The School Doctor reminisces on the first days of school and the challenges that can sometimes be faced.
I vividly remember the conversation I had with my grandfather on my first day of senior school. In those days phone conversations still happened while sitting at the bottom of the stairs, twiddling with the curly wire that attached the handset to the landline. Sat in my slightly-oversized uniform, with a growing sense of nausea, I listened to my grandfather say: ‘Don’t worry, it’s like when I joined the Navy: you’re all in the same boat’. I really don’t think the pun was intended, but his kind words went some way to alleviating the sense of impending doom that my small eleven-year-old self had, going from a rural school of a hundred to an urban school of a thousand. (‘My school was even bigger than that!’, I can hear some of you chorusing.)
My first weeks (or months) at senior school were eminently forgettable, or I wish some of them were. Some of my teachers were boredly on the brink of retirement: their pedagogical training had occurred just post-war and had barely developed since. I was called by my surname (or variants thereon) the entire time; I got my lowest ever marks because I really didn’t always have a clue what was expected of me. Issues relating to drugs and sex were addressed head-on for the first time, both in the classroom and out. Those were the days when sex education was communicated in the classroom via a video of carefree, naked volleyball players; it wasn’t quite so hippy-wholesome in the conversations among teenage boys. Thankfully social media wasn’t an issue back then and searching on Encarta was the closest thing we had to Google.
In short, this was a lot to take in for an eleven-year-old boy. Of course, one person’s experience – good or bad – should not legislate for an entire education system. But I was especially interested to read two complementary pieces that crossed my desk last week. The first was an article in the TES by Nick Campion, a parent governor from Derbyshire, titled ‘Eleven is too young for secondary school. Children need to be left to be children’. ‘Our schools are too big’, Campion argues, ‘and the transition to secondary school happens too soon’. The ‘implicit demand to grow up’ comes with such a transition, along with ‘the flattening of fun, insistence on maturity and increase of uniformity … because there are too many pupils, too little time and too few staff, meaning solutions are designed to suit the school, not the child’. Campion suggests that the pressure to fit in leads to an external faux-maturity among pupils, which is just another layer to add to the manifold burdens placed on young people today, with the commensurate adverse effect on mental health and wellbeing of which we are all too aware.
The second piece to pop up was an interview with Sir Michael Wilshaw, pertaining to questions parents should ask of pupils at open days: ‘Ask them about achievement, ask them if they’ve made progress from year to year. Particularly if they are lower-school children, in Year 7, 8 or 9, ask them whether they’ve made sufficient progress since primary school, because all the data shows that when youngsters transfer from primary to secondary, their performance often dips’. This apparent dip will have a number of causes, and it is dangerous to make too many concrete conclusions from, say, standardized tests, especially when primary schools are forced to put so much store in them, while secondary schools are putting more care and thought into older years: GCSEs and A-Levels. But this leads to one crucial factor that makes a later school transition more attractive: there are many excellent senior schools out there that are able to devote as much care and energy to their lower years as their middle and senior years. But there are also too many that, under the ridiculous pressure of league tables, channel their talents and energies to Years 10-13, while Years 7-9 sit in a kind of pedagogical holding pen waiting for their turn to be fussed over.
So there are wellbeing and educational incentives to delay the transition from junior to senior pedagogical settings. And, like it or loathe it, it’s worth pointing out that a good number of parents pay for access to the independent system, much of which (especially for boys) transitions at thirteen. That is, once pupils have had time to find their feet as young people in a nurturing environment, enjoyed the leadership and mentoring opportunities that come from being big fish in small ponds, and been focused on pedagogically so they can devote those crucial early teenage years to running fast and far, instead of just coping with survival among the towering and sweary six-foot-somethings. Yes, our pupils will need to make that transition at some point, but it is much easier and more effective after a couple of years of educational, mental and physical growth.
There will be thousands of young people out there who may have relished the challenge of entering new school gates at eleven. And, again, I am not suggesting that one person’s experience of a wobbly first few weeks of Year 7 should make us change the system wholesale. But there is a clear groundswell in that direction. I don’t for one minute think it is going to happen – at least not in the short or medium term. The structural and financial changes would be seismic. But if we are serious about making our educational system world-class, it really isn’t worth tinkering around the edges. We need to think differently and radically and, dare I say it, expensively.
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