A few years ago, a colleague and I were asked to produce a resource that aimed to help pupils with transition from primary to secondary school. (I have since had one published by AC Black but it’s quite different from the original – honestly!).
We started by talking to a wonderful woman: Janine Oxley a high school teacher who had already developed a lot in terms of supporting pupils with this process. We also went into schools to investigate pupils’ perceptions and concerns. The concerns were pretty consistent: fear of bullying, getting lots of homework and becoming lost in the big school. The resource therefore addressed these issues and helped pupils put them into perspective. However, the thing that struck me most during this investigation was the change in pupils’ attitudes as they arrived at secondary school.
At the time, Norfolk had both primary schools and middle schools, so in effect Year 7 (11/12 year olds) could be found either at the bottom end of a secondary school or the top end of a middle school. We visited Year 7 in both situations and were shocked by the contrast. Year 7s still in middle school were enthusiastic, interested and excited by the novelty of visitors (it was a school in a deprived area). Year 7 in high school was the opposite. Which made me ask – what do we do to our children when we send them to some high schools?
The fact kids go from a relatively nurturing environment with a key adult (or two) that they spend all week with to, by contrast, a relatively anonymous existence. Spending time with many different adults seems to play a key role in all this. I recently spoke to a newly qualified teacher at a high school who said he liked the children to be scared of him as it helped with control –as after all, he only saw each child for a couple of hours each week. (I will add that I have seen secondary teachers with good control without the need to scare children). So the children go from having a relationship with a class teacher to much weaker ones with many teachers. No wonder their peers step up and become more influential (which can be a positive or negative thing…it depends).
And that’s why some secondary schools have really ‘gone to town’ with providing pastoral care and support for their pupils and given their pupils more of a ‘voice’ in the school.
I was once at an education conference and lucky enough to hear one particular headteacher talk about his secondary school. By chance it was the school my feller had attended as a teenager. This Headteacher was inspirational and he had made radical changes which included:
De-schoolifying the school. He decorated the school colourfully, put plants in the corridors. He put huge photos of the kids on the walls along with motivating sayings. He said, ‘why should kids have to attend a dreary building every day?'
He made the dining area a pleasant place to be. He also brought in a service that for 50p, a table cloth and vase of flowers would be put on a table - so you could pay for this to happen for your friend (for their birthday for example). Pupils did use this service. He also provided an area where a jazz band regularly played while the pupils ate.
He insisted that every presentation in assembly be given by both a girl and a boy because he was fed up of all sports reports being given by boys and charity work being described by girls. He wanted to combat sexual stereotyping.
He became strict about the uniform – citing different clothes/trainers/make-up as a potential source of teasing and bullying.
He consulted the students about anything that would have an impact on them.
He met with the male and female chairs of the school council for a cup of coffee at 11 a.m. every Friday morning. Sometimes, they brought pressing issues, sometimes they just had a general chat. He felt it was really important to regularly get pupils’ perspective.
He made the school day comprise of just three lessons two hours long. His justification for this were 1) to reduce the amount of the day, kids spent in the corridors (the place of most ‘flashpoints’) and 2) With lessons that long, the teachers had to change their style of delivering lessons and use pupil demonstrations and presentations in lots of lessons.
He was clearly a driven, intelligent, visionary and dynamic man.
And it makes me ask (again), when a school is not a place that adults would like to be in, (e.g. being shouted at, uncomfortable, grotty toilets, few opportunities to have a say in anything, crowded, etc etc) why on earth do we send our precious children there?