Where have all the children gone?

Pat McDermott answers your leadership questions

Over the past three years the number of pupils coming to our school from local primaries has fallen. Our numbers are dropping but our results are beginning to improve. The person responsible for primary liaison work has now retired and we are revisiting the strategies we have used in the past.

What sort of things should we be looking at?

The first thing to look at is the number of pupils in the local primary schools. Ask yourself: are fewer pupils coming to your school because they are going elsewhere or are there fewer pupils in the primary schools anyway? This is an important first question as the answer will put your enquiry on the right track.

Whatever the answer, you also need to know where the pupils are coming from "emotionally". Let me explain.

The move from primary to secondary school can be traumatic for many pupils.

We in the secondary sector forget this at our peril. Indeed, many believe this is the real reason why some pupils appear to regress educationally immediately following transition. We need to remember that the scale of things increase considerably for them.

For example, the number of teachers that a new pupil has to relate to grows dramatically from one or two in primary school to maybe 10 in secondary school. This is extremely challenging for young pupils. Of course we are aware of this intellectually but maybe not in emotional terms for the individual pupil.

Any review you are undertaking needs to start from here. Staff involved with Year 7 pupils need to be "emotionally smart" about this. Many of the children's fears can be allayed through the use of former pupils from their primary schools. You should consider building opportunities into your plans for this to happen.

Your query raises two more questions. First, is successful transition work the responsibility of just one person? While it may be wise to have one person in charge, success in this area is more likely to require a team approach. Therefore, ask yourself if you are going to replace one person or form a new team? There is much to be said for a team approach. One strategy that many secondary schools employ effectively is cross-phase, joint educational activities. This enables pupils in Year 5 and Year 6 in primary schools to benefit from the extra resources and facilities in secondary schools. For example, primary pupils can experience working in a secondary school science laboratory and engage in more sophisticated practical work.

However this strategy will require the involvement of more staff than just the person responsible for transition.

The second question is, do you have a transition plan? The above is only one strategy. It is important to have a plan encompassing as many opportunities for new pupils and parents as possible.

The creation of a new transition plan gives you the opportunity of bringing together a number of staff, both teaching and non-teaching. Not only should you finish with a new plan but you should also have made a start in building a new team. You will therefore be building in the capacity for a comprehensive approach to transition.

If you get the blend of your team right then you may have: a) some who are interested in working in primary schools with Year 5 and Year 6 pupils; b) some who may like to organise "master classes" in your school in practical subjects; c) some who would like to use your pupils in taking assemblies in their former primary schools: d) some who are interested in gathering information from primary schools regarding pupils transferring to you.

The opportunities increase in proportion to the imagination of the team, as opposed to relying on one individual. However, the team approach needs to be managed skilfully - and that's where you come in!

Patrick McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college, an 11-18 girls'

school, in Bradford. He has been a head for 12 years and a teacher for 27.

He is a facilitator for the National College for School Leadership and mentored Catholic heads for 10 years. Do you have a leadership question? Email susan.young@tes.co.uk

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