A milestone of primary joy and secondary concerns

As children progress through school, it’s time to let go of their hand and look over their shoulder


My 12-year-old son is clear that he is going to disown me on Thursday if there’s a tear in my eye at the end-of-year service to mark the completion of his eight years in national school.

If? Who am I kidding? It’s when . . . I am breaking out a box of tissues just thinking about it. I know that their samba drumming party piece, which has become a rite-of-passage for sixth class in his school, will get to me.

The sight and sound of a very bonded group of children, working a musical routine together for the last time before they are scattered to a variety of secondary schools around south Dublin, will be emotional.

Transition from primary to secondary school is probably as big a milestone for the parents as it is for the children.

Especially if it is your first, or your last. Families with three or more well-spaced children can have a relationship with one primary school for nigh-on 20 years, so the end of that link can be quite a wrench, even if everybody’s ready for it.

“I think it is going to be harder for the parents,” says Cindy Lund, whose eldest child, Hannah, is leaving Kilcolgan Educate Together School in Co Galway.

“You are letting them loose a bit, which is always daunting for both sides, but it is exciting.”

There were just 24 pupils in the school when Hannah joined in first class after the family moved back to Ireland from Italy.

As with all Educate Together schools, she points out, there is a huge amount of parental involvement and an open-door policy.

“In secondary it will be very much her world but I feel she’s at a stage when they need that; they don’t really want you in their world when they are 13.”

Lund is glad she has a younger son; otherwise, she says “I would be in mourning for the school. It’s like a family.”

Learning curve

Fiona Collins also has her first child, Catriona, making the transition. She is moving from Beaumont Girls’ National School in Cork to Christ King Girls’ Secondary School, which is about four times the size. It’s going to be a learning curve for both of them.

“We’ve been in this small, cosy, primary- school environment; I know her friends and their parents, I know the principal.” As a stay-at-home mum she has been very involved with the school “and here I have to take a major step back”.

Her concerns for her daughter are not academic, but relate to the social aspect of the change: “they have to face so much more than we did”. But she knows there’s only so much she can do for her come September.

“I can get the book list, and I can get the uniform, but this time I can’t hold her hand and go, ‘There’s a nice girl, you can sit beside her.’ I’ll drop her off at the corner and hope for the best.”

But “rookie” parents should be reassured that, generally, schools are very adept at supporting children in making this leap.

However, it is still down to individual schools – and individuals within those schools – as to how well it is handled, says Brian Wall, author of The Transition to Secondary School, which is published by the Institute of Guidance Counsellors.

The handing over of information about children is two-way, he points out. “The fault can be the secondary school not asking, and the primary school not giving.”

While he understands why some parents might want their children to start a new school with a clean slate, a lack of transparency about a child’s abilities and needs “ties the hands” of secondary school teachers.

Whereas if they have the necessary information about pupils, they can do everything they can to support them.

Teacher Emer Power, who has 17 pupils in her sixth class in St Oliver’s National School in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, believes both primary and secondary schools now realise that the more information that is shared about the children moving on, the better for everybody.

“We have had them for eight years,” she points out. It makes the transition for children easier if their new schools are informed about learning styles and personality quirks, and tipped off about simple things such as who is better off sitting near the front of the classroom, and not giving a child who has problems with organisation a locker at ground level.

The transfer of information will be put on a formal footing by the Department of Education next year with the introduction of an “education passport” for sixth-class children.

This will consist of a standardised sixth-class report card, with the option of both the child and a parent filling in additional “profile” sheets.

Margaret McCarthy, principal of the Beaumont Girls’ NS, welcomes this move and says she hopes it will be accepted by the local secondary schools as “sufficient evidence” about the incoming first years – and that they might stop running “unfair” entrance tests.

Floods of tears

Power says her sixth-class pupils are well ready to leave but she expects floods of tears at the graduation Mass this Thursday from the girls “who set each other off”, while “the boys are a bit tougher”. It’s a very tight-knit group of children who will never be this close again.

Personally, she thinks it’s a shame that many of them will be moving on to single-sex schools.

The graduation is a big occasion for the parents too, she acknowledges, particularly those for whom it is their last connection with St Oliver’s.

“The parents are very involved here; for them to be leaving St Oliver’s is a big thing and they will never have that link with a secondary school.”

Primary school is so accessible for parents, agrees Sharon Brady, principal of the four-teacher O’Callaghan Mills National School in east Clare. “Parents can come in and out, and this all changes when they start going to secondary school.”

She is currently teaching 10 sixth-class students, eight of whom are going to the local secondary school in Tulla. It is definitely a big change, she says, leaving a school of 63 pupils for one with 10 times that number.

“The biggest thing for them to realise is that here they are senior children and given a lot of responsibility, whereas now they are going in at the bottom rung again. That is very difficult for them initially.”

However, she says, “They’re ready to go. I can see it in them and they are excited about it. It’s the next step.”

Most of them take it in their stride but if they are first in the family, it can be a little more traumatic, she adds.

School selection

Settling on a secondary school for her eldest child is what Sarah Long has found most difficult. Having applied to six schools in south Dublin, of which four offered a place, it was decided only last week that 12-year-old Ailbhe will go to Loreto Beaufort in Rathfarnham. She is currently in Scoil Mológa in Harold’s Cross.

“It has been a bit of a process,” says Long with a sense of understatement. “I feel people have been talking about secondary school choice for 10 years. That part of it is exhausting.”

People are very influenced by league tables and what other people are saying, she points out.

“You have to find your own value system in the middle of it.

“We just emphasised to her that there were several excellent schools and there was no wrong choice. However, ultimately, it was a parental decision and I was not going to let a committee of 12 year olds make the decision for me.”

Although adapting to secondary school is a challenge, the majority cope fine, says Wall, who is a guidance counsellor at St Mary’s in Rathmines. Most first-year pupils will be well settled by Halloween or, at the very latest, by Christmas.

If problems continue after that, it is not the practicalities but an emotional issue, he advises.

Making this transition is about learning the skills to cope with change later in life, he points out. “It is a very useful experience, so don’t take the difficulty away.”

It is time to let go of the hand, he adds, and, instead, look over their shoulder.

See iti.ms/1mdssKM for link to Brian Wall’s The Transition to Secondary School.


The class of 2014: what they and their parents say about moving on

Hannah Lund (12), the elder of two, is leaving Kilcolgan Educate Together School, Co Galway, and going to Coláiste Bhaile Chláir in Claregalway, along with four or five of her classmates.

“I will miss so much about my wonderful school,” she says. “The students, the teachers and all of the staff are so welcoming and friendly; they make me feel I am home. I wish I could bring them all with me but sadly I can’t and I will miss them all terribly.”

Among her happiest memories is when she visited the school for the first time and, with only four other people in her class, they were very welcoming “and accepted me for who I am”. She also recalls a school trip to the Petersburg Outdoor Education Centre in Galway as a “beautiful experience”.

She is expecting “lots and lots more homework” at her new school and is confident she will make many new friends. Her only concern is the challenge of the timetable and different classes.

“I am a bit worried that I won’t be able to remember everything on the right day,” she adds, “but I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Her mother, Cindy, says: “At the moment I am not really worried about anything.” However, she admits that a part of her was “horrified” to hear that her daughter will have netbooks instead of traditional, paper ones.

“Hannah is a real book person; she doesn’t use her Kindle that much, so I am a bit unsure about that, but that seems to be the way it’s going.”

Ailbhe Long (12), the eldest of three, is the only sixth-class pupil in Scoil Mológa in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, who is going to Loreto Beaufort in Rathfarnham

“It is hard going into a new school without knowing anyone there. But I am hoping that knowing a lot of pupils is only a first-day advantage,” she says.

“I will really miss my friends as my school is small and I know most pupils very well. I will also really miss playing on our school camogie and Gaelic football teams.” Winning their football league final in Croke Park last November is one of her happiest memories.

However, she is looking forward to making new friends and doing new subjects. “I’m also looking forward to joining new clubs and doing extracurricular activities.”

At the moment, she adds, “I am not really worried about anything, since I know it will be great. In the future I will probably worry about exams and I will have some last-minute nerves before I start. But nothing major to worry about.”

Her mother, Sarah, says: “It will be a daunting first day for Ailbhe because she won’t know anyone else there. But there are children from 20 different primary schools going into first year.”

As a parent she is looking forward to a little anonymity in a larger school and is excited for Ailbhe as she joins a far bigger group of peers.

Evan Rankin (13), the eldest of three, is leaving Dalkey School Project National School in Co Dublin and going to Newpark Comprehensive School in Blackrock, along with many of his class.

He has “so many” happy memories from his current school but two highlights were winning the Leinster hockey final last year, and a recent trip to an Irish-speaking water sports adventure centre where “we went kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming and pier jumping”.

Playing sports and music, and new subjects such as languages and metalwork, are the things he is looking forward to in his new school.

“I hope to play both hockey and rugby and also join the school music academy to play guitar.” He also anticipates “a lot more freedom, independence and responsibility”.

“My only worry would be about finding my way to the different classes, and having to go back and forth to my locker between classes, without being late for the next class.”

His father, Scott, says: “I remember the first few weeks of secondary school being quite a shock. There were guys with muscles and facial hair.”

As a parent, he thinks “the real challenge will be letting him gain more independence as time goes on but hoping he will learn to make the right decisions for himself, at least most of the time, as he will make mistakes. That’s part of growing up.”

Catriona Collins (12), the eldest of three, and Samantha Waldron (12), the elder of two, are classmates in Beaumont Girls’ National School in Cork but are going to different secondary schools: Catriona to Christ King Girls’ School and Samantha to Ursuline Secondary School.

Both have about seven or eight classmates going with them to their respective new schools but say they will miss other friends with whom they have spent the past eight years.

“I will miss the familiarity, the simplicity, and having just the one teacher,” says Catriona. But she is looking forward to the change, more people, new challenges and learning new things.

Samantha says she will miss the fundraising cake sales every Friday, at which they sell and buy – all prices set at 30 cent a piece. And she nominates the final-year fashion show as one of her happiest memories.

She is looking forward to new classmates, new teachers and new subjects such as home economics and French.

Her only worry is about a teacher not liking her.

Catriona says that coming closer to the time of starting in the new school, she is becoming more relaxed about it. Although, “I worry about homework, new friends and changing classes; the usual stuff.”

Catriona’s mother, Fiona, says: “I think the unknown is really what’s scary.” She thinks the juggling of homework assignments will be tricky at first.

“We will get there, but I don’t expect it to be pretty.

The increased work load will take close monitoring to begin with, agrees Samantha’s father, Dave.

“I think the transition to multiple subjects and the daily timetable will be the initial challenge,” he says.

On the social side, the school is “acutely aware of the fear factor”, he says, and first-years have their own lunch area.

As a parent, he is looking forward to seeing how Samantha, “who talks openly about her experiences”, meets the new challenge.

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