How to cope with secondary school trauma

13 July 2010
The Times and The Sunday Times
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It may be a year away, but parents need to act now to get their child into a chosen school

There was an atmosphere of panic among the parents in the sticky assembly hall with all of us secretly worrying: would we find the right school for our children?

Being the parents of Year 5 pupils, aged 10, we’d come to hear about the process of applying for a secondary school, a process which usually begins in Year 6, the last one of primary school.

Even though the atmosphere was tense and some parents complained about not having enough information, we knew that we were the lucky ones. Most parents get no help until September. However, some schools, such as my son’s state primary in Tower Hamlets, East London, prepare parents by giving them some information in late June and July. This can be very useful because it gives parents time to investigate the schools on offer and learn something more about the bewildering process that is known as “secondary transfer”.

Even for an experienced state school teacher such as me, who has written books on the subject, the process is complicated and highly emotional. The notion of your little baby going to a big secondary school full of truculent adolescents is scary. Some parents I’ve spoken to harbour secret nightmares about their children going to the “wrong” school and being bullied there, not learning anything and turning into drug-addicts living on the dole.

The atmosphere of panic is exacerbated by the complexities surrounding the application process. This is because many schools have different “admissions criteria” — the rules by which a school admits a child. Academies, faith schools, voluntary-aided schools, trust schools, community schools and specialist schools pick their pupils according to a variety of criteria and have different application processes. The new coalition Government’s policies will complicate things further because many schools are becoming academies and some new schools look as if they will be set up. It’s not clear what the admissions processes for these schools will be.

This means that doing your researching now will be hugely beneficial because you’ll be much better prepared when the “school hunting season” begins in earnest in September. I believe setting aside a few hours to surf the internet could save parents of prospective secondary pupils a lot of stress in the long run. (See the steps below.) “There’s a real value in parents looking at prospective secondary schools at this time,” says Sam Murray, of the Advisory Centre for Education, a charity that helps parents nationwide with this process. “The September open evenings can be very formal, but if parents go now to things such as the schools’ summer fairs, or just look around, they can get more of a feel for a school. We get calls from parents every year who weren’t prepared and end up disappointed as a result.”

Key things to do now Log on to the schools finder and see what the choices are in your area ( Just type your postcode into the school finder website, click on schools near you for the “school profile” and “Ofsted information” sections.

Recent Ofsted reports will tell you how school inspectors have graded such things as teaching and learning, behaviour and exam results, etc. Read the report carefully, but you should visit the school, talk to parents, pupils and teachers and make your own judgment.

Look at your preferred schools’ “admissions criteria”. If you can’t fulfil their criteria, your child won’t get in and it’s not worth wasting your time. Some school and local authority websites show their “catchment area”, or the areas where the pupils have come from: this is very useful information if the school primarily picks pupils by geographical distance. Don’t panic! Don’t believe the myths you hear about schools — visit them first. E-mail them and fix an appointment now to visit while lessons are going on.

Contact the Advisory Centre For Education (; 0808 8005793) if you have further questions. Its experts know what they’re talking about and they are free. Remember that overwhelmingly it’s parental support that determines how well children succeed. The best research ( shows that if parents talk regularly to their child, have high expectations, discuss things constructively with the child’s teachers, and are generally positive then he or she will flourish no matter where they go to school.

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