Mar Hartshorne

Transition: A process not an event

Mary Hartshorne, I CAN’s Head of Evidence, explores the experiences of pupils with speech, language and communication needs as they move into or on from school.

Last month at a conference I heard the results of a survey carried out in a secondary school with Year 7 students, 50 lessons into a new school year. Staff asked pupils to reflect on those first 50 lessons – asking questions such as:

  • How many times have you answered teachers’ questions in class?
  • How many times have you taken part in small group discussions?
  • How many times have you felt praised in lessons?
  • In how many lessons have you done some writing?

The results were fascinating. We reflected on just how important those first 50 lessons (roughly two weeks) are in terms of establishing yourself in the eyes of your classmates, your teacher, yourself. For example, were the 26% of pupils who had not answered any teachers’ questions, the same 28% who had not felt they had received any praise at all? How easy is it to shift those first impressions that you make? How quickly do we establish the ground rules of success?

I was particularly interested to compare the 64% of students who reported to have had no small group discussions, with the 100% who reported to have done writing in more than 20 lessons. Hearing those numbers, I immediately think of students who have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) – what will their experience of starting in this secondary school be like?

It’s that time of year when many children and young people are preparing to leave one very familiar situation and take the next step to something new.

There has been lots written about the features of a successful transition for all pupils, and for those with special educational needs (SEN) – be it starting school, moving between schools or leaving school. The key to them all is viewing transition as a process and not an event; a process which starts early and carries on well into the new school year, well past the first 50 lessons. This minimises the risk of establishing impressions and opinions too early – both for pupils and for staff.

For children and young people with SLCN, making the leap into a new learning environment has all the excitement as it does for other learners. It also has all the challenges – new people, new relationships, new processes, the organisational challenges of a new environment and timetable, the rules about clothes, places, ‘no-go areas’, eating and drinking. In particular there are language specific challenges, for example there’s the hidden social curriculum – the rules that everyone seems to know about but no one actually explains – things like who you should and shouldn’t talk to. What about the vocabulary itself? If no one explains the meaning, how easily will children with SLCN understand phrases like:

‘carpet time’

‘line up at the door’

‘find a partner’

‘you’ll be on report’

I was talking with someone working in a further education college last week who told me the range of different words used for the place students had their lunch. It’s actually has the word ‘cafe’ on the door, but depending on which department you find yourself in it is variously called the ‘canteen’, ‘refectory’ or ‘dining room’.

Fortunately, there is lots of guidance to help children and young people with SLCN at this tricky time. I CAN’s Moving On! provides some really practical activities and tools to help the transition from primary to secondary school. Coming into school, our booklet Ready Steady Talk gives parents some games to help children get ready for pre-school, while for young people thinking about life after school, we’re just finishing the pilot of Talk about Talk Secondary, focusing on the communication skills needed for the workplace.

The Communication Trust report about primary and secondary transition for pupils with SLCN, written by Anne Ayre and Sue Roulestone outlines a ‘transition pathway’ based on extensive consultation with schools, pupils and parents. The focus is on what schools can do, because of course it’s not all about making sure children are school-ready, secondary-ready or work-ready. Settings, schools and workplaces need to be ready too, especially given the known prevalence of SLCN.

Carrying out a ‘50 lessons on’ survey provided really useful information for reflection – to make the transition as successful as possible. When are you doing yours?