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Top tips for starting secondary school

The move from primary school, where parents chat at the school gates, to a huge secondary, where your children will be horrified to see you within a mile of it, is a big leap. To help with the transition, we've distilled the very best advice from Mumsnet parents on starting secondary school this year.

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Feb 15, 2022

Secondary School Pupil

If you thought waving them off to primary school was a wrench, just wait until secondary. The good news is that they’ll cry less than you this time round. The bad news is that there’s a whole lot more to get your heads around, and neither you nor your child will be gently spoon-fed through it the way you were when they started Reception.

But there’s plenty you can do to make the transition easier. We’ve collated some wisdom from Mumsnet users on how to make the start of secondary school easier and put it all together in this foolproof guide to bossing Year 7.

How to prepare your child for secondary school

1. Tell them what to expect

Familiarity is your friend when it comes to helping your child get ready for Year 7 and there’s lots you can do before the start of term to make everything seem more recognisable and less overwhelming.

Often, the most stressful part of the transition to secondary school is fear of the unknown (or fear of all the total rubbish older friends and siblings will have filled their heads with – think year-long detentions and the like). And knowledge is power, as they say, so clue them in as much as possible on what to expect.

Children at School

It might help to address some of the aspects of school that concern them the most and have a chat about what’s likely and what isn’t, and how to react if one of their worries comes to fruition. Some of the most common worries include:

  • Getting lost in the school
  • Forgetting the way home
  • Not knowing how the lunch system works
  • Getting into trouble accidentally
  • Not making any friends
  • The work being too hard

Mumsnetters say

“It's a year when they realise that big changes are looming, and they may be separated from their friends who they have known virtually all their lives (in my younger child’s class of 30 children, they went to eight different schools!), and this can lead to insecurities and fear. It's an exciting and scary year.”

2. Practise the journey to school and stay connected

This may now be the start of your child finding more independence and beginning to walk or take the bus to school on their own. Do at least one trial journey with them, as well as a trial of any alternative routes/modes of transport home, in case their usual way is disrupted.

Children may also benefit from a mobile phone (if you haven't succumbed already) so that they can contact you whenever they need to and vice versa. And it doesn’t have to be the latest iPhone either. You can buy budget, child-friendly mobile phones and SIM-only plans that will do the job nicely and help them feel confident that they can get from A to B with ease while keeping you in control and top of their usage and monthly spend.

Mumsnetters say

“Buy a phone so she gets used to using it [before school starts]. We let our child (now in Year 7) use it at weekends.”

3. Help them to develop their independence

The biggest change for your child is that the responsibility for what they do at school suddenly shifts from you to them. You no longer have to see the head teacher if your child is repeatedly late for school – it's your child who gets the detention.

The secret is personal organisation (theirs not yours). Some children are better at it than others, but the more you expect them to do for themselves at home, the better they'll be at managing what's expected of them at school.

Your child will go from having one teacher to a whole host of them and will need to bring the right books to the right lessons. Give them a few storage boxes so that they can house the books they bring home from school for homework, and stick labels on the boxes for each subject.

Three girls at school

It’s also a good idea to get your child more streetwise in the run up to secondary school, so that they can get to and from school alone, buy what they need from a shop, know who to call if they’re late etc. Things like practising road safety, walking home alone (or to a friend’s) or going to the shops on errands for you will help with this. 

Mumsnetters say

"Leave them on their own at home for short periods and make sure they know what to do in an emergency. Take your child and a friend into town, arrange to meet them an hour later somewhere, and then go for coffee!"

"Losing things in Year 7 is pretty normal. So is forgetting homework or leaving it ridiculously late. They take the consequences and learn. One tip – any homework that involves computers, do early – there will be technical glitches."

4. Encourage good time management

In the first few terms at secondary, it's worth persuading your child to get to school early. If your child travels on public transport, leaving a little earlier will mean it’s likely to be less crowded and they'll be less stressed if they get to school with some time to spare to get organised for the first few lessons.

Be prepared for the fact that, if your child does have to get up earlier, they can really feel tired as the term wears on. 

Mumsnetters say

"Equip them with the skills to travel to and from school – buses/trains etc – with LOTS of gradual practice. What if the bus breaks down, what if they get on the wrong train, platform etc?"

"I sewed a pocket in the bottom of my daughter's school bag. It holds a £10 note and change so she can get an emergency taxi or pay her or a friend's bus fare if the ticket runs out or gets forgotten."

5. Negotiate the secondary school uniform maze

Don't believe everything your child tells you about how they will “die from embarrassment” if you buy them a regulation skirt, but you may well need to compromise. If you can get to a secondhand sale, do so, but you can also buy budget-friendly school uniform pieces from a variety of well-known retailers.

Folders

Other secondary school ‘kit’

Some schools hand out a checklist at induction of the bits and bobs that pupils will need to bring to secondary school – calculator, compass, pens and pencils, PE kit, memory stick and such – or you might be able to find one on the school’s website.

Mumsnetters say

"Uniform, especially sports kit, will be 'lost' and will disappear for entire terms (if it ever returns). Make sure you have spare items - secondhand sales are ideal."

Networking for secondary school

If they’re lucky, your child will be moving up to secondary school with lots of friends and, even though their new school is likely to be much, much bigger, they should be able to spot some familiar faces in the throng. Try and get them together with some of their friends from Year 6 moving up with them over the summer.

The summer between Years 6 and 7 is likely to be the one where they become really independent, heading off to the shops, cinema and swimming pool with their friends, so there’s plenty of opportunity for them to bond before September rolls around.

It can be hard if they’re going to a different school from the majority of their friends. If that’s the case, you can post on local social media sites and ask if there’s a group for Year 7 starters and their families. There will be others in the same boat wanting to make a few friends before term starts.

Some schools, particularly in the private sector, run summer camps over the summer holidays, so it’s worth asking around to find out if those are well-attended by the pupils from the school. This will allow your child the chance to meet some of their cohort before school starts.

But if that’s not possible, don’t panic. Nearly everyone says that friendships change dramatically in the first few weeks of Year 7. While it’s nice to have the ‘comfort blanket’ of starting secondary school with friends, your child will soon make new ones as the year progresses.

Mumsnetters say

"Make contact with other families who will have children in Year 7 at their new school and arrange to meet at regular intervals from now to September so that your child can start with a group of friends. This is particularly valuable if they will be travelling on the same bus etc. Get to know the parents as well so that you can exchange information."

"My eldest son knew no one, and my younger son knew two people. Both have settled and made friends. Friendship groups seem to change fairly quickly as they enter senior school."

First day at secondary school

Make sure alarms are set nice and early so there’s no rushing around on their first day of secondary school. Get them to lay everything out the night before too so that they aren’t having to turn their room upside down looking for their school shoes.

Take a view on breakfast. On the one hand, it can be calming for children to sit down with their family at the start of their first day (though that depends on how calming they find the family). On the other hand, you may well get up at 6am to make them a bacon sandwich and find they can’t so much as look at a bowl of cereal for nerves. A banana on their way out the door will do in that case.

If possible, set them up with another friend to walk or get public transport with on the first day. Not only is it less daunting to do the journey with someone else, but it’s also much less daunting to walk into the school with a mate.

Expect them to be exhausted – not just on their first day, but for the first few weeks. They might be getting up earlier, walking a lot further each day and taking in a lot of new information. Try to keep weekends clear and encourage them to take it easy after school.

If your work allows, it’s great to be there when they get home on their first day of secondary school. They’ll probably ignore you and tell you nothing about their day at all, but it can be a big comfort to have a parent there when they get home. 

Mumsnetters say

"It would have been social death at my daughter's secondary to have turned up at the school gate on day one with a parent. You would never live it down. You must not meet them after school at the gates either."

"I predict they will get very good at getting up at 7:30 and leaving the house in a flurry of books while you wail despairingly about planners, breakfast and coats."

How to survive the transition to secondary school

It's clear in the first few days that secondary school is a very different kettle of fish to primary school and requires previously untested skills of organisation and self-motivation from your 11-year-old.

Even so, brace yourself for a slew of lost items of clothing, footwear and more. You’ll become familiar with the ‘it just vanished’ school of lost property. In fairness, it's hard for kids to keep track of everything, but it can be difficult to stay patient when they misplace things as mysterious as shoes and underwear. Go easy on them, as they won’t be the only pupil to do this, but your child will benefit from knowing that if they don't put something away in their locker at school, no one will do it for them. 

There’s an expectation that your child will be responsible for his or her own belongings, homework and life from Year 7, but the reality is that if you don’t want them in detention most days and do want to be kept abreast of events at school, you’ll need to still need to be involved to some extent at this stage. 

Mumsnetters say

"Put their locker key/house key on to some sort of chain and attach it to their clothes or bag somehow. My son has a split ring keyring attached to his school trousers and then the keys clip on with a carabiner. None lost yet!"

"Search their blazer and bag once a week for letters they have forgotten to give you. Also check the school website calendar for events and, if you want to go, pester them to bring you the letter."

Making friends at secondary school

Schools often let you suggest someone your child would like to have in the same form as them, which can help with settling in, although friendships change remarkably quickly in the first few terms.

A form tutor can also put your child next to someone in the class who will be supportive, but your child will need to develop strategies to cope with what is often a noisy, busy secondary school and this can take time. Reminding them to smile and be approachable will really help. There will be others out there looking for a new friend too, so looking like a likely candidate is often a good start.

It can be helpful to give your child some idea of what to expect of secondary school friendships – that it isn't always easy to make friends and that friendship groups do change early on. You can reassure them that things almost always work out and they'll be able to deal with it.

It’s also a good idea to encourage them to join an extracurricular club or activity at school where they’ll have the chance to meet others that they wouldn’t ordinarily have crossed paths with.

Kids in Class

If you hear of friendship disputes, remain a beacon of calm reassurance. Resist the temptation to tear up to the school yourself and instead wait to see if your child can resolve it on their own. It depends how open your child is to talking to you about these things, but you should encourage them to tell you if they feel bullied or excluded, and ask them what they think might solve it. If you're still worried, you can talk to their tutor.

All change is difficult and most children manage, but it's not uncommon for children to feel overwhelmed. If there's something wrong in their class and they're unhappy (maybe the dynamic just isn't right for them), schools will occasionally move a child into another tutor group, but be prepared to be told there is no Schengen area in secondary schools and it won’t be possible.

Many schools have mentoring systems where older children, who may have struggled further down the school and developed ways of dealing with it, mentor younger children having similar problems, or simple buddy systems within each year group. If you have concerns, it’s worth a phone call just to find out what the school has in place.

Mumsnetters say

"Tell them not to concentrate on finding a 'best friend' but to try and be friendly to as many people as possible. The best friend thing will sort itself out later."

"I'm a high school teacher who does lunch duties on the Year 7 playground. We are constantly looking out for kids who are on their own, whether it's because the one friend they've made is off sick, or they've had a fall-out with their group or, particularly at this time of year, because they are just finding it hard to make friends. We tell them about the clubs that are on that day and ask if they fancy popping in on one with us so see what it's like. When we arrive, the assistant in charge is welcoming and puts them with who they think would be like-minded peers."

Managing homework at secondary school

There’s no getting around it - homework steps up a gear from Year 7. It’s worth making this clear beforehand and talking to them about how they’re going to fit it in around their hectic schedule of tearing through your fridge, watching TV and playing XBox. Most teachers recommend a break of half an hour after they get home to decompress a bit and then getting stuck in before it gets too late.

A fair (and increasing) amount of secondary-school homework requires a computer or laptop. Most schools and libraries have computers schoolchildren can use for homework, but it's easier for your child if they can use a computer at home. It’s also a good idea to encourage them to get their typing speed up, which will make everything a bit quicker.

Most schools provide children with a weekly planner that contains their school and homework timetable, with a space at the end of each week for the parent and teacher to write notes to each other. Before your child gets the chance to deface it, photocopy their timetable and stick it somewhere your child will see it. This will enable you to challenge your child when he or she swears they don't have any homework.

Mumsnetters say

"Try to step back from getting involved with the homework too much. They need to learn what happens when they don't hand it in on time or when they hand in substandard work, and Year 7 is the best time for this."

"My daughter's planner is not just to check homework is done - it also has pre-printed notes about what's going on at school for parents and children, for the whole school year. I'm all for independence in secondary school kids, but I don't know one that doesn't needs [some gentle encouragement] now and again."

Overcoming worries about getting lost

For many children, the most common fears about secondary school centred around getting lost. They worry that they won’t find their way there, that when they get there they’ll get lost or that, at the end of the school day, they won’t find their way home. Here are a few tips that will help:

  • Practise the route to school and write it down on a piece of paper or take a small map print out just in case.
  • Same goes for train and bus times – make sure they’re familiar with the times of transport departures and that they have a print-out of them so they can work out what to do if they do happen to miss a train or bus.
  • Make sure they know your phone number off by heart so if they don’t have a mobile phone or lose it, they can borrow someone else’s or use a payphone.
  • Tell them what to do if they get lost between lessons - they should always keep their timetable to hand so that they know what lesson they have next or knock on a classroom door and ask for help if they get lost.
  • Help them to familiarise themselves with a floor map of the school. If you’re feeling so inclined, you could build a scale model from bits of old cereal packet and relive some of your primary school project days.
  • Ensure they know where they can go if they lose their money for their fare home or get lost or waylaid - whether that’s a friend’s house en route or a local library where you can meet them.
  • Remind them that in all likelihood, NONE of these things will ever happen and they’ll be fine, and that everyone will be in the same boat.

Dealing with your own feelings about your child starting secondary school

It can be challenging to see your child going off to secondary school. It's another landmark, another milestone, and another sign that they're more grown-up and that much more independent. But cast your mind back to the little person you left on that first day at primary school, how you felt then and how far you’ve come.

Though it feels like a big change in many ways, secondary school isn’t the milestone that primary was for parents. You’re not coming home to an empty house for the first time, buying uniform two sizes too big for the first time, or facing the reality that they’re no longer your baby. 

There are also definite positives to being a secondary school parent rather than a primary school one. No more school gate drop-offs and collects, no more having costumes sprung on you for the next day only seconds after the shops close, no more requests for cakes for bake sales, and no more nits (or a lot less frequently at any rate).

And sometimes, just sometimes, after you’ve helped them sort out their homework, listened to their friendship woes and argued about how late they can stay out on Friday, they’ll bring you a cup of tea and a slice of toast for no reason at all.

Mumsnetters say

"They will have friends that you don't know. They will want to go places that they have never been. They will go to friends' houses and you will think ‘but I don't know the parents.’ You can't stop them growing up. You have to, for the most part, hope you have raised them in the right way and have faith they won't do anything ridiculous. But sleepovers and parties? Always verify that with the host parent!"