Moving from primary to secondary school: a parent’s survival guide

Apprehension as well as excitement is natural for first-year pupils and their parents

Next week about 64,000 children in the Republic will embark on one of life’s significant transitions – the start of secondary school.

After eight years of being cocooned in the one-room, one-teacher mode of primary school, they are thrust into a timetabled world of multiple teachers, classrooms and subjects, and a whole new group of peers.

Three months ago they were sixth class, lording it over the younger children; now they will be at the bottom of the heap, conspicuous in their brand new, over-sized uniforms bought with an eye for “room to grow”.

Apprehension as well as excitement is natural – not only for the first-year pupils but also their parents. If it’s your first child to make this leap in the education system, you will have that “newbie” feeling too.

Gone are the days of chats at the school gate with other parents, or dropping into the classroom first thing in the morning for a quick word with your child’s teacher.


Worrying about how your child will cope with all the challenges of secondary school may be coupled with uncertainty about your own role as a parent in these changed circumstances.

How do you strike a balance between under- and over-involvement, between providing support and being a suffocating “helicopter” parent?

It's not easy for parents at this vital juncture in their children's lives, agrees John Stevenson, who worked in teaching for more than 35 years.

“I formed a very strong view that most parents really want to help their kids but most parents don’t know how to,” he says.

So, after retiring as principal of Sullivan Upper School in Holywood, Co Down, in 2010, he drew on all his experience to write Moving Up! From Primary to Post-Primary, a Parents' Roadmap (an edition for the Republic has been edited by Derek West, of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals).

Stevenson believes there is a big gap “between what schools are trying to do and what parents think schools are trying to do”. Both sides could do more to close that divide, he suggests, through greater parental engagement and improvements in the way schools facilitate that contact, which would only benefit children’s education.

He would like to see schools being given money by the State to develop parental courses.

“I would bring parents in, in advance, and teach them what modern education is meant to be about and their role in it.”

Educational attainment

Research shows that, in the hiatus caused by the move from primary to secondary school, “a high proportion of kids suffer educational progress deficit – something about the transfer from one set of educational parameters to another causes them to dip in their educational attainment”, he explains.

Most schools are doing much more these days to smooth the way for first-year pupils, with induction programmes, mentoring by older students and bringing them in for a day before the rest of the school’s pupils return. Before the end of June, the schools should have received the now compulsory “Education Passport” for each child from his or her primary school.

The 148 pupils coming into first year at Carrick-on-Shannon Community School in Co Leitrim, for instance, will benefit from a transition programme based on a template provided by the National Behaviour Support Service, explains deputy principal Paul Byrne. Some 50 fifth-year students have been trained as mentors and he expects the vast majority of the new arrivals will have no problem settling in.

However, parents need to recognise it is a big change for their children and to expect them to be “incredibly tired” in the first few weeks.

“Each evening parents need to set a little time to see how their day went and to find out if they are having any difficulties,” says Byrne, who is president of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals. He also encourages parents to familiarise themselves with the pastoral support system at their child’s school and to attend the open night, where they will gain valuable insights and information.

If there is a problem, contact the school – it might be as simple as the child being allocated a locker that is too high for them, he suggests, something which can be fixed within five minutes. “Small things to adults can be a huge thing to a child settling in.”

Sophie McCabe (12) will be one of the first-year pupils starting at Carrick-on-Shannon Community School. Coming from a gaelscoil, she will have a dual transition, from Irish to English and primary to secondary, points out her mother Jenny.

“There was trepidation in sixth class for a lot of people – indeed some students transferred to a local primary school for sixth class,” she says. It was felt that the switch of languages might be a problem for maths, in particular. However, Australian-born Jenny and her Irish husband, Aidan, found it didn’t cause difficulties for their three older children – Casey, Tom and Ciara – who have already made this transition. The gaelscoil is very good at ensuring that sixth class pupils know mathematical terms in both Irish and English, she says.

Self -sufficient children

Although now an experienced secondary-school parent, Jenny remembers that first-time round with Casey. “There was an overwhelming sense that by the time they finish primary school, they are ready to move on.”

Indeed, that can apply to parents too – a cosy primary school community can feel a little suffocating and petty when you are the parent of a soon-to-be teenager.

With Casey, a “very independent, self-sufficient child”, as trail blazer, it has been easier for the siblings who followed, Jenny says.

While each child is different, there have been no issues around this transition and as parents they have always found the community school welcoming.

A close-knit family, the McCabes make talking around the dinner table a priority in their daily routine. Jenny believes the most important thing for children at this stage in their lives is that they know there is someone they can come to if they are having problems.

“The other thing,” she adds, “is if there is a change in their mood, to ask them what is wrong.”

The prospect of their child being bullied is often parents' biggest concern and the president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, Betty McLaughlin, encourages them to be familiar with the school's anti-bullying policy so they know who to contact and what steps to take if an issue arises.

Parents should also understand, she says, that “peer acceptance is so important to children, and feeling that they fit in. To help students who may feel they don’t fit in, it’s very important to encourage them to join in the extra-curricular activities” – be it sport, chess, drama, choir, etc – “That is a great way of making friends.”

Reassuring children

Most students will have no problem with the transition, and now is a very good time to be starting secondary level, she adds, with Junior Certificate reform ahead: “Let them take their wings and fly. Schools are very happy and caring places these days.”

Reassure children who are starting that they are not meant to know everything on the first day and that all the other new pupils will be in the same situation, says Rita O’Reilly, chief executive of Parentline.

Very often parents get upset at this big step their child is making but if they do, they should hide it, she says. Children don’t need any more emotions piled on to their own anxiety.

For those who struggle initially at secondary level, an inability to plan ahead and organise themselves is often the reason. Hardly a day passed in Stevenson’s time as principal when he didn’t encounter two or three mothers – “always mothers” – in the school foyer, dropping in PE kit forgotten, usually, by a boy.

“It is not their fault,” says Stevenson, who points out that, generally speaking, while children are at primary school, parents make all the planning decisions for them.

Parents and schools can work together to teach children organisational skills – support them but don’t do it for them – and eventually they learn to do it for themselves, he says.

“Anger,” he adds, “is not the right response – that’s what some parents and some schools do, but shouting at them doesn’t solve the problem.”

However, rookie parents beware, your patience and your purse may be sorely tested as your darling child comes home without a book, loses a jumper, mislays sports equipment or can find only one shoe in the kit bag at the end of the day . . .

Moving Up! From Primary to Post-Primary, a Parents' Roadmap, by John Stevenson, is published by Booklink (£6) and is available from

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