Hello, 'big school' - managing transitions


Alliance quality and standards manager, Melanie Pilcher, shares ideas for getting children ready for moving up to school. This article originally appeared in the Alliance's Under 5 membership magazine.


Starting school is a major transition in a child’s life involving separation from familiar adults and children. By the time they are ready to start school, children have a more secure understanding of ‘people permanence’ and are consequently able to approach new experiences with some self-assurance. However, they will need preparation if they are going to be able to approach the transition to school with confidence.

Partnerships are key

It is important to remember that parents will need support during this time as well. Strong bonds have been formed and intimate aspects of family life have been shared in trust and confidence with staff, making the move up to school a difficult goodbye for many. Practitioners, particularly those who have been a ‘key person’, have also formed bonds with children and their families. The emotional significance of ending these relationships can be acute for them as well. The transition to school will not only signify an end to familiar routines but also the end of relationships and a time to say goodbye.

It is also important to consider the essential administrative elements involved with the move up to school. You’ll need to ensure that everyone involved is working in partnership, sharing relevant information and ‘managing’ the process of transition together. There should be a good line of communication between the parents, the school and the setting and each party should make their expectations of each other clear.

For early years settings, partnerships between parents are every bit as important at the end of their relationship as at the start. A child’s key person should discuss the transition with parents, asking when and how they are preparing their child for school. Going to “big school” is something that grown-ups often discuss months ahead of time and unless a child already has an older sibling at school then the idea can be difficult for the child to relate to.

Conversely, some parents will be reluctant to discuss school with their child until the very last minute. Parents might believe that it is best not to make a big deal of the changes ahead. Of course, discussion with the parent may reveal that it is because they are struggling with the idea of their child starting school themselves. These parents will need sensitive support to help them become partners in the important process of transition.

Strong relationships

The key person should make it clear to parents what information they will be sharing with the school. This might include: learning and development summaries, which parents should be encouraged to contribute to; information regarding child protection; and any work that has taken place to ensure the child’s welfare.

Every effort must be made to forge and maintain strong partnerships with the schools that children will be attending. This should not suddenly happen in the weeks immediately prior to transition, but should instead be established and ongoing for every school in the setting’s catchment area. Of course, it is much easier for those early years settings that are on a school site, but these settings should still ensure that a structure is in place. This is particularly important if lines of communication have not previously existed or have been poor in the past.

The setting manager should approach each school and ask for details of their settling in or transition procedure. Keep a copy of this on file so that key persons are familiar with them. This will help develop a consistent approach to forthcoming transitions with teachers, parents and children.

Details of which school each child is due to attend should also be recorded in their file, along with the name of their reception class teacher. Teachers should be welcomed into the early years setting and given sufficient time to spend with the child, their parents and their key person to discuss and share information about the transition.

Helping children to understand

Where the setting is on a school site, there will be plenty of opportunities to visit with a group of children and attend routine events, such as lunchtime or break time, which can be overwhelming for new starters. If visits are not practical, there are other resources – such as books, photographs and videos – that can be made available in the setting and that may help children to make sense of the impending ‘big school’ event. Staff may also be able to borrow resources from the school and use these with the children.

For a child with SEND, where a decision has been reached that they will be able to attend mainstream school, there is a separate admissions process that will be overseen by the local authority’s Special Educational Needs and Disability Team. All decisions about starting school and how this is to be managed will be made with the child’s parents, the area’s Special Educational Needs Coordinator, or external representative, head teacher, key person and setting manager. These people will all need to work closely together to share the information and resources needed to support the child at school. This may include any reasonable adjustments that the school will need to make, and additional training for all staff that is specific to the child’s individual needs, such as sign language.

The final step

As their last day approaches, children will need time to prepare for separating from the close relationships they will have formed in the early years setting. Their last day should be prepared for in advance, and marked with a special celebration or party that acknowledges that the child is moving on. Some settings opt for a Graduation Day approach, with gowns and certificates. However, it is important not to let the ceremony of such an event take over and make the experience less meaningful for the children.

Finally, once the children have left, their parents should not be discouraged from bringing them back for the occasional visit. It can be reassuring to know that their nursery, pre-school or childminder is still there and that they are remembered. The early years setting plays an integral role in such a crucial period in a child’s development that the relationship does not have to end abruptly – and for those children with a younger sibling, it will continue for many years to come.


This article originally appeared in the Alliance's Under 5 membership magazine. Find out more about the magazine, request your free taster copy, or sign up to the newsletter mailing list here