Starting secondary school

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Transition to secondary school

Transitions and change can be really difficult for adopted children. As so many of them have lacked stability and the basic groundwork that children normally have, it is naturally unsettling when another change is forced upon them. It’s another time when they feel they lack control and they are not sure who they can trust.

We knew that the transition to secondary school would be difficult for Mac.  We had thought a lot about which school to send him to – as a formerly looked-after child, he would go to the top of all selection lists, so we did have a choice.  However, the school in catchment was the school that I had been to and was just a short bus journey away on a school bus provided by the county.  It was most convenient and most of Mac’s friends would be going there.  It had also been judged outstanding on its most recent OFSTED review.  We had heard a number of worrying reports about bullying, but on balance it did seem like the best option.

We worked with Mac’s primary school and the educational psychologist to make sure Mac was as ready as he could be.  His new secondary school also worked with us to give him more opportunities to visit the school and be ready for the change.  They also reassured us that there would be plenty of pastoral support – each of the houses that the students belonged to had a pastoral support assistant in addition to the school nurse, and pastoral support through the teaching staff.  As he left primary school, we were sure that the best had been done to help Mac with transition, so we enjoyed the school holidays and our summer holidays.  We had bought his uniform and PE kit – all was ready.

The first day of school was kept just for the oldest and youngest children.  Mac walked to the bus stop in the village, just a short couple of minutes’ walk from our house, and got on the bus ready for his first day.  I had taken the day off work so that I was ready to see him when he came home in the evening and make sure we were both around to support him.

It all seemed to go pretty well.  As with all of the new year-7’s Mac was fairly daunted by having to move around the school to different classrooms for different lessons.  Also, being Mac, he tended to dawdle a bit so was finding it difficult to make it to them in time (I’m not sure he was trying too hard).  But it seemed OK – he knew who to go to for help and support if he needed it.  We made sure early on to meet up with his form tutor and year head and the pastoral assistant.  We also shared with them some of Mac’s story and background so that they would be aware and sensitive to any issues that might crop up over time.

Everything went OK to begin with.  But it seemed that Mac was spending quite a lot of time out of lessons for various reasons.  He was still quite behind with his reading and writing, but he was being given help in class with classroom assistants.  We met regularly with the school to assess progress and to help with issues as they arose.

Mac was obviously struggling with some of the work.  Worst of all was French. Luckily I had been pretty good at French, and could certainly remember enough to do year-7 homework as competently as necessary, but I did begin to wonder if it was really doing either of us any good!!

Of course there were a few incidents as all of the students settled into school, and we did spend a little more time coming into school than some other parents.  But the school was dealing pretty well with Mac’s problems and concerns, and helping him start to feel like it was his school.  Towards the end of the year Mac was starting to complain that he didn’t really like the school and wanted to move.  We didn’t take too much notice – we knew he was finding some aspects of school difficult, but we really wanted him to persevere and stick it out.  He had changed schools so much that we were keen that he had some consistency and didn’t have to change schools again.  We also felt that Mac was just finding things difficult and didn’t want to work as hard as he was going to have to be able to keep up.

On the positive side he had met a good friend who lived nearby called Andrew. Andrew and Mac and they had a huge amount in common.  It was a good friendship and they supported each other.  However, Andrew left the school to be home schooled just before the end of year 7.  As you can imagine, Mac was devastated by this and was clamouring to be home schooled as well, but we knew that was not the answer for us or for Mac.  We got to the end of the year with things going well, but on a bit of a downward trend.  We welcomed the end of term and the start of the school holidays.

Year 8 and onwards

We had a great Summer holiday after year 7.  Mac had a good rest and seemed fairly content to be returning to school.  The increasing boredom of the six weeks off always seemed to help the start of term not seem too bad.

Things had changed at school.  The old head had left and been replaced by one of her assistants a very nice woman who we knew and who knew Mac.  Unfortunately the assistant head who had been in charge of pastoral care had left and been replaced.  He was a great loss as he had a fantastic touch with the children, particularly those who needed a little more care and attention.  It soon became clear to us that pastoral care was slightly in disarray.  It wasn’t that it wasn’t still there – it was more that there seemed to be a lack of leadership.

Mac got back into lessons.  Of course, they were getting more difficult and Mac was starting to struggle more.  He was also having more trouble in the breaks.  Without Andrew, he was struggling to really make other close friends and this made him more of a target.  In hindsight, we can see now that he was being bullied from an early stage – not necessarily physically as Mac was taller and stronger than any of them, but psychologically.  There was lots of name-calling and teasing.  Mac had shared his story unwisely with some of them, and they would use that against him, talking about his birth mum or saying things about us.  Of course children can be very cruel and find vulnerabilities very easily and then use them mercilessly.

There had also been a change to the form structure.  It was now a vertical structure with children from all years from the same house in each form.  Although Mac was nominally assigned to one of these, it had been decided to put him in a special form group.  This was made up of those children with special needs and they met in the house on the grounds where special needs lessons were held.

Mac did come out of some lessons for help with English, but it is fair to say he really hated it.  For Mac, now a teenager and right in the middle of puberty, he wanted to fit in.  He did not want to be singled out and treated differently.  This accorded well with the way that we treated him.  We had always resisted naming problems that Mac might have, always working towards normalising him.  We were pleased to be backed up by the school’s educational psychologist who when working with Mac was clear that there were no real issues to be dealt with.  Yes he had missed a lot of basic early school and so was behind in basic reading and writing, and yes he had suffered significant early neglect and that had left with some remaining anger issues; but he was increasingly a “normal teenager” (whatever that is) and was desperate to be treated that way.

But the school seemed to struggle with some of this.  Swee was increasingly being called in, either to discuss a particular problem or to help out with a difficult incident when after being shouted at (something he hated) he refused to leave the classroom.  Of course, as soon as Swee arrived, he was happy to leave with her.  Their way of dealing with Mac and any issues with his behaviour was to avoid dealing with them and to separate him from the boys he found it difficult to get on with.

Mac was increasingly telling us how much he disliked the school.  But he still would get up in the morning and go, and seemed to have good days.  We wanted him to persevere and see it through as we thought he would feel much better for that.

A number of times I went in to see the head.  I had looked into the other school that was most used by our village – a similar school in Winchester with a great reputation.  They were happy to take him. But on discussing with our head we agreed it would be better for Mac to see things through at his current school with their support.

Some of the confusion we had with our decision was that Mac still seemed to be enjoying himself for some of the time, and lessons were not going too badly.  The particular teacher for a subject always made a huge difference to Mac.  In year 8, Mac suddenly started liking French and really started to progress.  This was all down to his teacher, Mrs Wales.  It was clear that she also liked Mac and the relationship really worked for him.  It just went to show that a good teacher was really able to support him and push him forward when it worked well.  Most of the teachers warmed to Mac – they could see that he was desperate to be “a good boy”.  And the more they helped him to do that and to achieve, then the better he succeeded.

In year 8 there was a French trip to the Loire Valley.  Mac was so excited about going and spent lots of time planning what he wanted to take and imagining what it was going to be like.  He was also excited because when there was a school trip, there was always a special T-shirt and hoody available with a logo for that year’s trip.  Of course, these were great for the teachers on the trip as they were better able to spot their students, but the added bonus was that on Fridays any official school hoody from a trip of from a sports team or club could be worn instead of the usual uniform.  This was Mac’s first opportunity to get one.

Mac had a fantastic time.  Of course their ferry coming back was running extra late, and I remember sitting in the school carpark in the early hours of the morning ready to pick him up.  The kids looked shattered as they got off the coach, but the teachers looked even more so!  Mrs Wales came over to me specially to let me know how well Mac had done and how he had been a great support to some of the other students who were missing home – just as he had when he went on his primary school trips.  He had lots of stories to tell us about going shopping and all of the places they visited and even trying out his French.

Sadly, Mrs Wales left at the end of that year as she was moving to a different part of the country.  She asked to stay in touch with us and Mac to see how he was getting on.  It’s fair to say that his French went downhill drastically after that, and I had a lot more homework to do.

The final years

As Mac moved into year 9 he was able to choose some mini-options getting him ready for when he would decide on his GCSE subjects for years 10 and 11.  Mac made a few sensible choices which meant that he didn’t have such an academic timetable.  It turned out that Mac was remarkably good at needlework and he also enjoyed cooking, so there was the opportunity for him to do more of that.  This also kept him away from some of the boys that were nasty to him.

But the school was also still removing him from situations rather than dealing with them. They would openly agree that Mac was usually not at fault, but seemed unable to be able to deal with what was in front of them.

An example of this was the arrangements for PE.  There were three groups in each year – the boys’ group for the best boys, the girls’ group for the best girls and the mixed group for all of the others.  Mac was put into the mixed group, even though he now stood head and shoulders above the other boys in his year (he was the oldest) and towered over the girls.  He was also becoming a good sportsman as he was going a lot of sport outside school – swimming, Tae Kwon Do and cricket.  He hated being in the mixed group and it meant he didn’t get to try some sports or be considered for school teams.

We complained and were backed up by the ed. Psych., and although the school promised to change things it never seemed to happen.  It also seemed that he was not moved up in sets when he should have been – his maths teacher (again a great teacher and one that really “got” Mac) felt that he was too good to be in the bottom set.  But despite best efforts the move never seemed to happen.

Mac was increasingly being bullied in free time.  There was a group of boys who did their best to wind Mac up at every opportunity.  Mac had become very good at getting himself out of situations, and we were always counselling him just to walk away and ignore them, but it was constant.  The worst times for Mac was on the way to and from lessons.  These were the real opportunities for the boys to know where he would be, and to be able to get at him as he was queuing up waiting to get into his next lesson.  Not surprisingly on a number of occasions Mac blew – somehow he always seemed to get the blame.

Towards the end of year 9, the incidences were increasing.  Mac was telling us all the time that he was very unhappy and wanted to move.  Finally, we could see that a move was becoming inevitable and if we were going to do it, then it was best before he started his GCSE options.

We went to visit the head to talk about the problems as we saw them.  Mac was really upset – he had been in trouble and he broke down when we were in the head’s study.  He was so desperate to be good – he didn’t want to get into trouble as he imagined his older brothers had – but he was finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the issues that he was facing.

Swee took him out to the car and I stayed to talk to the head.  We had a really good relationship, but it was clear that she did not have control of a cadre of the boys in the school.  She admitted that she was not sure that she could keep Mac safe and out of trouble.  We reluctantly agreed that a move for Mac now was in his best interests.  We were literally at the end of Summer term, but she promised to help facilitate the transfer to the Winchester school by writing to the head and calling her to assure everything would be OK. 

We were about to go on a cruise and when we were due back the new school would be on holiday and closed.  We all decided Mac did not need to go back to school for the last few days, and we arranged to see the new head when we got back from holiday and just before the new term started.

Once the decision was made, Swee and I were actually quite relieved.  The look on Mac’s face was amazing – we saw all the worry and stress that had become ingrained lift away.

“I did try to tell you it was bad”, he said.

But he did not bear a grudge.  With perfect hindsight, we might have moved him earlier – we will never know if that would have been a better option.  It certainly seemed to be the right decision for us all now.  

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