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Children’s friendships matter in the scramble for secondary schools

Now is the time that many parents will be choosing secondary schools for their children but with education policy mostly focused on individual success and achievement, the importance of children’s school friendships is largely ignored, according to a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

For many youngsters, having friends with them during the move to secondary school enables them to settle in, get on and become more independent individuals, says Dr Susie Weller, of the Families and Social Capital ESRC research group, London South Bank University.

With Professor Irene Bruegel, she conducted a four-year project involving some 600 children and 80 parents, mostly in areas of high deprivation in London, the south-east of England and the Midlands, where access to highly esteemed secondary schools was limited.

Dr Weller said: “A child’s last year at primary school is widely viewed as a stressful and challenging time for many families. The current focus of British education policy on parental choice means that children are in competition with one another for places at well-resourced schools.

“This often means that relationships such as friendship are sidelined and little attention has been given to the positive and constructive resources and experiences such networks can provide.”

Dr Weller argues that the benefits children glean from their friendships have at best been overlooked, and at worst been regarded in a negative light, particularly by some prominent social theorists.

She said: “They have focused on the ‘youth problem’ - describing peer group interaction as having a negative affect on educational attainment and associated with destructive activities such as membership of a gang. Until now, work in this area has had little emphasis on children’s own experiences.”

About a quarter of all children in the South Bank study were unhappy not to be moving on with all their friends. And of the 10 per cent who were moving on alone, though seven out of 10 were excited to some degree, this compared with more than eight out of 10 doing so with a lot of their friends.

Whilst still at primary school, some children forged allegiances with others they knew would be moving with them.

Dr Weller said: “These relationships were short-term bonds which often gave children confidence in new and unsettling surroundings, since being seen on your own makes you stand out either as different or unpopular. Being seen as part of a group during the first few days projects a more confident and popular persona to your new peers.”

Fear of being bullied made it vital for children to have a solid group of friends who acted as ‘back up’, ready to support and defend them. Those without solid friendships were inherently more vulnerable.

For the minority who found the move challenging, friends from primary school were particularly important.

Moving schools with friends did not mean that children did not make new ones. Instead, having a stable base of friendships helped them make more. Older brothers, sisters and other relatives attending the same secondary school also provided a variety of support and ‘insider information’. They helped younger siblings become familiar with their new surroundings, establish relationships with teachers, peers and older pupils, and tackle their academic work. Siblings also helped their younger brothers and sisters to come to terms with the new school journey, which was particularly significant for many, as it was the first time they had travelled without an adult.

Danielle Moore | alfa
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