Starting secondary school

The move from cosy primary, 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 best advice from Mumsnet Talk

secondary school

If you thought waving them off to primary school was a wrench just wait until secondary. The good news is they’ll cry less than you this time round. The bad news is there’s a whole lot more to get your heads around, and neither you nor your child will be gently spoonfed through it the way you were when they started in reception. But there’s plenty you can do to make the transition easier. We’ve collated some of the wisdom from Mumsnet users who’ve been there and our best tips for making the start of secondary school easier and put it together in this foolproof guide to bossing Year 7. (Don’t for God’s sake say bossing in front of your 11-year-old or you will ruin their life).

Preparing your child for secondary school

Familiarity is your friend when it comes to helping your child get ready for Year 7 and there’s lots you can do in advance of the start of term to make everything seem a bit more recognisable and ‘normal’ for them.
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 – year-long detentions, beastings behind the bike sheds and the like). And knowledge is power, as they say, so clue them in as much as possible on what to expect.

child in secondary school

It might help to address some of the aspects of school that concern them 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

Developing independence for secondary school

The biggest change for your child is that, suddenly, the responsibility for what they do at school shifts from you to them. Hurrah. You no longer have to see the head if your child is repeatedly late for school – it's your child who gets the detention.
If you're a compassionate (or even half-decent) parent, you'll help your child avoid this happening too often. The secret is personal organisation (theirs not yours). Some children are better at it than others, but the more you've expected 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 be expected to bring the right books to the right lessons. Give them a few cardboard boxes or some of that expensive trendy storage stuff, to put the books they bring home from school for homework and stick labels on the boxes for the various subjects. This is not cool but it is helpful.

school kids walking to school

It’s also a good idea to start getting them a bit more streetwise in the run up to secondary school, so they can get to and from school alone, get what they need from a shop, know who to call if they’re late etc. Little things like walking home alone (or to a friend’s) sometimes, going to the shops on errands for you and practising speaking to adults like the humans they are rather than extra-terrestrial beings will all help.

Leave them on their own at home for short periods, 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 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 hitches.

Practising the journey to school

If your child has to travel to school alone, do at least one trial journey with them, as well as a trial of any alternative routes/means of transport home in case their usual way is disrupted.
Children whose schools are not within walking distance probably do need a mobile phone (if you haven't succumbed already) but do suggest they don't get it out in public. The risk of it getting nicked is a good argument for not getting the uber-expensive model your child will undoubtedly ask for.
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 knackered as the term wears on. This problem can be avoided if (guess what) they go to bed at a reasonable time. We know… who’d have thought…

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, pay her or a friend's bus fare if ticket runs out, gets forgotten etc.

Negotiating 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 do compromise. No one wants to look like the school geek on their first day and, at most schools, subverting the school uniform to some degree is de rigueur. If you can get to a secondhand sale, do so. Invest in new when they've stopped growing.

Other secondary school ‘kit’

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

school folders

Obviously you want your child to have the stuff they will need on their first day but if you know anyone with children already at the school it’s worth asking which things are really needed. Aside from it being a potential waste of money, your kid won’t want to be the only saddo with a shiny new pencil case if the rest of their class know that two leaky Biros in a Tesco carrier bag is de rigeur.

Don't buy a coat till October at the earliest, in case 'no-one' wears coats. Similarly with bags/pencil cases, unless you know what is cool, make do with old/cheap ones till your child has worked out what's acceptable.

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. Do charge your child for items that are lost as it does reduce the frequency of this happening.

Networking for a new school

If they’re lucky, they’ll be moving up 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. This 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 on a regular basis, so there’s plenty of opportunity for them to bond before September rolls round.

It can be hard if they’re going to a different school from the majority of their friends. You could try posting on local social media sites to ask if there’s a group for Year 7 starters and their families. There are bound to be others in the same boat wanting to make a few friends before term starts. Schools usually so some induction days in the last term of primary, so encourage them to swap numbers with other kids they’ve met and follow it up over the summer, too.
Some schools, particularly in the private sector, run summer camps over the holidays and it might be worth asking around to find out if those are well-attended by the pupils from that school so that your child might get the chance to meet some of their cohort before school starts.
But if it’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 going up with mates, it isn’t everything.

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. Get them to lay everything out the night before, too, so 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 to sit down with your family at the start of your first day (though that depends on how calming they find the family, generally). 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 Pop Tart 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/get the train or bus in with on the first day. Not only is it less daunting doing the journey with someone else but also, so 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 an awful lot of new information. Plus, it’s stressful, which can really take it out of you. Try to keep weekends clear and encourage them to take it easy after school.
If work will allow, it’s great to be there when they get home on their first day. They’ll probably ignore you and tell you nothing about their day at all but it’s a big comfort to have their mum or dad there when they get home. Don’t whatever you do go within a mile’s radius of the school. They won’t thank you.

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. Also, no Velcro on shoes.

I predict they will get verrry 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.

Surviving the transition to secondary school

It's clear in the first few days that secondary is a very different beast and requires previously untested skills of organisation and self-motivation from your 11-year-old. (Just that small, Herculean task, then. Oh good.)
If you can help your child get ready the night before, it will make the mornings less stressful for you both, particularly if they are having to get up earlier than they are used to. Encouraging them to lay out their clothes or uniform for the next day promotes good habits, rather than encouraging a learned helplessness than can persist until 18 (and in some cases, beyond 40).
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’s difficult not to lose your rag when they misplace things as mysterious as shoes and underwear. Go easy on them, as they won’t be the only one but your child does need to know that if they don't put something away in their locker at school, no one will do it for them. And for you, the parent, them not doing that can be very expensive. If, after a couple of warnings, some of that expense gets passed on to your child, that’s often a useful if painful lesson.
There’s definitely 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 essentially be their prison warden/babysitter to some extent at this stage. You're not completely redundant just yet.

Put their locker key/house key on to some sort of chain and attach it to the child / clothes or bag somehow. My son has a split ring keyring attached to his school trousers and then the keys clip on with a caribiner. 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

Schools often let you suggest someone your child would like to have in the same form as them, which can help in settling, 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 school and this takes time. Reminding them to just 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 a good start.
It can be helpful to give your child some idea of what to expect – 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 extra-curricular club or activity at school where they’ll have the chance to meet others that they wouldn’t ordinarily have crossed paths with.

kids at school laughing

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 deal with it. It depends how open your child is to talking to you about these things, but you should encourage him or her to tell you if they feel bullied or excluded, and ask them what they think might solve it. But if you're still worried 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 sometimes 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 they have in place.

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.

Homework

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 or tearing through your fridge like a plague of locusts, watching TV and playing XBox… They’ll find a window in there somewhere, with some encouragement.) 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. Most schools and libraries have computers schoolchildren can use for homework but it's undoubtedly easier for your child if she can just 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.

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 need a shove now and again.

Worries about getting lost

A lot of children’s most common fears about secondary school surround ‘getting lost’. They worry that they won’t find their way there, that when they get there they’ll get lost or (horrors!) that at the end of the 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 phone or lose it, they can borrow someone else’s or use a payphone (apparently a few of these antique, analogue items do still exist, despite 11-year-olds’ protestations to the contrary.)
  • Tell them what to do if they get lost between lessons (always keep your timetable with you so you know what lesson you have next, knock on a classroom door and ask for help if you’re lost).
  • Help them 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, get lost or waylaid. Perhaps there’s a friend’s house en route, or a library they could get to where you could pick them up if they ever got into a real tizz.
  • 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

It's a wrench to see your child going off to secondary school. It's another landmark, another sign 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 and how you felt then – you've both survived (more or less intact), haven't you?

What I found hardest was the completely different relationship you have with the school.

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. I don't know what type of family they are. What if they are [insert whatever horrible thing you like here]”. But… 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!

Though it feels like a big change, in many ways, secondary school isn’t the milestone that primary was for mums and dads. 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. That ship sailed long ago, we’re afraid.

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 seconds after the shops close, ditto requests for cakes for bake sales. No more nits and worms (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.