Stepping Up: Moving from Primary to Secondary

How are private schools in the UAE preparing students for that all-important step up from primary to secondary? WhichSchoolAdvisor.com spoke to Arcadia School Dubai, Safa British School, and Horizon English School to find out how they make the 'big move', not such a 'big thing'...
Stepping Up: Moving from Primary to Secondary
By Carli Allan
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Do you remember your first day at secondary? The time you jumped from being a big fish to a small fish in the sea of secondary school? It’s a time of change and the end of an era for your child – and however big they may look in the primary playground, they will suddenly look very small in a crowd of teenagers.

This September, Year 6 students will be taking their first steps into secondary school with a host of new challenges to overcome. Maybe they’re beginning to have concerns about the transition? It could even be you as a parent who's getting worried about the ‘big-move.’

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com speaks to school leaders in the UAE to find out how they are helping to smooth what could otherwise be a bumpy journey.

How are schools managing the transition from primary to secondary?

The end of Term 3 is usually the time when students look forward to their 'jump up' day – the time when they find out who their new teacher and classmates will be. Schools may also hold induction days – also referred to as transition or transfer days – for students to familiarise themselves with their new routine and class. 

Mary Donnelly, Head of Primary at Arcadia School, says:

“We want to ensure that the social, emotional and physiological transition for our students is made as smooth as possible. It has been important for us to use the impressive array of virtual platforms available as a way to creatively prepare our students for what’s to come. Our online transition programme aims to ensure that both students and parents feel completely ready for the move.”

Arcadia’s programme is typical of many schools in the UAE and includes a transition assembly where secondary school teachers give a broad overview of what to expect in the next academic year; a tour of the secondary classrooms; and a meet the teacher session. There is also an all-important taster lesson to prepare students for what to expect.

“Often, an element of uncertainty amongst students is whether ‘the work will be too hard’. Therefore, where the style of teaching and learning can differ slightly when moving into secondary school, it is important for us to provide our students with a sample of what they can expect,” explains Mrs Donnelly.

At Safa British School, Assistant Head (Pastoral) Dara Davey and Head of Year 7 Jessica Vowles say that the transition from primary school to secondary school can require substantial preparation, planning, adjustment and support. They explain how SBS begins the transition process early in Term 3.

"We complete information sessions with our parents to ensure they are fully informed before implementing changes with our student body. Primary students visit our secondary staff and complete sessions together. Secondary students visit all our Year 6 classes and complete information presentations so they can ask their peers any questions they may have. Our primary students also all receive a secondary buddy who acts as a peer mentor if they have further questions."

At Horizon English School, the move to secondary is also built into the curriculum throughout Year 6, as Assistant Headteacher Georgina Vickers explains.

"The teaching vehicle in Year 6 for the Summer Term is ‘transition’ and through our reading, writing and moral curriculum our children are given the opportunities to explore the themes of transition and ask questions about their secondary journey."

Students at all-through schools such as SBS (currently up to Year 9) and Arcadia can have an advantage over children coming from standalone primary schools. They will already be familiar with the campus, know some of the teachers, and be part of the school community (for example, getting involved in house events from day one).

Mrs Donnelly adds:

“To ensure that students have the opportunity to socialise with their new peers, they will be grouped into their allocated form groups. For many, students seeing an array of familiar faces will put their minds at ease and for a small number, they will have the chance to meet and connect for the first time."

Primary schools that are part of a larger education group, such as Horizon English School, will arrange visits to its sister secondary school (Royal Grammar School Guildford in Dubai) to "help ease anxieties and get our students excited for what is to come!"

However, in a country that is so transient with large numbers of Year 7/Grade 6 students arriving into the UAE every year, and lots of movement between different schools, there’s plenty of support offered to new students, too.

What can parents do to support their child during the summer break to help prepare them for the move to secondary school?

The move from Year 6/Grade 5 to Year 7/Grade 6 is challenging at the best times, and there will be mixture of excitement and trepidation. It’s perhaps never been more important for parents to step in and help address the most common worries and smooth the transition to secondary school.

Ms Vickers (Horizon English School), Mrs Donnelly (Arcadia School), and Mr Davey and Ms Vowles (SBS) share their advice for supporting your child through this upcoming change.

Visit the school in advance 

Ms Vickers: "Children can feel anxious with change, especially moving from a Primary School to a Secondary setting that is on a different site. Ensuring children have had the chance to visit their new school and meet some of the teaching team is a really important step so students are able to visualise where they will be learning; this helps to remove ambiguity when they start imaging what their secondary journey will be like. 

Mrs Donnelly: “It is highly likely that most schools will be providing tours of the school to prospective parents. If the secondary school is a new site, it is worth requesting a tour to ensure children can mentally prepare for where they will be going. Ensuring the secondary school environment is familiar can have a particularly positive impact in helping children to cope on their first day.”

Understand your child’s worries and feelings

Ms Vickers: Taking time to talk to your child about their big move ahead provides a fantastic opportunity to understand their worries and answer their questions. It is likely that their feelings around secondary transition will feel enormous to them, as for many, this will be the biggest transition they have made so far in their lives.

"Listening and understanding their feelings, before helping them devise a ‘plan’ to work towards reducing negative emotions, is a great way of ensuring your child feels heard as well as letting them know that they have someone to tackle what is up ahead of them with. "

Maintain friendships and make new friends

Mr Davey: "Friendships change regularly during the first few years of Secondary. Helping your child understand that this is normal can be difficult. Have discussions with your child about how preferences change as we mature and that everyone matures at a different stage." 

Mrs Donnelly: “Friendships are hugely important for children throughout their time at secondary school and in particular for providing a sense of belonging. Whilst many will have gone through primary school with the same peer group, it is likely that given the situation, they haven’t maintained close contact with these peers. In some cases, children will know none of their peers. Both scenarios can lead to anxiety and uncertainty.

"Therefore, it is important that parents prepare their children for this. Using social media platforms to link with other parents with children going to the same school or contacting the school to ask for social links between children to be made prior to the start of the year. Finally, encouraging children to maintain contact with their peers using virtual platforms will ensure the continual development of social skills. Ensuring all children are surrounded by some familiar faces on the first-day can take away feelings of anxiety."

Develop independence and time management

Mrs Donnelly: “So that the level of independence expected in secondary school does not come as a shock, parents are encouraged to give their child autonomy over their own online timetabling for the day. Avoiding pre-preparing children and checking that work has been completed, it requires the child to take greater responsibility for their own pace and outcomes.”

Ms Vickers: "Homework can be another hurdle when primary children begin secondary school. Helping your child create a timetable for the evenings of the week, that includes their homework, alongside free time and hobbies, is a great way to structure the week, allowing students to manage their time and pre-empt what is ahead of them."

Ms Vowles: "As parents accept that this is a new stage in their life and, instead of stressing about the changes for you, help them to start organising themselves so that the new term will be less of a shock. Assignments are no longer issued one day and due the next. They will have varying deadlines, and teachers across different subjects." 

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