A new school, a new start

So, at the end of Year 9, Mac left his first secondary school with some relief for all of us, looking forward to a new school in the September.

New friends -post 26

Starting at a new school after everyone else has settled in is never easy.  I had to do that when I moved to Hampshire at the age of twelve and I had wanted to avoid this for Mac.  I think that had probably delayed our decision to look at moving Mac before.  It was a good move for Mac for various reasons:

  • It gave him a completely clean slate with teachers and students,
  • Some of the students knew him from the village, but he would be able to decide how much of his past he revealed, and to whom,
  • He was more confident in himself, than he was at the age of eleven when he started his previous school,
  • He really wanted to make this work,
  • The school seemed to have a much better ethos for Mac.

This showed itself in lots of ways.  Mac had become much happier in his own skin.  He was more confident with his peers, and able to make friends much more easily.  He was really caring and seemed to spot those in need of help and they seemed to be attracted to Mac – he always seemed to be sought out for his advice.

Mac had also grown up physically.  He was now well over six foot tall, and looking forward to the day when he would finally overtake me in height and become the tallest in the family.  As he was very active and doing a fair amount of sport outside school, he had also become lean and strong.  He was also developing into a good-looking young man – he was not as aware of this and seemed slightly surprised by the attention he got.  It was clear that the girls were intrigued by this tall, mysterious, dark handsome stranger that had turned up in their midst.

He would say to me,

“This girl kept staring at me today, dad!”. 

Swee and I would just laugh and tell him that maybe she fancied him.  He mentioned the names of different girls that were taking an interest every couple of weeks or so.  It seemed his popularity was likely to be assured.

Mac was also making friends.  He was asking to stay behind after school to go round to friends’ houses – something he had rarely done at his old school.  And there was no mention of bullying at all.  He spoke of school much more warmly – it felt like he was taking ownership and properly feeling part of the school in a way that he had never been able to do before.  We had taken a risk in making the school move, but it was proving successful in every way.

New lessons

The approach that the school took with Mac was completely different and accorded much more with the way that we treated him and the way that Mac wanted to be treated.   Rather than removing him from classes to help him out, the school ensured that he was part of the normal classes and any help he needed would be provided there.  In fact, the more he was treated as “normal” and the more the teachers expected him to be able to keep up, the more Mac actually managed to do that.  They didn’t give him an easy excuse not to try and succeed, and consequently he did start to succeed more.  I remember early on when speaking to the head whether she thought Mac would be able to achieve passes in the basic exams like maths, English and science – something that had not been assured or necessarily expected of him before.

“I sincerely hope so!”, she said, looking at me as if I had somehow taken leave of my senses.

They believed in him and put the time into him, and consequently he began to believe in himself.

Mac was doing much better at school. He started to move up in maths – he had always been better at maths.  But he also started talking more about English and having conversations about some of the books he was studying for his exams.  He still struggled with his spelling, but his writing was now good, and at least his spelling was now understandable even to the uninitiated.  It became clear that his spelling was never going to be great, but he was at least able to write faster and clearer, which meant he could get his thoughts down in a more coherent manner.

For the first time in a long time, Mac began to enthuse about certain subjects in school.  He loved engineering.  He spent lots of time on his engineering homework projects, researching materials and designs and working on his engineering drawings.  He had become so much more precise. He produced a wonderful piece of work for a home alarm project and we could see how much he enjoyed all aspects of the process.

He also had a great time in RE.  RE is compulsory as part of the National Curriculum, but not all students studied it for GCSE.  Mac did and enjoyed it.  Of course, he had a great background in Christianity – being a priest’s son (something of which he now seemed to be quietly proud) and all those hours sitting in the church choir and listening to Michael meant that a huge amount of information had gone in.  Like me, he was also fascinated by other religions and the similarities and differences.  The other aspect that was a large part of RE was learning to discuss moral and philosophical topics.  He would come home having had a discussion on contraception or abortion or same-sex marriage, and would love to talk through the issues.  On one occasion he called me on my mobile during the lesson.  Luckily, although I was at work, I was at my desk.  He wanted me to talk to class to explain a particular issue to do with the church over the phone.  I did the best I could, but I could see members of my department looking at me in a fairly strange way.

That is not to say that all was rosy.  Mac was struggling with music.  Part of the course required him to write and perform a piece of music and be able to explain the process and thoughts behind it.  Although Mac did have a nice voice, and was happy to belt out a song when it was just him and me in a car, he was much more embarrassed in class.  He had also been learning the drums before and was now taking guitar lessons.  He was improving, but didn’t really have the commitment to sit down for the hours of practice that were really necessary to get good.

Consequently he was falling behind in his project, and this was to form part of his final exam mark.  Previously he had been able to get away with avoiding things – he rarely was picked up on these issues.  The difference at his new school was that nothing was allowed to slide.  I was called by his music teacher to come in and discuss how we could help to get him back on track.  She offered much of her own time to help him, as long as he knuckled down.  I knew the behaviour of old – if Mac thought he was failing at something, he would often stick his head in the sand and hope it would go away.  If he didn’t try then he would not fail.  Now, that was not an option – he was not allowed to avoid anything, but would be helped to make sure that he would do his best in everything.  The approach in the school was fantastic.

I was also impressed by the behaviour of the students.  As ever there were one or two occasions when Mac was starting to get into trouble.  He could still be a bit of a loner at times – and as such was sometimes a target.  Again the approach was completely different.  Whereas at Mac’s old school there had been a lack of control of some behaviour during breaks, the teachers were always on top of things.  It’s not that the grounds were easier to patrol – if anything I think they were a little more difficult.  The staff just seemed to know what was going on.  I remember speaking to the head about it once, when she had stopped a group of boys ganging up on Mac.  She said,

“I always spend some time outside during breaks, and I have a sense if something isn’t right.  The other day when I walked past the group of boys with Mac.  I had a strong feeling that something was awry, so I turned back and caught the start of it and was able to discipline those responsible.”

At Mac’s old school, they wouldn’t have got there until something had happened, and normally Mac would have been blamed.  This is why they lost his trust.  Mac’s new head knew her school, and knew when things were working or not.  This approach was mirrored in her staff. It was, and is, a very impressive school.

School Sports

Sport was also a huge success for Mac at his new school.  His head of year was a PE teacher and took an immediate shine to Mac, and Mac liked him.  He saw Mac’s potential and began to get him involved in all sorts of sports.  As it was Winter, Mac started with football and rugby.  He was OK at football, but there were plenty of boys faster and more nimble than him who had been playing competitive football for a long time.  But the school was good at rugby, and they could see that Mac’s height and strength was going to be hugely useful in their team.

So he started to play school rugby. Mac did enjoy it – he was fast enough.  But he was best as a forward – bringing real strength to the scrum.  I was starting to have to pick him up late from school after a rugby match on a number of occasions.  He also made some friends in the team.  There was one downside to rugby for Mac.  When he was younger he had been fearless.  As he was growing older, like many of us, he was becoming slightly more reticent to throw himself into more physical situations.  He knew it was going to hurt and had decided he really didn’t like it.  As a forward, it was inevitable that Mac would spend a lot of the time crunching into other big bodies – despite his clear aptitude for the game, after the season was over he decided his rugby career was also going to end.

Luckily next came cricket.  This was a game that Mac really loved.  As he practiced a lot in the village he was getting better.  With some good teaching at school, he really began to improve and again was chosen for the school team.  His PE teacher recounted to me the time that Mac had taken his first wicket for the school.  He said that the look on his face was so fulfilling as a teacher and one that he would never forget – Mac had responded so well to their belief in his abilities.  At the prize-giving at the end of the year, Mac was stunned to receive a prize as the most improved cricketer.  He hadn’t won a prize at school since he left primary school.

As the summer approached, we reflected on the huge change in Mac over the past year.  Changing schools had been the making of him.  He was happier, more mature, more grown up and working hard.  He was succeeding at sports and was on track to do the best that he could in his exams.  Most of all he was happy.

What a difference a year can make!

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