Big school blues

Preparing students and parents for secondary education


Education expert, Dr. Michael Biggs knows that joining the ‘big school’ can be as daunting for parents as it is for kids. He sheds some light on the changes afoot.

The new academic year for many schools is fast approaching as too are a few anxieties about joining the ‘big school’. For some, this may not be a new experience and you might have already felt the pain of being increasingly distanced from the school and what is going on. No longer will there be those easy and, often, informative exchanges between teachers and other parents at the classroom door. If you do drop your son or daughter off at the secondary school, it will be at the school gate. The last thing the youngsters want is you holding their hand and taking them to the classroom: can you imagine their embarrassment!

In the Gulf, pupils in the secondary school phase, are often referred to as students and, in some ways, this offers a clue to the changes. Changes where students become more independent, take increasing responsibility for the management of their life, their learning and their behaviour. Think of some of the changes secondary school brings for many a youngster.

Adapting to a longer school day, increasing levels of homework and extracurricular activities that add even more to the length of the day. Subjects are often taught in a discrete manner resulting in contact with many more teachers than they are used to. This could be upwards of fourteen new teachers in a school week, each with their own personality and teaching styles for the students to get used to. This also brings more movement around an unfamiliar campus or building to different classrooms and specialist areas. Gone are the days of the safe haven of the primary classroom base and that ever-supportive class teacher. You are on your own in secondary! Well, not really as the teachers will be supportive but their expectations will be different with varying needs from one subject to the next and, don’t dare forget the PE kit!

This raises the next new experience of managing their own books, resources, equipment and kit for, perhaps, fourteen different areas. Students may have an assigned locker, however, it is not unusual to see first year students struggling from one class to the next with a backbreaking bag packed to the brim leaving their lockers quite empty. These students may be a little or totally disorganised, but they are conscientious students keen not to forget something vital with some just not managing their locker visiting times well. Do they really require their science books today when the lesson is tomorrow? But not to worry as the teachers will notice this, particularly their form tutor and they will help and manage this process until this organisation becomes part of the student’s daily routine. This is not always the case though, as I fondly remember managing the daily routines for one of my tutees even in their last year of school. He was totally disorganised but then went on to achieve personal success. I, too, will be eternally grateful to my PA’s who, over the years, have successfully managed me as a head teacher!

The new student has much to learn that is new on top of their subjects. They may feel lost in all of this at times and you, as parents, will also feel for them in those early days when they occasionally return home a little deflated. But it is early days that will soon pass and do remember that their teachers will be monitoring them to ensure they are OK. Before long the youngsters will return with stories to tell about their new school and you will feel their excitement and joy too. Stories to tell, well until the adolescent years start to kick-in and then it’ll be like getting ‘blood from a stone’ - I still feel the guilt about the grunts my mother received from me in return for her real interest in how my school day went! This is totally characteristic of these years but I will leave adolescence for another day.

So there you have it! Your anxieties are nothing compared to what your son or daughter may experience at first. Although they usually get over this relatively quickly, will you get over the changes and the feeling of being increasingly distanced from their lives during the school day? They are growing up and you want them to take responsibility for their actions and learning; you want them to develop time management, organisational and communication skills; you want them to take charge in a way that you can be proud of them as they grow into confident young people with ambition and strive to be the best that they can be. Even though, like me with my mother, your youngsters may lose the communication skills with you that you desire, you are still in the picture and an integral part of the important triangle that supports their success: learner, teachers and parents.

That little twinge of anxiety you may feel in the early days of a new school is the start of an exciting journey that sees your son or daughter ‘grow up’. It is a journey that will take place in some great schools in the UAE where the school staff are also focused on the future success of your son or daughter.
Dr Michael Biggs is an educator, senior school leader and lifelong learner with research interests in education, and the founder of

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