The stories in this web site explore some of the feelings young people might have as they experience the move from primary to secondary school. They are set in a rural context where the differences between primary and secondary are generally more pronounced. Children attending rural primary schools often experience learning in small close-knit classroom communities alongside children who are both older and younger than themselves. In very small schools children may have the same teacher for four or more years. Ancillary staff such as cooks, caretakers, secretaries, cleaners, dinner nannies and playground supervisors often tend to be people who live within the immediate village. Primary school pupils therefore experience a great sense of familiarity in respect of both the physical environment of the school and the people who inhabit that environment.
As the primary years begin to draw to a close young people can experience a multitude of feelings about the impending change in their lives. (This is true of all children whether living in urban or rural areas.) Change is a natural part of human existence and anxieties associated with the onset of a new phase in one's life are only to be expected. We all deal with change in different ways; some of us experience equal feelings of excitement and anxiety; for some of us the sense of excitement outweighs any worry we might feel; for others feelings of nervousness become overwhelming, often masking any positive thoughts and feelings we might have; some of us find it difficult to acknowledge fears and worries until after the event, resulting in delayed reactions. Whatever our individual approach to dealing with change it is generally felt that expressing one's feelings can be helpful. But, whilst many of us might understand and value the theory of self-expression it can be hard to put it into practice, especially if you are male.
"My son is a worrier - worries about all sorts of things - not just school. Boys aren't expected to be like that, boys are expected to be tough so for boys to have these kinds of feelings makes it harder for them."
Although girls might be more used to expressing their feelings, peer pressure affects both sexes.
"They were really nervous and scared but they don't want people to think they were like that. My daughter wants to put that behind her now. She cares about what other people think, especially what her friends think."
The Stepping Up project was set up to give young people in a rural area a means of self expression at a pivotal period in their lives. The means were to be largely creative, drawing on the skills of a local writer and documentary photographer and utilising computer technology and the internet.
The project was designed in close collaboration with a cluster of primary schools in and around Weardale in County Durham, and involved the two professional artists in initial work with all Year 6 pupils in seven feeder primary schools. This involved visiting each school with a Polaroid® camera and a PC + scanner: children took pictures which were scanned and used to make instant web pages and combined with imaginary diaries where the children described how they would feel the day before they started at the new school. You can see the results here.
From this evolved a group of 17 young people who met on a regular basis during the last 6 weeks of term and in the summer holidays. All were given cameras and diaries in order to begin the process of documenting their lives.
The writer and photographer were also documenting this process of transition from primary to secondary school, but from a wider perspective. In addition to the regular group sessions (which were held in a community arts workshop in the Dale) the artists visited the young people in their home and school environments attending important events such as sports days and end of year assemblies.
The large secondary school which serves Weardale and the surrounding area was an equally important partner in the project. Recognising the special difficulties that face some of the children from outlying areas the school already had in place a number of significant measures aimed at making the transition easier. These include a 2 day primary camp where pupils meet the teachers who will be their form tutors over the next five years and spend time in the company of their future class-mates. (Many close friendships are forged in this informal and friendly environment.) Year 6 pupils also spend a full induction week at the secondary school, observing the actual timetable they will be following as the new Year 7 intake. The secondary school's primary liaison also includes open evenings and staff visits to the feeder primaries to talk to prospective pupils and parents.
The Stepping Up project arrived in the secondary school, along with the new intake, in September 1997. Despite all the careful preparations of the teachers, parents and pupils themselves it was obvious that some young people had huge problems adjusting to the new routine, not least because of the long bus journeys they had to make at either end of the school day. Tiredness was apparent in many faces. Whilst some young people revelled in the newness of it all, staying behind for after-school clubs and getting involved in all sorts of extra-curricular activity, others struggled simply to get through the week. Not surprisingly, the Stepping Up group shrank and for the remainder of the project a group of 7 young people acted as representatives for their peers, helping to assess and shape the immense amount of documentary material gathered for the project. These seven became known as the editorial group.
This group set about producing a book. Meeting in the evenings and at weekends over the next 9 months, the editorial group worked together with the artists to produce a draft. Slowly and painstakingly the material began to make sense as images and diary snippets were perused, selected, edited, arranged and re-arranged or discarded in favour of stronger visual or literary statements. Inspired by the young people the artists created their own material in response to what they had observed. The stories in the book are therefore a compilation of real and imagined lives, a collective work of visual and literary fiction based on fact, the illustrated story of nobody in particular and yet the story of everybody who has ever experienced the move from primary to secondary school in a rural area. A publisher is now being sought.
These web pages have drawn on the draft book as well as a slide show and other material produced by the project..
We live in an increasingly competitive society where the pressure is on for us to succeed, to attain certain targets set by others, to fit in with established routines and systems. It is not often that we are given a chance to stop and explore what is actually happening to us, to make meaning of our lives as we are living them. The young people who took part in this project did so in the midst of one of the most momentous periods of their lives. Whilst they were actually preparing for change, worrying about change and experiencing change they were at the same time being encouraged to consciously document their feelings about what was happening to them.
The Stepping Up project set out to give isolated young people in rural areas a voice. As witnessed in these pages, that voice is eloquent and articulate. It speaks with an often disarming honesty and a visual clarity. It will surely speak volumes to other young people and offer some help in expressing those feelings which are so hard to give voice to - but it is a voice which needs to speak to adults too. The question remains as to who will listen.