Headteacher Mark Barnett remembers the trials and triumphs of transitions during his own youth and argues for a radical rethink on managing the process.

How was it for you? I was young, inexperienced and I just fumbled around. My brother said it was often like that the very first time. My sister said the same. So did my mum and dad. Except it wasn’t my first time. I remember moving from the infants to the juniors, or ‘big school’ as it was called then, as it still is by some parents in my own establishment.

But I’m talking about the enormous move – the one I tell the children in my school ‘will shape their lives for the future’ – the transition to secondary school at the age of 11. I haven’t a clue why I tell them that. I also tell them pre-SATs ‘not to worry; so long as you try your best, give it your best shot, that’s all that matters’. What I don’t tell them is that I will be ‘shot’ by Ofsted if they don’t do as well as I would like them to do in an ideal world.

I was really interested reading David Dixon’s article on transition. Each point well made and wholly true. I believe all transitional stages in life are pivotal, a defining moment at any given time. Why do we as primary headteachers make the big play on primary to secondary all the time? I do it. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. I even get my staff to do it. Shame on me! I’ve got my views on this particular transitional stage and I will get there by the end of the article, so stick with me.

Had ADHD been invented when I was six or seven, in the 1950s, I would have been diagnosed with it – along with being on the autistic spectrum with possible Tourette’s syndrome and the brain-power of a gnat! Definite SEN material. I was a late developer. You know – red hair, sticking out ears, a lisp and an inability to roll my ‘R’s. I just needed ‘Bully Me’ tattooed on my forehead and life would have been complete.

Eight years of elocution lessons outside of school just about fixed me. I didn’t go to nursery – it wasn’t the thinking of the time. A few things struck me when I turned 50 and the main one was that I have never left school. Forty-eight years of being in the school environment and only paid for 30 of them. I feel robbed!

I remember my infant days, carefree days. We played a lot, painted a lot, wrote stories, read to the teacher and did a lot of PE. My older brother and sister were successfully climbing the educational ladder in the junior part of the school. On entering the juniors I remember the phrase ‘You’re not like your brother and sister, are you Barnett?’ I wasn’t and every fear I had of going into the juniors came true on the very first day with the utterance of those words.

These days, I’m at fault. I’ve now got the power and wherewithal to change things but I don’t think they’ve really changed from my own school days. They’re blooming going to, however, as an opportunity has arisen locally to do something about it!

I was told off by the headmistress for failing my eleven plus. I, along with a few others, ‘had let the class down!’ I thought they had let me down but this only came to me some years later. I found studying hard. I did try to learn but it never really interested me. I was good at writing stories and was quite creative in my own way. I was also really useful on primary sports day as I could set hoops and sacks out like no other. I always felt the best educationally was yet to come. I was right, but it took a while.

Making the move

We didn’t visit our secondary and grammar schools. We just went. A letter was sent home just before the end of the summer term prior to transfer, giving details of the uniform, the games kit and your class. You lived on the horror stories from other family members or from classmates who had been told the worst by their brothers and sisters. My family couldn’t tell me anything as I had set a new family educational record as the only one not going to grammar school, and by that I mean the wider extended family, cousins and all!

Now this is where things started to get good. My mate Mike was going with me. He too had let the class down. With a gap in between when we lost contact, we are still firm friends. He looked out for me and I for him. (He’s been offered early retirement and is taking it. I wish!) My final primary class teacher was going with me. Well, not specifically with me but he got a job in the secondary school at the same time, not unusual in those days. He looked out for me as well.

I actually gained a lot of confidence knowing ‘my teacher’ was in the school. I enjoyed woodwork, French, technical drawing and metalwork. My mum still has the fireside poker I made in Year 7 equivalent, even though no one had a coal fire in our area. She’s also got the tea caddy spoon. That was useful, but tea bags had been invented. At least I didn’t have to do Latin, applied maths and three languages. I did pretty well at home economics though. My sponges were a highlight. I suppose I would be more NVQ equivalent these days.

Each in their own time

Then it was off to sixth form college. I attended the first purpose-built sixth form college – Harrow Junior College as it was called. No transition problems there. Couldn’t wait. It had taken me a bit longer than everyone else to get my qualifications to go to teacher training college but I made it. Each in their own time is a philosophy I have always believed in – not in the government’s time.

Of course I want each child to achieve but I haven’t cracked how 84% of them do it at the same time to the same level when so many first enter school with  different baselines. I did order the book entitled How to make a child catch up at any given time, preferably just before they sit their annual SAT tests, but it hasn’t been written yet. Neither has Every child can be equal to the next child no matter their start in life, nor Individuals – should they be allowed?

And what about that transition to college or university? Talk about growing up fast. All that freedom and not a clue what to do with it or how to handle it! A complete waste on the young! Then the next transition to the work place. You think you’re at the top of the tree and then reality sets in. Exciting reality, but it still sets in. The transition into a full-time relationship follows. That’s the worst of the lot! Or it may happen at the same time as you’re studying, as it did with me, and then you really are stuffed!

Transition: in whose heads?

But I’m a primary headteacher so I should concentrate on what I know. You see it’s not the children who think about transition, it’s the adults. I think we make them worry. I’m all for preparing children for the next part of life, whatever that may be. In our case, school is only a building – it’s people who make the barriers for these stages, and I include myself in this statement.

If schools were on one campus, everything would hopefully flow and the stages would not be so apparent. Because the uniform changes on transfer to secondary education, subject decisions have to be made, timetables are fitted around specialisms and teachers suddenly become specialists, we have this great black hole where some children completely disappear. I think they are David Dixon’s tadpoles. They don’t make it into frogs. If every child matters, we really should do something about it. I’m sure some colleagues may have it sorted. Every time I think I’ve got it right I haven’t.

Our main local feeder secondary school is going through a transition itself. It is about to merge with a second local secondary school into a ‘super school’. Good on paper and good now that decisions have been taken, parents and children have been consulted and it is taking place over the next two years.

It has been a bit hairy up to this stage. Last year, three of our children came back worse for wear from their final transition visit. I have a feeling it may only have been just one of two visits. I thought then that I must give this stage of transition a higher priority in my personal thinking. I have done. Along with my staff and the acting head of the secondary school, we have changed arrangements for this year to account more for the children and less for staff needs. Nothing too radical, just taking our children’s views into account – more primary adult presence with our children on any transition time spent in secondary schools and that sort of thing.

Lobbying for change

So ladies and gentlemen, time to be radical. Our secondary super school is about to appoint a new headteacher. Nothing to do with me, but I’ve been lobbying for a change in transitional thinking. I’ve been doing it for a while now but we have this opportunity to make it happen. I wouldn’t like to bet on it though, since it would need to affect all the local secondary and primary schools.

I want all our Year 6 children, no matter which secondary school they are going to in York, to transfer in June, straight after the May half term . Think about it. SATs are completed and they are totally ready to go. There would be none of this summer holiday loss in learning. Seven or eight weeks for the children to acclimatise to their new surroundings. Only it wouldn’t take that long. With only a week’s break, or two weeks in some parts of the country, for this final half term of the year, the children won’t have time to think and worry about this particular transition. Straight in, no messing. At the same time, all our primary children can change class for the same reason. I know it can be done as I’ve discussed it locally. I’m sure there are things we haven’t thought about but they can be overcome, whatever they are. The children I’ve spoken to like the idea. So do most of their parents. My primary colleagues I’ve spoken to like it. Some of the Year 11 teachers have mixed feelings – children leaving after exams and all that, and free periods going amiss. But this could be ideal for the children. A school year within a school year!

It may already be happening in some parts of the country but I don’t know. I don’t get out much these days! I know my daughter in Whitby did just as described above from middle school to the community college. She appreciated it. I would love the new head and staff of this super school to discuss the matter with me when appointed. I would love the question to be asked on interview before appointment! I would love to infiltrate the interview panel to make it happen!

So there you have it. I’ll let you know if it happens. Not transition for transition’s sake and not change for change’s sake. A good system for the children’s sake.

Worth noting…

A study carried out in 2002 by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for the Child and Society examined the experiences and views of children making the transition from primary to secondary school and found that the process could raise particular issues for pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds.

The study pointed out that racist verbal abuse might become more prominent at this time, and that teachers and schools could vary in the extent to which they were aware of and respected cultural diversity. Questions of identity could therefore take on heightened significance for minority ethnic pupils, as they mediated different expectations about adolescent behaviour and aspirations between family, school, peers, and community elders.