02 Oct

Ros Thomas talks with families to see how their children have adjusted to life as Year 7s in secondary school.

Starting secondary school can be daunting. Who doesn't remember their first few weeks? I was the girl desperate to fit in but afraid of standing out. I missed my friends from primary school. I worried about whether I was likeable enough to make new friends. I was terrified of getting lost in the corridors, of failing to find my class, or worse - having to ask for directions. I panicked about missing the bus home. Or not getting to school on time. And I thought I might not cope with my increased workload, or the demands of so many new teachers. My worries were endless.

Now, 11 and 12-year-olds are starting secondary school in Year 7 instead of Year 8. For the first time, they're the youngest at school rather than the oldest.

Year 7s now need to adjust to life in the secondary school with new classmates and different teachers for different subjects.

Many will be travelling further from home. Some will be catching the bus or the train alone for the first time.

The Year 7 move to secondary school was implemented in public schools across Western Australia in 2015.

Year 7 students, on average, are now six months older than in the years before the school starting age was raised. Nearly half were turning 13 while still in primary school and were considered more than ready for secondary school where they could study a broader range of specialist subjects in the Western Australian Curriculum. Their teachers would be specialists too. They'd have access to facilities and equipment few primary schools could provide.

But starting secondary school a year early meant leaving childhood

"We knew parents were anxious and we understood why," says Nigel Wakefield, principal of Australind Senior High in WA's southwest.

"We had 238 Year 7s coming from 23 different primary schools. That's a lot of kids to settle in."

Nigel says parents' chief concern was what would happen when 11 and 12-year-olds began mixing with 17 and 18-year-olds? Would they be picked on? Would the Year 12s be a bad influence? How would an 11-year-old cope in a sea of 1300 hormonal teenagers?

"Mums, in particular, felt protective," he says. "But we knew our Year 7s needed to be stretched. And you know what? They showed us they were ready for secondary school by flourishing when they got here."

Nigel says planning for the Year 7 move was rigorous.

"Two years out we were holding information nights at primary schools. We offered tours of our school and more than 400 people turned up. We worked closely with the architect on the new Year 7 building. We designed it with a huge communal space in the middle filled with sofas and chairs. We wanted to give Year 7s a place they could hang out."

"By the time they started," Nigel says, "they felt at home. At first, we limited their classroom movements so they wouldn't worry about getting lost. We didn't overwhelm them with too many teachers. We gave mums and dads constant feedback about how each child was settling in. Within a few weeks, we knew things were going well."

For Australind mum Tania Murphy, sending her first child to secondary school in Year 7 was unsettling.

"I was very apprehensive about the transition. I just couldn't see why it was necessary or how it was going to work. Kieren is one of the youngest kids in his year. I knew he'd have to grow up quickly and I didn't think he should have to do that. I wanted him to have a chance at being one of the big kids in primary school - someone to look up to. Instead, he'd end up being a small fish in a big pond all over again."

"I shouldn't have worried," Tania tells me. "He's doing so well. The specialist classes opened so many doors for him - suddenly he was being offered classes like woodwork, metalwork and home economics - he wouldn't have had those opportunities in primary school. We couldn't be happier."

Mother-of-four Jo Campbell speaks for many parents when she says she took some convincing that son Travis would be better off doing Year 7 at secondary school.

"To be honest," she says, "I would've liked him to have completed Year 7 in primary school - and so would he. But Australind Senior High has bent over backwards to accommodate us. There's a great student services team with youth workers available to offer extra support when needed. Travis has managed a lot better than I was expecting. He's doing well. I'd have to say we've been welcomed and supported in the secondary school."

For Jo Daniel, however, the idea of her son moving to secondary school was traumatic.

"Thomas has Aspergers," she explains. "He was freaking out. We all were. He wasn't doing well at primary school so we were very nervous."

But Jo says Australind Senior High was ready for Thomas.

"Half way through Year 6 they introduced him to his new teachers. They walked him through a typical day and showed him where his classes would be.

"The special needs kids had their own safe zone within the Year 7 building - somewhere they could go and chill out and feel like they belonged.

"On the first day of Year 7, Thomas didn't even want me to go into school with him," Jo laughs. "He knew exactly where he needed to be. Now he's a different child. He's thriving and doing far better in secondary school than he ever did in primary school. He feels like one of the big kids and he's matured. For the first time, he's out playing soccer at lunchtime and joining in."

At Wanneroo Secondary College, principal Pauline White says she knew the first intake of parents was always going to be hard to win over.

But after nine years as principal, she says she knew her school community well and understood what the Year 7s would need to feel secure.

"The kids were saying their biggest worry was how to make friends," Pauline tells me. "We knew the faster we could make that happen, the quicker they'd feel secure. So at lunchtimes, we had staff on the lookout for solitary kids. We organised clubs and competitions so they could meet other new students and find common interests.

"In the end, our first year was highly successful," she says.

"The Year 7s settled far better than we expected. There were no big blips. In some areas, teachers had to adjust the curriculum - they were either going too fast or two slow - and they had to keep tabs on whether the kids were coping with the workload.

"But when we did our first surveys at the end of last year, 98 percent of our parents said the changeover was a positive experience."

Pauline says her favourite response was from a parent who wrote: 'A smiling child came home from school and couldn't wait to return.' "That makes our effort all worthwhile, doesn't it?"

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