Life is full of change, now more than ever with the corona crisis unfolding. But life will go on, and we are now venturing into opening our schools and creating a new normal. At this time of year, I would usually be working closely with our primary colleagues to help with transition projects to reduce the anxiety of pupils and parents as their children prepare for the move to ‘big school’. But on the back of lockdown for over a term, how can we support children as they make one of the most memorable changes in their academic career?
Our Year 6 children are likely to be grieving for the loss of their final year at primary school. They are probably missing their friends, the pattern to a structured day and maybe mourning for the loss of those much-coveted events they would usually experience in their last term of primary school, like final plays, residential trips, and celebrations. Academically, they are likely to feel deflated as they have been working towards their SATs, which never happened.
It is normal for friendships to come and go, especially in the adolescent years. But this area is often one of the biggest concerns for parents and children and this is likely to be amplified by social distancing.
Research by The Nuffield Foundation suggests that successful transition has two important parts:
1) being academically and behaviourally involved in school and
2) feeling a sense of belonging to school.
The challenge is to target these key ideas whilst not being able to see the children directly or allowing them and their families to come into their new school. The British Psychology Society recently put together a report  that harnesses ideas from the field of psychology to help with a smooth return to school, whether it is the one from before lockdown or a new setting as students move from one phase of schooling to another.
Some students will have been completing work in lockdown, others will not. This will create a gap in attainment, in addition to the well documented gap between disadvantaged students and the more advantaged. All of this comes on the backdrop of the expected ‘summer slide’.
Literacy, maths, and social skills are all vital for cross-curricular learning. In science, for example, it is important that students can decode information given to them in a variety of formats. This could be in prose such as comprehending the text and reading for meaning in an exam rubric, flipped-learning article or a textbook, as well as manipulating numbers and using statistics to draw conclusions consistent with results. Socially, students may also struggle going from being the centre of the learning world to being part of a group again. Our youngsters are making a transition from being in family groupings at home to back into classrooms, which, even if they are smaller than they were before the corona crisis, still require students to remember to wait their turn and be mindful and respectful of other people’s views.
By asking the feeder primary schools to host links on their website, secondary schools can give activities to their future Year 7s aimed at engaging families in the academic work. Students could be asked to complete an Independent Study Unit, where they research their school, finding out key information such as the name of their head of year, the name of the Headteacher, the name and colour of the Houses, etc. This helps the students to get a feel for the school in advance.
It might also be possible to set up the future Year 7s on your school’s on-line learning platform in advance, allowing easier setting of tasks and communication. Secondary schools could supply transition work like Oxford’s Getting ready for Science pack, for example. Students could then be encouraged to send their work into school on this platform or as an attachment to the school office. This interaction gives an opportunity to send praise to the student, such as a GIFs celebrating their effort, as well as giving a personal feeling communication between the parent and the school.
Belonging to school
A sense of belong to a school improves students’ attitude to learning and in turn their academic performance. Part of belonging is feeling familiar and comfortable within a place. Unfortunately, it is not possible to have tours of the school or provide settling in days at the moment. An alternative could be putting a virtual tour on the school website, allowing new starters to get a feel for their new school.
Advice will need to be given on purchasing of school uniform. This helps students feel excited and part of something bigger. But, with social distancing and non-essential shops not currently open, there will be difficulty in obtaining uniform for the new school year. These fears should be acknowledged and addressed as part of the communication to parents.
Websites are a fabulous way of communicating with staff, parents and children. They are more beneficial than hardcopy documents as they can be updated and changed easily, which is vital in these rapidly changing times. By having strong branding on the website, mentioning the school name and using the school colours and logo, the idea of school identity can be grown.
To encourage students and parents to explore the website, have a little competition and hide the Year 7 mascot on different pages of the website which contain the most useful information for transition. Students must spot and count the number of times they see the mascot and send their answer in. This encourages students to explore the website and understand the wealth of information which could be useful.
However, it can be overwhelming for the user to have everything on the school website at the same time. So, a drip-feed approach ensures that people aren’t put off from reading and using the information, as well as encouraging re-visits and building up the relationship and belonging to the school. Top tips:
- Use social media and hash tags to announce new information on the website and link it to your primary feeder schools’ accounts. That way it will drive traffic of the Year 6 parents to the school website by appearing on their primary school newsfeeds.
- Break up the web page with different fonts, bullet points, boxes of colour, media such as photographs.
- Keep the vital information visible, but then ‘feature’ information and leave the rest available as weblinks to other pages or downloadable documents to the website feels more accessible.
Dealing with anxiety
Any change is associated with anxiety. D transition it is double-edged: the anxiety of the child moving school and leaving ‘behind’ their friends and teachers to start the unknown school coupled with parental anxiety about what the new school will be like and whether their child settle in and make friends.
It can be useful to have a letter from one of your current Year 7’s reaching out and sharing their experiences of settling in. This could be emailed out to Year 6’s or put on the school website. There are also some great resources on BBC bitesize including video clips and top tips to help settle students as they move from being in the oldest year in their school to their new, often larger school. It also includes tips and hints for parents. Or prepare and distribute transition booklets aimed at parents such as this one (note that this was written before the current crisis, but much of the advice is still useful).
A big concern for parents, and this is often reflected in the anxiety of the youngster, is not knowing the new staff. Parents are familiar with their child having one main teacher, who they see on the playground at pick up and drop off, giving them the opportunity for chance discussions about concerns. But this is very different at secondary school, and often parents and children are very concerned about what their form tutor will be like.
Unfortunately, due to lockdown it is not possible to have a meet and greet, although some parents and children may have met staff in their primary settings during assemblies and taster days in previous academic years. To help families feel that they have a relationship with key staff, you could write pen portraits with photographs and put onto the website. The form tutors could also send out a personalised email to their new form, telling them a bit about themselves and the school as well as explaining how exciting it will be. For more tips on supporting students’ mental wellbeing, why not watch this webinar from Mike Armiger?
No-one knows what will happen in September but with carefully planned communication, anxieties can be managed and families supported to give the best possible start to a new school for our Year 6 students.
Sam Holyman is Second in Science at Aylesford School in Warwick, and a seasoned Year 7 form tutor. She has been involved in making the new transition part of the school website in response to supporting families joining the school during lockdown. She is also the author of a number of best-selling science textbooks for KS3 and GCSE (including the AQA GCSE Foundation: Combined Science Trilogy and Entry Level Certificate Student Book), and a keen advocate of innovative teaching and learning.
Sam was nominated in the Teacher Scientist category for the Science Council’s 100 leading practising scientists, is a Chartered Science Teacher, and has recently been awarded a CPD Quality mark.