed at parents. "They say, 'your child will ...' but there's nothing to help the child through those emotions."

All of that is recognisable to Sharon Riley at Hearsall. She does lots of circle time with her Year 6s, just letting the children talk about their fears. And there are plenty of them.

"Bullying comes up an awful lot - I guess there's just so much in the press," she says. "Getting lost is a bit of an issue, too - they worry that they'll be punished if they're not in the right place."

What is a little more unexpected is the degree to which the children are apprehensive about meeting up with youth culture.

"There's anxiety about peer pressure," says Mrs Riley. "They don't mention drugs, but there's a hint when children say they worry about being offered something they don't want. They do mention smoking - a lot of teenage girls smoke, and our children say they're worried about being the only ones saying no."

Luke Tudor at Dartmouth said: "I thought somebody would put a cigarette in my mouth and make me smoke it."

Is every Year 6 teacher as aware of the power and reality of these fears as Mrs Riley and the Dartmouth group are?

"Just giving them the chance to talk is good," says Sharon Riley. "They're reassured when they realise that others feel the same. We also try to have a visit from a theatre group that does a play called Big School, with a question-and-answer session."

There are positives, though, and allowing children to talk brings out the hopes of new friendships, more after-school clubs and teams, new subjects, advanced work in the science labs.

In the end, though, nothing scotches rumours more effectively than personal experience, and most of the secondary school fears disappear over the first week at the new school.JToday's secondary schools work harder at transition and settling down their new Year 7s than they have ever done, with year heads and tutors geared up to knowing and caring for them. Recent research in Wales among Year 7 pupils by Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate, and described by Teresa Saunders in TES Cymru's Welsh Education Show supplement (May 20), bears this out, showing that during the early months in secondary, fears of bullying and punishment recede, to be replaced by less acute worries around homework, lunch queues and locker space.

The Dartmouth pupils, for their part, found that the contrast between rumour and reality was almost bewildering.

"It was quite a shock when someone smiled and said hello," says Stephen Binsley.

Details of the Dartmouth leaflet from headteacher Caroline Badyal onJ0121 358 6186.Entrepreneurs competitionwww.nagty.ac.ukstudent_academyentrepreneursindex.aspxWelsh inspectorate: www.estyn.gov.ukBig School is a Belgrade Theatre project with Coventry LEATel: 024 7625 6431

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