Starting Secondary School


Your baby is going to big school! Everyone remembers starting secondary school; that mixture of nerves, excitement and most of all the hugeness of your new school with different teachers for every subject, older year groups who all looked gigantic, classes to find down interminable corridors and timetables to decipher.

When your child makes the move to secondary school it's no less momentous for you as a parent. You want them to be happy; you worry they won't be. And into this melting pot of angst comes the fact that the secondary school your child is going to will either be your first choice (did we make the right choice?) or one that you've had to accept but still have doubts about (should we have tried harder?)

This is really important: you must not give any indication of your own seething cauldron of worries and must be totally upbeat and positive about everything to do with the move to secondary school.

Most children are totally ready to make the move to secondary school and settle in very happily.

They've probably been bored silly in SAT obsessed Year 6 and are eager to make the transition up to a new school, new friends, new lessons and new challenges.

But for parents the move to secondary school does mark the first act of letting go, of trusting your child to organise herself - albeit with help and support from loving parents - and become an independent, happy teenager.

Before term starts:

Before term starts, make test journeys - ideally more than once - to the school from home and back again.

If your child will be walking, point out the best places to cross, local landmarks and time your journey. If your child will be taking public transport, get hold of an up to date timetable and work out together exactly which bus stop is best, which tube connection works or whatever is necessary for a smooth journey.

Find out if any other children will be taking the same route and - if it doesn't smack too much of mum organisation for your child - arrange to hook up before term starts

Unlike at primary school where you receive the ticking off if your child is persistently late, at secondary school your child will be the one in detention for late arrivals. It's your job to help your child organise themselves to arrive in time, calmly and with time enough to chat with their friends before school starts.

Make sure your child has memorised important numbers and is not relying on them being on his mobile phone. A phone can be lost and many schools ban mobiles from even being brought into the premises.

With the intention of empowering your child, not turning them into a bundle of nerves, talk through worst case scenarios and decide on the best plan of action - what would he do if he lost his bus pass; he missed the school bus; he had his money stolen; he couldn't find his key?

We don't think allowing your child to leave for school plugged into coveted ipods and such like is a good idea. Firstly, if he's concentrating on his music, he will be less tuned into what's happening around him and, secondly and sadly and depending to some extent on the area in which you live, an 11-year-old with an ipod is a sitting target to be mugged.

2. Organise a space for your child to do homework and keep school books.

Once your child starts secondary school, they will be expected to do around an hour every evening - a far cry from the once a week homework of primary school.

Even if your child doesn't initially use a desk space and prefers to do homework at the kitchen table, it's still a good idea to have a personal zone where their school stuff is based.

One friend swears by large lidded plastic boxes labelled with her three secondary school children's names into which she can put any school books, half finished homework or PE socks drifting around the home as a great way to avoid 'I can't find my maths' stress fits at 7am.

3. Buy more of the stuff they will lose and give up on the gear they will never wear.

Buy as many shirts and socks as you can afford to. In our experience, these are the items of clothing that will be your undoing at 7am.

Label everything on the list of gear required, even down to that huge calculator and their PE socks.

If your child is a bit scatty (and most are at that age), it may be worth buying double PE kits to prevent the grumpiness of hiking back to the uniform shop days or weeks into the term.

Of course a raincoat seems sensible to us, but in our experience 11-year-olds don't see the point of outerwear unless it's absolutely freezing and would rather get soaked than suffer the indignity of a mac. The same goes for rucksacks cunningly designed to take the weight off young shoulders. Don't bother buying anything your child will dismiss as nerdy. It's just not worth the battle.

4. Recognise the tempo of your mornings will change.

Even if you're lucky enough to have a child starting at a local school, most secondary schools expect children to be in at about 8.15. If your child has a long journey ahead of them, they may well be leaving the house before 7am.

Tempting as it may be, you can't just croak 'have a good day' and roll back to sleep.

Get a good alarm for yourself and your child and set it early enough. Make sure they have eaten a properly filling breakfast.

Encourage them to pack bags with completed homework and the day's required text books the night before to deflect missing items tension. (See number 6 below.)

Once term is underway, there's a high chance that your hallway and kitchen will become clogged with other children collecting your child. Invest in a non-embarrassing dressing gown (not see-through, not too Mummy Bear) and get into the habit of a quick hair de-scruff before breakfast.

The first week of secondary school:

5. If at all possible, arrange for yourself, your partner or a caring adult to be at home to greet your child for the first week.

Your child will arrive home wanting to relate all the excitements of their day, but also extremely tired, so it makes sense to be able to share this momentous time with them before they slip into exhausted 'dunnos' and 'fines'.

You will also want to set up a routine for the coming term that works - maybe snack and chat, followed by homework, then screens (whatever works best for your child, you and your family), evening meal and sensible bed time.

This is a good time to produce their favourite meals - partly as a treat, partly to make sure they eat well.

6. Make a copy of their timetable and locker key.

Within the first week, they should arrive home with their class timetable. Nab it and make at least one copy, preferably two - one for wherever they are going to keep their school books and one for the kitchen or hall so you can double check they really have got their PE kit before leaving.

If your child is given a locker, during the first weekend take the key to a locksmith and get at least one copy made. This will save your child heartache over homework that can't be handed in because it's in the locker with the missing key and save you a fortune in replacement key costs.

7. Encourage and help children to organise themselves.

As we've said before, it's your child who will be given detention if he or she forgets kit, homework, signed letters. But at age 11, a child still needs your help and encouragement to take on this responsibility. It's a balancing act between being too much of a control freak and expecting your child to remember everything. It's worth checking planners for any messages from teachers and asking if you need to sign anything.

8. Instill good homework habits.

You don't need to hover over them pointing out spelling mistakes, but you do have to check they have done what's required every day. If your child prefers to work in his or her room, that's fine but it might be worth checking every now and again that they are doing homework, not editing the contents of their wardrobe or texting friends non-stop.

The first term:

9. Try to relax and trust in your child.

As a parent, one of the biggest changes that secondary school brings is the realisation that your child will have to let themselves into your home alone. Whether you are collecting younger children from primary school or at work, it's simply unrealistic to think that your child will be greeted every day by you or can hang around outside your home until you're there.

At first the idea of a latch key kid will seem potentially frightening for you the parent, but most children are happy to gain this new independence. Issue your child with a key (obviously not attached to your address in case of loss) and perhaps at first ask him to call you once he's home.

At primary school there will be written permission slips for after school activities and you will probably be expected to pick up. At secondary school, after school clubs and team sports rarely need parental permission (unless they've got an away match and will be returning extra late) and as a parent you will gradually relax into this new status quo.

The days of organising play dates are over. Chances are your child will invite friends back or pop into friends' homes. You'll need to lay down some ground rules on times expected back, numbers welcomed back to yours, still making homework a priority, but allowing your child some degree of freedom is all part of trusting your child now she is at secondary school.

10. But save the numbers and names of all new parents.

Unlike primary school with the chance for a playground chat and years spent forming friendships or cordial acquaintanceship with your child's friends, secondary school friendships are more long distance because you won't be allowed within a mile of the school gate (unless it's for a parents' evening).

All parents of Year 7s feel the same anxiety about their children's new friends and parents. Everyone is looking for reassurance, but is worried about appearing 'uncool'.

Don't let children go for visits, sleepovers or parties unless you have spoken to the child's parents, been reassured by them and have those vital contact details. Don't let your child invite anyone until you have had a chance to call parents and give your numbers and reassure.

In the first term it helps to keep a piece of paper by your phone of all new friends and parents' numbers and addresses. It's amazing how quickly the list extends.

11. Feed them well.

Year 7 children, especially boys, seem to develop enormous appetites overnight. Try and make a special effort to provide nutritious after school snacks to fend off the munchies until it's time for an equally nutritious and big enough meal.

12. Sort out any problems quickly.

Most children will settle into secondary school very happily, but if anything is troubling your child or you, do not hesitate to contact the school immediately. It's infinitely better to nip potential problems (bullying, friendship clashes, homework worries...) in the bud rather than letting them fester. There is often a member of staff in charge of the pastoral care of Year 7s, whose job is specifically to sort out problems with settling in or being bullied. Your child will have a form tutor who is also a good point of contact.

13. Arrange a really relaxing half term break.

You've just been through a momentous life change and you may all, not just your child, be in need of a little relaxation. If you possibly can, arrange a chance to refuel your batteries and take stock of how far your child and you have come in just six weeks.

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Before You Go