Independent Schools Guide: Helping to make the transition

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September marks the first day at a new school for many children, and while it can be daunting – particularly when joining a different sector – there are plenty of ways in which Scotland’s independent schools ensure the transition goes smoothly.

Some children have been educated by the sector since they were at nursery, while others may join at any point throughout their school education, including for Sixth Form.

Along the way, staff at the schools endeavour to make the unknowns known and help each individual settle in as early as possible.

“It is really important that they feel at home and in order to do that we encourage them to visit as often as they can in advance of starting,” says Jonathan Anderson, headmaster at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh. “They have the opportunity to meet the house staff who will be looking after them and the boys in the prefect team who will also be looking after them. That way, when it comes to the big day, it isn’t too big a shock for them.”

Most schools hold open days when prospective pupils and their parents can take a tour of the school, and meet the staff and potential peers.

The school’s prospectus provides a flavour of its ethos, but a taster visit allows the individual to experience the school for a day – and a night in the case of boarders. Prospective pupils can attend classes and co-curricular activities to see if the school is the right fit.

“From P1 upwards we invite children to come and spend a day with us prior to starting the school,” explains Mark Becher, headmaster at The Compass School in Haddington, East Lothian.

“It is an opportunity for us to meet them and find out a little bit more about them personally and academically.

“For them, more importantly, it is about getting to know more about their classmates and understand the run of the school, and we have found the experience is wholly positive and many children can’t wait to come back.”

George Watson’s College, in Edinburgh’s Colinton Road, has a dedicated induction day for Senior 1s and a separate half day for pupils going to the school for the first time.

“There is an emphasis on making sure that anyone who is new has a buddy to show them the ropes and make sure they are not standing alone in the lunch queue,” says headmaster Melvyn Roffe.

Outdoor adventures organised by the school are designed to break the barriers between staff and pupils.

“The relationship between pupils and staff is usually a close and respectful one,” he adds. “Pupils know the staff and the staff know the pupils in a context other than just in the classroom and that is very important.”

But a key advantage of attending an independent school is the relationships formed between pupils across the year groups.

Initiatives such as Kilgraston School at Bridge of Earn’s Big Friendly Girl scheme, led by the upper sixth students, ensure that new pupils throughout the school have someone other than adults to turn to for advice when they join.

Headmistress Dorothy MacGinty says: “We make sure to team up boarders with boarders and day girls with day girls. They get to know each other before the term starts by getting in touch with their buddies and, if they are day pupils, meeting up with them.

“The upper sixth girl will make sure everything is okay and is another girl to go and talk to.”

In fact, there is nothing that students enjoy more than looking after new peers, according to Mark Lauder, headmaster at Strathallan School in Perthshire.

“That friendship and mentoring is probably the most powerful force in the school to help pupils settle in,” he says. “If you ask a pupil what their favourite thing about their school is, they would most likely say their friends.”

For those coming from overseas, those friendships are especially important.

Albyn School in Aberdeen amalgamated with the Total French School last year to create a hybrid curriculum of French and English, and as a result they receive many pupils from across France and beyond.

“In the same way that the needs of pupils differ, so does the transition support,” maintains Albyn headmaster Dr Ian Long. “Boarders arrive from around the world and immediately before term begins there is an opportunity for boarders and parents or UK guardians to meet and mix together to learn about the routines and life in the boarding house before they join the school.

“The first weekend provides an opportunity to get to know the area and there is an extensive support team for those whose first language is not English.”

And as hard as it might be for pupils transitioning into a new school, it is just as important a time for their parents, and so clear lines of communication are essential.

The High School of Dundee has recently launched a new online parent portal entitled Firefly, where parents can find out about classes and homework, among other things.

Dr John Halliday, the school’s head, says: “We upload all the classwork and homework which can be shared with parents and pupils. Beyond that, if they have specific concerns, every pupil has a dedicated guidance teacher who is the first point of contact. They develop a strong working relationship between that child as well as the parents.”

Parents are very much a part of the school’s community, and the schools within the independent sector strive to ensure that parents meet each other and are included in their child’s education as much as possible right from the beginning to ease the transition period for all.

Alex Hems, headteacher at St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh, confirms: “It is so important for parents to meet 
each other, and so we have had 
three welcome evenings with a lower school family barbecue for
all families, including those who 
are new.

“The girls are out playing in the grounds while their parents chat to teachers and visit classrooms.

“There is the passing over of information such as what the shape of the year might look like, and there is just a lovely sense of community and it is all so very welcoming.”