Starting secondary school during a pandemic: what parents need to know

The good news – and more than good, in some ways it feels miraculous – is that 11-year-old Phoebe South is genuinely looking forward to starting secondary school in September. “I feel quite excited about it now,” she tells me, from a beach in Devon where she’s on holiday with her family. “I know one of my best friends is going to be in the same bubble as me, and I know quite a lot about what to expect.”

That she feels this way is tribute to all the work of her new school, Wykham Park academy in Banbury, Oxfordshire, to prepare for the influx of year 7 students in a few weeks’ time. Transition to secondary school can be difficult in the best of years – and 2020 is far from that.

“By this stage in a normal year the new year 7s would have been into school to look round for a couple of days,” says Justine Williams, senior assistant principal at Wykham, who leads on transition. “They’d have met their teachers, and they’d have met the other pupils in their groups. They’d have tried the food and found out where the toilets are, and their parents would have been in for a meeting and to hear about what to expect.”

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As much as possible of this has gone ahead – but online. “We had a virtual parents’ evening, we’ve made videos about the different departments, and we’ve even managed to film a student’s eye view of what to expect, all of which is on our website. We’ve set fun transition projects for the pupils to do in subjects like art and science, and we’ve tried to answer as many questions as possible ahead of term starting,” Williams says.

In some ways, the new protocols in place for the pandemic may make life less stressful than usual for the new intake. “Our strategy this year is that pupils will stay in one area of the school, except for PE and sharp-tool subjects – so that may make it easier than usual as it means rather than pupils moving around 10 different areas in the school, they remain in one place and the teachers come to them,” says Williams.

Looking for the silver linings, and remembering there is still lots to celebrate about starting at a new school, is key to making it work, says Deirdre Kehoe of Young Minds, the mental health charity, which has produced a guide to secondary transition.

“Whether you’re a teacher or a parent, focus on what’s good about the current situation,” she advises. “Of course you’ve got to think about very practical things that are going to be different from usual – but this is such an important stage in a child’s life, and it makes a difference if we look forward to it and celebrate the rite of passage it represents.”

Her advice is to concentrate on what is going to be the same as usual, rather than on what will be different. “They’ll still be travelling to school, still eating their packed lunches, still getting homework, still going to lessons.”

In any classroom, two pupils on average have a diagnosed mental health condition – and on top of this there are children with other mental health challenges. Added to which, the pandemic has meant that many of them will have found it more difficult than usual to access help.

This is why, says Kehoe, schools’ focus must be on wellbeing, especially for the first term. “They need to concentrate on getting used to their new school, and to making friends, without the level of pressure there might normally be on academic attainment.”

Given that the new year 7 cohort didn’t get the chance to take their Sats, tests for academic ability will be more important than usual this year – but it seems most schools are taking a “softly, softly” approach. At Wykham Park, the usual reading comprehension tests will take place, “but not immediately – everybody needs to settle in first”, Williams says.

Keziah Featherstone, head of a large Midlands comprehensive school, says she expects most schools will do some kind of assessment for year 7s – some formalised tests, others more discreet checks. “We’ll be doing both, and lots of settling in and feeling happy,” she says. “I think there’s a growing sense that we’ll be kind and nurturing but get back to learning routines as soon as possible.”

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Lynne Hipkin, a clinical psychologist working with school-age children, says the pandemic has underlined the role of teachers as key figures of stability and support. So getting back to normal in the classroom will be important for the wider society as well as inside schools, she says.

She emphasises how important it is to keep children at the centre of what is happening. “Communication and curiosity are key: be guided by your child, be curious,” she says. “Keep an open mind – let them tell you what’s going on rather than anticipating how they feel.”

Another crucial element, as pupils prepare to go back to school, is for teachers to remember that everyone’s experience of Covid-19 will have been different.

“We’ve all been travelling through the same storm, but in very different boats,” says Hipkin. “How children feel about the new measures will vary very widely. Some will feel a much greater responsibility for safety and hygiene measures and be much more preoccupied with them, than others. Some will think things are basically OK, some will think they are far from OK.

“What matters most is being conscious of what’s going on inside children’s heads as we go into the new term. Because this year, change is doubled: there’s the transition to secondary school, but also the transition back into school.”

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Dr Rina Bajaj, of the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, says experiences of the pandemic can be put to positive use. “Teachers in schools can talk to pupils about how they adapted to the lockdown, what helped them to get through. If they’re encouraged to reflect and build on their strengths and what they found out about themselves, they’ll learn things about resilience.”

The Anna Freud centre has produced a guide, Managing the Transition Back to School, packed with tips. “Traditionally, the focus in schools has been on academic attainment – but growing up is also about how to engage with relationships and life,” says Bajaj.

In this vein, it’s a good time for teachers and parents to make sure they’re role-modelling self-care, she says. “Young people watch us – they see us more than they hear us. We need to practice good stress management: we need to exercise, to take breaks, to eat well, to relax. And if we’re anxious we need to name that – because anxiety in some circumstances is normal.”

On top of which, this year’s cohort will have missed out on so many of the rites of passage that should mark this stage of their lives: end-of-term parties, leavers’ assemblies, saying goodbye to primary school teachers. “All that didn’t happen for Phoebe, and she was really upset and confused by it,” says Naomi South, her mother. “So it was lovely when her new school started to do all the virtual preparation. It’s not been ideal, of course – but it has made her feel a whole lot better about what’s ahead.”

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