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Primary Education News
News Starting secondary school: a survival guide for parents
All your secondary school questions answered, from mobile phones to homework – plus advice on the difficult art of letting them grow up
My first day at secondary school is a blur. Not, I think, because my memory of it is poor, but because the memory is of moving down a corridor in slow motion while hordes of much larger people rushed past; the bustle and jostle of all those feet moving at speed on a squeaky floor; the noise of everyone else going somewhere they knew how to find. Secondary school is not like primary school in all kinds of ways, and this week, hundreds of thousands of children in Britain will set off on their first journeys. So what do they (and you) need to know?
1. Should you buy them a mobile and if so, what sort?
Probably. Give them a phone, because they are stepping out into the world, and they may need it (not surprisingly, the average age at which a child first gets a mobile phone is also the age at which they start secondary school). There are two arguments regarding the best type of phone: buy cheap and simple, because they will lose it, or buy them the one they really want, which will be an iPhone or, failing that, a Samsung Galaxy. You'll have to settle that one yourself. Either way, make sure that your child knows the school policy on phones or it will end up in the headteacher's office. If you don't let them have a phone, you'd better let them choose a bag they really love. "The bag is really important," says Cathy Ranson, editor-in-chief of Netmums, who bought her son Alex a BlackBerry "and he thinks he should have an iPhone". She adds: "For a lot of kids with school uniform, it [a bag] is the only way to show your personality."
2. Should they hand the phone over if they get mugged?
Obviously. "I've had this conversation recently," says Ranson. "The most important thing to tell a child is to drop it, hand it over. The phone can be replaced, but you can't." Buy insurance; before doing so, check to see if the phone is covered by your house insurance.
3. Are they too old for Velcro shoes?
Not yet, but they will be soon. Lily Clarke is 11 and on Tuesday set off for her first day at her east London secondary school in a pair of brogues, but she says: "Most of the girls in my year are wearing Velcro shoes." Ranson says that secondary school was the point at which her son, along with many others, disavowed Velcro. If your child can't tie shoelaces, now is the time to teach them.
4. How can you prepare them for the lone trip to school (without freaking them out)?
"Practice," says Suzie Hayman, parenting practitioner and trustee of Family Lives. "It's about saying to the child, 'Let's go and do it together, and then you can show me how you would do it.' I have what I call the 'what if' game. 'What happens if you get to the bus stop and you haven't got your travel card? What do you do if there are people on the bus you don't like?' You are telling them: this is a problem to be solved. And secondly: this is a problem you can solve. You are a problem-solving person." Unfortunately, this approach can create new problems for some parents, because it requires them to recognise that their child needs them differently; needs them a little less (see question 10).
5. Do I need to buy them a coat?
It is a strange fact of life that most secondary school children do not wear coats. Do they insist on going coatless even in fierce weather because they want to show you that they have shed the top layer of childhood? "I think it is a symbolic item," says Hayman. "'Don't wrap me up, don't put your arm round me,' they are saying. That's a statement we need to listen to." Lily has a more practical explanation. "Coats are really hard to get on over a blazer. They are quite big around the shoulder," she says. You could compromise and buy a foldable waterproof to be buried in the depths of the school bag.
6. How much money should they carry?
This varies. Some schools have cashless systems. Some children carry cash cards and withdraw funds as needed from an ATM. If your child is carrying cash, you could look for a wallet or purse that attaches to a school bag with a chain. You might want to put enough for a taxi ride home in it.
7. Secondary school is so big. How do you make your child feel less small?
"This has to be about communication," says Hayman. "It's looking out for other people, making sure you have at least one other person to walk with you. Knowing where you are going." "My school is absolutely ginormous," says Lily. "Absolutely gi-nor-mous. I got lost about five times." Her advice? "I would say if you are really nervous, remember that everyone else is ready to make new friends. Anyone you like the look of, just go and say hi. All the teachers are really friendly and everyone is on your side. No one will get angry if you get lost. No one will be cross if you're a few minutes late for class." Ranson recommends making several miniaturised copies of your child's timetable, laminating them and putting one in the blazer pocket, one in the school bag, one in the wallet or purse, so a timetable is always to hand.
8. How can you make them independent while realising they are still only 11?
Don't tell them what to do, talk through what they might do, says Hayman. "It's about respect. It's about recognising that they want to be able to stand on their own two feet, and being there as the safety net when they fall back to you. And never, ever teasing them when that happens. You make the bed with the teddy bear, but on the other hand you wave them off with respect, and the idea that they can manage." Ranson's son is 12, and prefers not to be waved off in the morning from anywhere further outside than the front door. His strong conviction, with just one year of secondary school under his belt, is: "I don't want to be a sheep. I want to be me, not just go with the flow."
9. How can you make them do their homework?
You can't. You need to invest them with responsibility. Ranson is evangelical about buying a cheap kitchen timer with a countdown. Ask them how long their homework will take, when they are doing it and what they'll do afterwards. Then repeat back: "So it's half an hour and then you're going on your Wii. Do you want to set the timer so you can see how long you've got?"
10. Ask yourself: is your fear about them or is it about you?
Bringing up children is a slow, staggered process of detachment, from the moment they learn to crawl (why else do women commonly weep at their final breastfeed?) to the moment they finally leave home. When a child starts secondary school, with a mobile phone, travel card and possibly some hard cash in their pocket, it is easy to see in all that paraphernalia of independence impending adulthood. And with it, says Hayman, "a big sign that says: 'You are getting older!', 'Redundancy!' and 'Rejection!'" Perhaps, as the Guardian's family columnist Annalisa Barbieri thinks, "the biggest preparation is not of the child, but of the parent", and all the arguments over phones, friends and freedom "are really just symptoms of a bigger fear of your child becoming their own person." So trust them, and in doing so, trust yourself.
Is your child starting secondary school this week, or do you have older children who have already made the step up? Share your worries and/or wisdom below.