Blog 23. Children starting school: Leaving them at the gate

By Marion Burns

As children start school are COVID-19 restrictions undoing years of progress with transition to school practices?

All across Scotland children starting school have been waiting with family members for the school gates to open. Gates that only last year would have been wide open in anticipation of welcoming yet another group of new P1 (first year of primary school in Scotland) children and their parents. This year the transition to school arrangements need to be different, but are they really impacting negatively on the progress we have made in working with parents during transitions? 

While out walking one morning recently, I noticed waiting outside a local primary school some children clutching their parent’s hand, while others danced excitedly in new shoes, and on their backs a schoolbag no doubt filled to the gunnels with enough snacks to feed the entire class. Last year, a cuddly toy, tucked away safely inside the bag or perhaps held tightly in their hand, a reminder of home, would have been allowed. I reflected on the glaringly obvious differences, the school gates were firmly closed and not a transitional object was in sight. 

Starting school is considered a significant transition for children and families, research on the subject is important. Hayes’ study (2003) found that children starting school are expected to adjust socially, emotionally and cognitively to a new environment. Ackesjö contends that ‘children both shape the transition and are shaped by the transition’ (2014: 6). The transition process is of necessity a sociocultural process, where children and families learn to ‘reconstruct themselves’, their identity as a member of a new community (ibid, 2014: 7). Since 2013 children’s transition to school has been the focus of my doctoral study and if I have learned anything about what makes a difference to making this rite of passage successful, it is strong, loving, caring relationships (Burns, 2018). It is mutual trust and the existence of an equal partnership between parents as the child’s first educator and early childhood educators. I regularly promote the need for authentic partnerships that are responsive to the needs of each child and their family.

The concept of parents working alongside professionals in educational establishments is not new but research extols the benefits of parental involvement and community at key stages in a child’s educational journey (Fabian and Dunlop, 2007). Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model of human development (1979) is often used to conceptualise a child’s journey as they move from home to nursery and to school. Each of these life changing events are located within the inter-locking set of structures or nests (Bronfenbrenner,1979); the microsystem, conceptualised as the child’s home, the nursery or school the child attends, and the macrosystem, the wider community or society in which the child functions. A successful transition then involves parents and staff working together as a community to help the child make sense of the new setting; to anticipate how the child will react and provide the support required to make the transition to school easier (Burns, 2005). 

Realising the Ambition (2020) outlines the five ‘C’s that contribute to a positive transition; this means being child-centred and collaborating meaningfully with others to realise consistently high quality play pedagogy, thereby creating relevant progression in children’s learning within a supportive and empowering transitions culture. A culture which engages parents and others in open and transparent communications.

This year, starting school will of necessity be different, the usual transition arrangements have had to be re-imagined. In my study I found the transition to school programmes offered parents opportunities to be included in the child’s transition, to help their child feel good socially and emotionally and actively benefit from positive reciprocal relationships (Burns, 2018). 

In recent months educators in Scotland’s early learning and childcare settings and schools have achieved all of this and more by communicating with parents through social media, and other forms of information technology to virtually meet, inform and support families. Educators across Scotland have found innovative ways to keep children and families connected with their settings and schools throughout lockdown and in the weeks leading up to the new session (

These creative ways of connecting and reconnecting with children and families have included bear hunts, animations, virtual tours of playroom and classroom spaces. And then there has been the redesigning of outdoor and indoor spaces to meet essential public health requirements, all aimed at keeping our children, parents and educators safe. 

This year COVID-19 has brought turmoil to every facet of our lives, it has impacted on our culture; our ways of doing things as individuals and as families, and has required significant changes to be made to transition to school practices. And yet, as I watched, suitably distanced, I saw excited, happy children waiting with loved ones in family groups, now eager to start school, to cross over the line taped to the tarmac on this their first full day in P1. 

I concluded that once again educators across Scotland have realised what they needed to do to support parents and their children starting school. Educators care deeply about their children, they have gone to great lengths to make sure that this year the all important transition to school, is a positive one. 

Next year will be different again, won’t it as nothing stands still in education?

Then it was time I moved on, the gates had opened and one by one children were kissed and hugged, the reluctant few bolstered with an extra hug and encouraging shouts of see you later and have a great day. Parents, grandparents, others drifted away having left their child at the gate. 

All except one still holding a hand…I heard him say,

will you wait here all day at the gate for me until I finish school?

Back came the reply,

yes I will wait here for you…

and with that he walked through the gate, took hold of another hand, a kind hand, extended with love, for all children everywhere starting school.

Dr Marion Burns is HM Inspector with Education Scotland, previously HMIe. Her areas of specialism are early learning and childcare. She was previously HMI Lead Officer for early learning and childcare, and HMI Area Lead Officer for three education authorities in Scotland. She is passionate about children, play, transitions and implementing the ‘early level’ of Curriculum for Excellence as intended. She is enjoying part time working now having achieved Doctorate of Education in February 2019. She is Committee member of SERA early years and Non–executive Board Member of Early Years Scotland.

Image copyright: Marion Burns

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