Starting secondary school: Learning and homework

With the summer term well underway, you might be making plans to welcome September’s new Year 7 cohort to school on induction day. With this in mind, we asked former Leader of English (and parent) Jill Carter what advice she’d give to parents whose children are about to start secondary school for the first time. Feel free to share these hints and tips with your new students and their parents.

Amidst all the new routines and glaring lights of transition to secondary school, sits the concept of learning. Below is some advice on the ways in which learning differs at secondary school and how you can navigate these new waters.

  • Homework may well seem overwhelming at first, but it will even out. In the first few weeks my son was at secondary, every evening felt like an intellectual tidal wave. Then, gradually, it ebbed away to a manageable level and we fell into a steady routine.
    Do keep track of the amount of time it is taking and let the teachers know if your child is spending hours on something which is meant to be a twenty minute piece. Avoid ‘doing it for them’ but do support them with questions and information which could lead them in the right direction.  We all learn by being told or shown how to do something and this is not the same as doing it for them. Provide a drink and a snack before they knuckle down, and allow music which, for some learners, supports concentration and creativity.
  • Secondary school teachers are different to primary school teachers – in some non-core subjects they will have a large number of classes and your child may say, “I don’t think she even knows who I am.” If you taught 250 kids for an hour a week, you might struggle to know every child well. Try to familiarise yourself with the way that subjects work and be mindful of this. If your child only has DT once a week they are unlikely to have produced a coffee table in a fortnight.
  • The curriculum in secondary schools is very different to that of primary schools and is not necessarily so accessible to parents. At primary school, your child might say they are doing the Tudors and you would probably have some idea straight away of the sorts of things they are likely to be doing and how to support this theme. (Yippee – local castle this weekend and lots of talk of beheaded wives over supper!)  This will not necessarily be the case Post-11. You may well have to comb the school website or email subject leaders directly to find out what your child is studying and when.  More schools could harness parent power and publish a brief outline of the kinds of topics and skills they are covering each term but few seem to do so – if you want to support your child’s learning in this way, you may well have to push for information.  Try to establish the general thread (e.g. ‘We’re reading Gerald Durrell’) and then search the internet.
  • Attend parents’ evenings at all costs. Use these as an opportunity to introduce yourself to the parents of new friends your child may have made. Get to know your child’s teachers and ask questions even if you feel shy about them. Many teachers are only too happy to explain and share information about teaching and learning.  Ask about ways of developing skills in that subject.  Be honest with the teachers – if you know your child dreads French or plays up in English, tell them this and seek collaborative solutions. As teachers, we know that not every child will like our subject and we don’t take this personally.
  • If your child’s school has a “Friends of” society and you want to get to know more about the school and meet other parents, join it. Read newsletters and emails from the school.
  • Your child will probably be issued with a “Homework Diary” or “Planner”. Make sure you use it to check homework and to write any comments or notes that may be useful for your child’s teacher to know.  A note about a bereavement or illness, for example, which a child can show discreetly to a teacher, may prove very useful if the teacher is about to set a detention for failing to hand homework in!  As teachers, we value information from parents too.
  • Remember that your child is unlikely to have the same teacher for more than a year in certain subjects (such as core subjects). The likelihood is that they will be exposed to different teaching styles and, although this can be very positive, it can also mean that you feel there is a lack of continuity. However, complaining that your child doesn’t have Mr Jones any more is pointless – no school is going to rehash the timetable for you.  Point out that Mrs Smith is no better or worse – just different and that learning is not all about whether you love the teacher or not!
  • Continue to encourage reading – reading affects progress in all subjects and the new English GCSEs expect students to be able to read 19th Century fiction and non-fiction in the form of quite challenging texts. Ask your child’s English Dept for a reading list and even if it is only 15 mins a day, keep at it as much as you can. With the best will in the world, FIFA will never prepare them for Dickens.

You are saying goodbye to something really precious at the end of Y6 in terms of understanding what and how your child is learning. However, if you pay attention and do your own homework, you can still be involved and you may learn a lot of new stuff along the way yourself! I am now quite fluent in French again…

Visit our website for more advice on starting secondary school.

Jill is an Advanced Skills Teacher and former Leader of English, and has been teaching for 23 years. She currently works part-time as an English teacher, as well as authoring for Oxford University Press. She is mum to Seb, aged 12.