The Big Leap – From Primary to Secondary

Open Nights and daytime tours can be daunting for both parents and students moving into secondary school, but there is much to learn for all concerned, writes Sandringham College Assistant Principal, Ciar Foster

Bright blue uniforms and smiling faces stream out of the Hall, small hands grabbing a jelly ‘frog’ on the way. A sudden calm falls over our Transition team – the group of staff and students who have been working with our local Grade Sixes.

It’s the end of another visit from one of our local schools: by May we will have had almost 600 primary students spend the morning at Sandringham College.  It’s been a successful visit – they always are. The students are lively and excited to be exploring a new environment. I spot a number of familiar faces: some have participated in our SEED (Sandringham Extension Experience Days) programs as Grade Fours; others have been working with our Science team; a number have just sat our SEAL (Select Entry Accelerated Learning) entrance exam; still more have been for a visit with their parents, taking a tour of the campus to see us in action on a regular day.

It’s that time of year when school and parent calendars are full with Open Night dates, transition visits, tour bookings and Information Evenings. Choosing a secondary school is a big decision, and these different opportunities are designed to help with that. So how can you ensure that you get the best from these various events and even more importantly, make certain that you choose the right school?

Open Nights are a chance to see ‘a school on show’. The life and culture of any school is a complex organism: a web of relationships, learning experiences, personalities, curriculum, programs and events. Schools are so busy that it’s sometimes hard to find the time to step back and survey the whole. Open Nights are a chance to do so; a chance for schools to celebrate and showcase all that they offer.

At Sandringham, our staff work in their program or domain area to prepare displays and experiences which best communicate the daily work of which we are so proud. Our students learn to run tours and activities, enthusiastic at the chance to show off their school to prospective families. You won’t see the day-to-day school experience at an Open Night:  this is the super-powered concentrated version.  It has to be, as it’s a year of school work compressed into just a few hours.

You will get a good overview of what the school offers, a chance to meet and speak with a wide range of staff and students, and that indefinable ‘sense’ of the school’s culture. As a parent, you will most likely experience information overload, but don’t concern yourself too much on each and every detail. Do though take the opportunity to ask questions and just talk to staff and students. Look for passion and knowledge from staff; confidence and happiness from students.  Buildings and facilities are important, but it is the people within the school that really make it a success.

Daytime tours are generally conducted on a small group or individual basis and they will usually be taken by a Principal, Assistant Principal or other leading teacher within the school. Some parents bring their children on the tour while others prefer to come alone; both are fine.  The advantage of a daytime tour is that you will see the school ‘warts and all’, but don’t expect it to be perfect on the day you visit; if there is a problem, you can tell an enormous amount from how it is handled. You will see a range of classes; look for the interaction and engagement between students and teachers.  Consider the atmosphere of the school as you walk around. Is it calm?  Is there a purposeful hum, revealing what educator Roland Barth (Learning by Heart) describes as “the activity and joy in learning”, without it being rowdy?  Ask questions about class structure and size, and about the ways in which the school supports students’ social and emotional, as well as academic needs.

Transition visits are also an essential part of the Grade Six experience, giving students an opportunity to explore and feel comfortable in a secondary environment.  At Sandringham College, we start working with our local primary school students from Grade Four, as well as networking with our primary teacher colleagues to develop our understanding of the Grade 5 and 6 curricula. Building relationships at both these levels helps to create a seamless transition for incoming Year 7s. As Chris Bonner and Jane Caro observe in their book What Makes a Good School?, this process should support, but not “pigeon-hole” students. Entering secondary school is a time of growth and challenge, a chance to thrive with a new beginning.

As parents, you should try to discuss the transition visits with your child. Encourage them to participate in each activity, to ask lots of questions, and to talk to the older students who will be assisting them. Spend some time debriefing and reflecting on the experience as there may well have been a number of unfamiliar elements alongside the positive benefits of a high school environment. Help them to process the new stimuli and, of course, contact the secondary school to follow up any queries they had after their visit.

Choosing a secondary school is very much an individual decision. A school that’s right for one child may not suit another. Take advantage of all the information available, but follow your instinct too.  A school is more than just academics, it is a learning community, and you and your child should feel that that is the place where you belong.

Ciar Foster is Assistant Principal at Sandringham College at its Bluff Road Campus in south-east Melbourne. She has worked on the school’s transition program for the last five years.

Sandringham College will hold its annual Open Night for prospective parents on Thursday April 30th at 7pm at Bluff Road.