Hitting the ground running

Transitions test us and the challenge of starting at a new school should never be underestimated. Tim Hands offers some advice on how to get secondary schooling off to the best possible start.

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Transitions test us. So good schools pay attention to transitions, not least because parents and pupils can get steamed up about them – and especially at this time of year, when the results come in, the emotional farewells beckon, and the uniform orders bring the realisation that a new identity must at last be put on.

How can all parties best effect the transition? As a Housemaster, I used to phone two mothers each morning, while a tutor took the boys to chapel. Parents were at that hour in the morning at their most forthcoming, and apart from gathering intelligence about what their sons had told them, it was also an opportune moment for delivering them over in good heart to the rest of their day.

Whether the school is day or boarding, and starts at 11 or 13, the principle is the same: get in early, get in reassuringly, and get in by phone. For me there should be three calls home in the first month, by at least two different people, and they should all be documented and centrally discussed. As a Head I have always had something called the Care List (now readjusted to Pastoral Care List – the Second Master told me it sounded as though everyone in the school had a problem) and any pupil in the school to whom any special pastoral circumstance pertains will be on it. Every new pupil goes on it, and they do not come off it until the calls to home and the behaviour at school justify that.

Last year, I went one step further: every problem had to be codified and assigned to a type. The result was first a check list of the 18 things which cause anxiety; and next this elixir of an article, which suggests how parents might behave accordingly. Some problems are home problems, some are school problems, and some result from the relationship between the two. Warning: what follows contains little other than common sense, it is just that our human nature in all its manifold imperfections finds it difficult at times of pressure to take such common sense on board.

School problems are about an entirely new culture, its newness, its freedoms, its constraints, its relationships, its pressures. Organisation, self-discipline and the long game are what every new pupil needs – and these are big asks. Try everything (sensible) on offer, but don't try it too much. Don't make best friends too early, and simply ignore old enemies from any previous school. Get all the work in on time. Prioritise the work above the phone.

How can parents help? Buy the phone contract with care and buy it early. Set some phone rules – and keep them yourself. Make sure your child knows how to change a duvet cover, clean shoes, and load the dishwasher. Do not set excessive expectations, or worry which set your child is in. Remember you will soon be a mighty embarrassment, even greater than you are already, and support where possible from a distance. 'Excuse me, Mr McDonald', said the captain of my U14 rugby team, predestined from that moment to become Head Boy, 'would you mind supporting the team a little less enthusiastically?'

"Remember you will soon be a mighty embarrassment, even greater than you are already, and support where possible from a distance."

Make sure every special need, every medical issue is disclosed. Perhaps consider also the psychological side of things. Certainly, never let a family event occur without letting the Housemaster or tutor know. Family bereavements hit boarders hard – not infrequently in direct proportion to the number of legs of the deceased (which partly explains why golden retrievers dominate so many a House photo).

My wise colleague and current Governor, Clarissa Farr, used to ask every new parent at St Paul's Girls' School to write a letter of introduction on behalf of their daughter, explaining their personality and aspirations. Perhaps best not to send such a letter unless invited, but certainly wise to consider what it might say, and how its contents would strike a new reader. Do not apply academic pressure: you will supply it unconsciously enough without trying. Remember above all the gaps between the floorboards. Any anxiety you feel will be detected and magnified elsewhere.

Those interactions. Nothing in excess please. What other parents do might be a useful benchmark. Avoid calls late at night. Aim for calls in which both parents are involved, because children will often give one reaction to one party and one to another. This is human nature, adaptation to audience, not fibbing or manipulation (well not usually), but you would not believe the mischief it can cause or the anxiety it can create. And, the same goes for the impression given to the school as opposed to the impression given at home. Different audience, different take: but it's the same child, learning to live with new conditions and more complex loyalties. Use communication to listen to the other side. Things are unlikely to be as simple or as awful as they seem, especially in late night calls.

Lastly, and most importantly, neither permit nor indulge in catastrophising. This is an evolution in existence, not a prefiguration of the end of the world. Good schools have good systems in place. Good parents select good schools. Get off to a simple start and look forward to a successful end. Warning: the child is all too quickly the father to the man, and the ending of childhood will come all too quickly.

Tim Hands Photo

Dr Tim Hands, a former Chairman of HMC, is Headmaster of Winchester College.

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