Ch-ch-ch-ch Changes

6th September 2021

Transitions can be challenging, but they can be joyous, too, writes Joe Hallgarten, CfEY’s new chief executive

This is a big week of change for me. In truth, I’m all over the place. On Saturday, my son celebrated his COVID-delayed Barmitzvah in the company of fifty family, friends and community members, our synagogue’s biggest live congregation since the pandemic. Yesterday, my eldest moved from the theory to the practice of medicine, starting her first year of clinical work. Next weekend, I’ll be driving my middle child to Glasgow to start her university life. And today, I start here at CfEY, standing on the shoulders of the giants who created our small and beautiful think and action tank.

Change is all around almost all of us right now. For all the edu-talk on the accelerating pace of change – is this ever really measurable? –  the annual, seasonal rhythms of change remain stable. September, not January tends to mark the real emotional start for most people’s years, not only those involved in schools. Everyone I know has someone they are very close to who is about to start some kind of new adventure this month – moving schools, jobs, homes, countries or combinations of the four.

Edu-talk is also full of a pathologisation of the turmoil of transition. The ‘rising fives’ for whom a verbal word gap becomes a written word chasm as formal teaching of literacy begins. The Year Sevens who slowly, invisibly become lost, neglected and unhappy in the large (and increasingly silent) corridors and classrooms of secondary schools. The students entering university who struggle with the freeform independence, and the motivation to write those essays when other temptations are all around. And – perhaps the most important but most underattended group of all – the young people who are not going to university, and, uncushioned by the soft-structured opportunities of student life, are juggling a challenging mix of working and training, alongside family living, renting or possibly sofa surfing.

All of these young people, and the risks and vulnerabilities in all of these changes, are worth worrying about. We know that every transition point – formal or informal, planned or accidental, are key moments when existing inequalities and insecurities can be exacerbated. CfEY is well-versed in the significance of transitions for children and young people. Our work with OUP looking at the vocabulary gap shows just how much literacy is an enabler as pupils move into secondary schooling. Likewise, our ongoing research partnerships with the Mercers’ Company and Rothschild Foundation show how, for some young people, transitioning out of secondary school can be rocky.

However, CfEY’s work shows transitions can be joyous. Is it possible to mix the problematising with a bit more praise?

CfEY’s work shows transitions can be joyous. Is it possible to mix the problematising with a bit more praise? Share on X

Think of our five year-olds who will relish the careful blend of structured and playful learning that our incredibly skilled Reception and Year One educators provide. Think of our freshly uniform-pressed Year Sevens who are so ready for the deeper immersion in subject knowledge that our secondary teachers can provide. Think of our young people leaving home, trawling online stores or charity shops for their first ever mugs, kettles and cheese graters. Think of those of us for whom these transitions will prove a struggle, but will develop the resilience to bounce through stronger. Think of those for whom a transition creates an opportunity to change embedded habits, to reclaim or refresh identities. Think of our schools, colleges and their educators who every year strive to make these transitions even smoother and more exciting, whether preparing to release or receive new groups of young people.  And think of those of us in various relationships with these people (and I think older siblings in particular need to take a bow here), who are also doing our best to help those we love navigate these transitions as positively and independently as possible. Whilst we all feel the pain of the letting go that all transitions represent, we all know that the alternative – clinging on – is unthinkable.

Today is also the start of Rosh Hashanah, the two-day Jewish celebration of ‘the head of the year’. Eight days later, I will be fasting for Yom Kippur, our ‘day of atonement’. As Barack Obama once observed, ‘Jewish tradition teaches us that for the next ten days, the Book of Life is open.’ For my first ten days in this new job, as well as trying to break some of my embedded habits, I’ll be quietly reflecting on and celebrating our transition heroes – the young people stepping through these changes, and the loving adults who are doing everything they can to help them thrive.