‘Eleven is too young for secondary school. Children need to be left to be children.’

The Tes reports. How did the first couple of weeks at secondary school go? Just a few weeks into the new term, with still-shiny shoes and slightly too big blazers, most 11-year-olds will still be coming to terms with the huge shift from a big fish in a small pond to tiny fish in a massive pond. It’s traumatic for some, it’s difficult for many and it’s challenging for all. Of course, all transitions have their challenges but the shift from primary to secondary can be seismic and it shouldn’t be like this. Our schools are too big and the transition to secondary school happens too soon.

In the middle of July, 11-year-olds at primary school are running around the school fields, liberated from the scourge of Sats and free to play like the children they are. In September, the uniform changes from bright colours to black, from polo shirt to tie and blazer; school hours are lengthened and breaks shortened; homework quickly piled high. The child is left in no doubt: school is now a serious business.

Children at 11 are not ready or equipped to think about adult life yet. Why are we so keen to get them there so fast? Why ask a 12-year-old at a parents’ evening what job she wants, as my daughter was asked in the summer? Schools explicitly demand their pupils act in a mature way, with the result that most children, naturally seeking adult approval, will toe the line and act maturely. But it’s a skin-deep maturity that may make adults’ lives easier but leaves the potential for much-unspoken turbulence beneath the surface.

The result is that the 11-year-olds adopt the persona of a young adult in an effort to make themselves fit in. Unsurprisingly, this dissonance is hard to handle and though this dichotomy is felt unconsciously, its evidence is in the clear national picture of worsening mental health in children (and adults). In a reflection of broader society, schools have started noticing the symptoms of mental ill health at last but the most common and expedient reaction is to pathologize, detach and apply a sticking plaster to the symptoms (yes, I’m generalising here, I know some schools are brilliant). Schools must do just enough to postpone the problems until the children have left.

Our local secondary school has 2,000 pupils. The local authority, however, is looking at increasing pupil numbers to 2,500. Yes, 2,500. There are universities smaller than that. With that many pupils to organise, let alone teach, it’s no wonder that schools don’t have time for the niceties of treating children differently according to their age and development. They’re obsessed with turning children into adults as quickly as possible because it’s easier to take a single approach than a multi-faceted one. And if we’re honest, in this age of dangerously dwindling resources from the government, it’s the only pragmatic choice.

Is it too much to ask for another couple of years where a child can grow and develop at their own pace, in a smaller community of warmth and safety? Stop asking what they want to be when they grow up, stop obsessing about maturity. 

Read the full article ‘Eleven is too young for secondary school. Children need to be left to be children.’

Do you agree? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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  1. This highlights one of the advantages of the lower/middle/upper school system which still operates in Bedfordshire, with middle school incorporating Years 5-8. It also highlights the advantage of the old prep school system, with children moving on to public school at 13, rather than 11; this of course, still happens for some children.
    We could learn so much from the past if only we stopped assuming the past was bad.

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