All-through schools are an education in getting it right for kids – Alex Hems

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Many of us will remember the summer before we moved into “big school”. The excitement of a new school mixed with trepidation as we worried about “fitting in”. For some it is a chance to reinvent themselves, for others it presents an unsettling experience.

Adjusting to a new environment and social group takes time and as head of St George’s, the largest all-through girls’ school in Scotland, I appreciate the rich opportunities our structure presents.

Transitions, whether from pre-school into P1 or from primary to secondary education, can be very challenging for ­students. The transition to secondary school in particular can have a detrimental impact on children’s wellbeing at such a key stage in their development. This coincides with significant social, emotional and physiological changes in the lives of young people, which often results in a shift in focus away from learning and can have a significant effect.

The all-through school structure offers a way of minimising this ­disruption and allows a school to plan their curriculum seamlessly, from nursery to S6. This sense of coherent progression makes a great difference to students’ confidence.

In my experience, the all-through model enables schools to offer a holistic response to the changing needs of learning and teaching and allows them to provide specialist instruction across the school. Teaching can be tailored to a pupil’s needs with a significant level of attention for every student, as well as offering more flexible approaches, including teaching by stage as opposed to age.

For example, nursery children can receive specialist teaching in PE, and in junior school, children can receive specialist teaching delivered by upper school staff in languages, drama and art as well as gaining access to the facilities of a secondary school.

Additionally, the opportunity to make informed decisions that are right for pupils at the various stages of their development is a key opportunity that all-through schools present. At St George’s, we have chosen to group our P6 through to S1 girls together in the lower school to allow us to focus on the emotional and social development of girls when they are aged 10-13 – it’s such an important life stage.

One of the key advantages of an all-through education is the ability to forge longer-term relationships with the girls and their families which is less easy in other school structures. Teachers take a great deal of care in planning the composition of class groups and teaching sets for the ­following year by employing their deep knowledge of their students. This has often accumulated over many years of working with them, taking into account friendship groups which may or may not be working well together. Another ­significant advantage in running an all-through school is the opportunity for very detailed handovers between different school stages, ensuring that key information about a child is fully passed on when they progress from primary to secondary education, for example.

By participating in extra-curricular activities, such as sport and music, at an all-through school pupils get to play and compete with their peers over several years. This continuity can be hugely ­beneficial when it comes to building ­successful close-knit sports teams and musical groups.

The sense of family is very strong within St George’s and this is achieved through activities such as paired reading and numeracy ­programmes with the primary and secondary girls. For the younger students, the senior girls are fantastic role models; the whole school benefits from their ambition, leadership skills, aspirations and ­successes. For the older ones the presence of the youngest reminds them of their responsibilities across the community and provides immensely rewarding opportunities for cross-year collaboration.

In an all-through school, pastoral teams can work as one across the whole school. This can be of great benefit where there are ­several members of the same family in the school, enabling school leaders to ensure appropriate support is in place for families or individual ­siblings that may be facing particular challenges.

For teachers, the opportunity to work across stages can be immensely rewarding, offering variety over the course of a career and a teaching day as well as providing a sense of warmth and community amongst pupils and parents. My colleagues and I can build strong and lasting relationships with families over several years, allowing trust and understanding to grow, which is fundamental in the three-way partnership between parents, teachers and child that lies at the heart of education. Without doubt, the transition between schools can be unsettling and present the chance for a potential performance dip or stumbling block in a student’s education. However, the shared educational ethos of an all-through school supports children from age four (or younger when there is a nursery) right through to 18, bringing wide-ranging advantages for students, staff and parents alike.

Alex Hems is the head of St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh.