Tag Archives: sixth forms

Cast No Shadow

Once a year, the good folks of Pennsylvania watch a woodchuck emerge from its burrow. If there’s enough cloud cover to prevent it seeing its own shadow, spring is imminent; otherwise, it returns to the hiber-hole, trailing in its wake the belief that winter will last for another six weeks.

To those who do not work in schools, Results Day is little more than a fixture in the calendar of Silly Seasonality. Press photographers cajole students into throwing their grades in the air, like they just do/n’t care. Middle-class blondes, refugees and twin geeks* are deemed equally telegenic for a day. (N.B: * must have spookily identical grades in the spookily identical subjects their schools/parents/schools, most probably, encouraged them to take, having caught the distant scent of publicity on the wind). Heads and ministers congratulate everyone on securing them their next pay rises or, as it’s publicly known, “a job well done”.

For teachers, however, it’s a day that divines and defines the character of the forthcoming school year. At a “rapidly improving” member of an esteemed chain, a department head, who received scarcely a word of thanks for overseeing a marked rise in results last year, was summoned to the Principal’s office as soon as it became clear that this year’s porky-pie-in-the-sky targets – drawn up, as the HoD had repeatedly emphasised to deaf ears, with no reference to the cohort’s ability – hadn’t been met. For students, too, the stakes are high. At the same institution, those with the loftiest grades were handed their results in envelopes a fetching shade of Camera Flash White; others were ushered through a side door and, like bit-part players in a Hal David lyric, instructed to carry on walking – a mere two weeks before the start of a new term. I guess “rapidly” is spelt with a ‘b’ in these parts?

We know about the prominence given to students with unbroken strings of top grades and places at approved universities. And, unless they’ve behaved disgustingly to all and sundry – a genuine rarity – no-one I’ve met begrudges them those moments of glory on the school website, during which they pretend to know who the head teacher is, while s/he pretends to give a damn. But most of us have, simultaneously, felt a stitch or two of guilt about the other students we’ve taught whose achievements are less enthusiastically vaunted but just as hard-won: the students who’ve worked their derrieres off to rise from predictions of G to actual grades of D, finding at the end of it that their efforts merit not a millimeter, never mind an inch, of a column.

In common with many teachers, I was every bit as proud of my ‘alternative curriculum’ students as I was of those in my concurrent top set. With their heady cocktail of social, behavioural and emotional needs, and target grades at the bottom of the scale, the former somehow emerged from two years of GCSE with a maturity that offset their humour and vivacity the way gold does the brilliance of diamonds. All of them achieved grades significantly above those predicted – several of them, the magic Cs – and not one failed to proceed to college for further qualifications.

That includes the student who was awarded the school prize for English Literature, and the one who agreed to be tutored by post in the months leading up to the exams, when her pregnancy took a turn for the difficult. As the head teacher rattled off pass-rate percentages to eight, congratulatory decimal places, our faculty was advised that the school was unbothered about the primigravid “and her like”, all of whom had been advised to seek other institutions in which to continue their education. Unsurprisingly, none of them made it onto the website – which is as predictably rum as yours truly after several mojitos and a Jean Harlow.

This year, however, it’s another group’s fate that’s proven vexatious: the GCSE candidates who all but burned themselves out, in their efforts to move to other sixth forms. Who’ve exceeded target grades and met the general entrance requirements but, having fallen slightly short of those for a proposed A level, have been prevented from taking the subject – even though their cases were easily explicable. One, for instance, who dropped a grade in Further Additional Science, had no subject teacher for Year 11 and resorted to teaching himself. (Indeed, with an entire class facing the same predicament, his school did as it knew best and renamed the problem. Thus was its uncanny ability to send staff fleeing for the antipodes no more: one person’s escape from a hell-hole of a job; another’s “independent learning opportunity”.) He’s opted, at the last minute, for a different sixth form altogether, where he’ll be able to take the subject he needs, and of which he is more than capable.

I’m not unsympathetic to the enforcement of entrance criteria. Not when I’ve worked in a school where senior staff held the door open to anyone who fancied a pop at a subject, regardless of their grades. With faculty heads banned from enrolment days, even prospective students who fell miles below minimum requirements were told that “It’ll be fine, I’m sure” by one bloody idiot or another. This might have been less of a problem if: a) faculties hadn’t been subject to 100% retention targets, with student losses resulting in financial penalties (that Merc isn’t going to pay for itself, you know); and b) all comers hadn’t been promised that, if their teachers were doing their jobs properly, passes at certain grades were guaranteed. This is, I believe, what’s known as the “Seat! Quick! Bum!” principle of recruitment. Or “Two bums”, if feeling ambitious.

However, so fearful have sixth forms now become at the prospect of anything less than assured outcomes, there’s little appetite for taking a punt on a promising student who, having had a scuppered year, landed a little wide of the required mark. With that and sparky originality deemed too risky, schools are, instead, admitting only those conscientious enough to write down and repeat almost every word their teachers utter. The folly of which becomes painfully apparent when coursework is submitted for marking, bearing phrases such as “toilet parts to fore and aft” divested of the inverted commas in which they were originally delivered.

Time will tell how accurate Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions were this year. Indeed, in only a few months, we’ll be ready for his next annual attempt at clairvoyancy, after which he’ll return to his abode in Gobbler’s Knob for another year. No inverted commas required.

It’s Not A Messiah Complex; It’s That Naughty Russell Brand

Despicable old me. Being stupid, I love earwigging the conversations of the clever, so I enjoyed a recent exchange between several people whom, I’m pretty sure, most would consider significantly above average in intelligence. With each of them holding at least two degrees, the discussion spiralled around the universities they’d attended – all reputable and established and, strikingly, only one a member of the original Russell Group. The remainder belonged to the, now dissolved, 1994 Group.

‘Russell Group’ has become the phrase du jour on the lips of ambitious sixth-formers, many of whom believe that the world affords a warmer welcome to the chronically flatulent than it does to non-RG graduates. And why wouldn’t they? Mindful that league tables record numbers of RG-bound leavers, plenty of schools have taken to scaring the bejaysus out of their students with tales of the manifold woes that will be heaped upon those who apply elsewhere. And thus are mythologies, engendered as much by the imaginative deficiencies of politicians as they are by reality, sustained – stories that, in part, explain why four of the ex-1994 Group universities attended by my acquaintances have, within the last couple of years, paid very sizeable membership fees to join t’other club.

As educators, we vaunt the importance of fact over prejudice, in the classroom and in policy-making. So, a couple of facts on the founding of the Russell Group. Named after the Hotel Russell, and not Great Uncle Bertrand, this self-selecting group only admitted members that were: a) research-led; b) affiliated with a medical school; and c) above a certain size.

And that, pretty much, was it.

A number of very credible, research-intensive universities that one might assume to have been pillars of the Russell Group were, in fact, not so: not because they lacked the academic chops but because of their student numbers and/or range of faculties. And, lo, the 1994 Group was born. Most British universities, incidentally, have belonged to neither association.

However, the belief persists that the Russell Group comprises top-flight universities only: the most leading institutions as opposed to just, well, leading ones. That’s certainly the public perception, the belief of all those students summarily dismissing (some superb) non-RG institutions as domains of the no-hoper, and the view of a political class that self-effacingly assumes the almae matres that spawned their own good selves to be bywords for excellence.

Two or three RG universities do, indeed, score consistently highly in national and global rankings, achieving top-ten places within both. The other member institutions, however, are largely within the top 200 globally – the top 350 in a couple of cases. As those experienced in the decorative crafts can attest, glitter migrates easily; rubbing shoulders with the scintillating is a pretty reliable way of embellishing one’s own lapels. Although I’m sure their mothers love them dearly, would it be entirely wide of the mark to suggest that some of the Russell Group’s universities have benefited from the branding-by-association that membership confers?

So, if it’s not necessarily a collection of the toppermost, what is the Russell Group? In short, it’s a protectionist body, whose other attraction is the clout it wields in lobbying for research funds. And, it has to be said, it is very successful at this, as most of the UK’s research grants end up in its hands. In a distribution of resources reminiscent of apartheid-era South Africa, the 15% of UK universities that comprise the group are awarded roughly 75% of available funding. No surprise, then, that “68% of the UK’s very best (‘world leading’) research takes place in the Russell Group’s 24 universities”. That’s not just a pre-requisite for membership; it’s a consequence thereof.

Given these statistics, one could, perhaps, see the fervour with which some schools shepherd their students toward RG destinations as in the latter’s best interests. (Throw some industrial-strength cheating into the mix, amass the choicest teachers to write the applicants’ personal statements for them, and watch the offers roll in.) But the case remains that, in doing so, they also pander to, and perpetuate some, ill-informed prejudices: for, as unlikely as it may seem at times, parents and students often follow where schools lead.

At one end of the spectrum, this results in sixth-formers being actively discouraged from applying to excellent universities outside the group, even though these may be better attuned to their choices of degree subject and career aspirations. At the other end, we have situations such as that experienced by a former colleague at an ‘outstanding’ school. In charge of the careers curriculum, he was asked to ensure that the sixth-form destinations documented in the forthcoming school prospectus contained minimum proportions of Russell Group universities and entrants reading medicine or law. Or, to put it another way, he was asked to lie. He refused, the list appeared anyway and my colleague decided to become an ex-colleague.

Having taught in some highly-regarded schools, both state and private, I would have been delighted to hear of the very brightest students applying to fantastic universities outside the Russell Group. And, I was, often, because back then many of them did – having made their decisions with reference to subjects and relevant faculties, rather than to more nebulous notions of reputation or group affiliation. Just imagine the pattern trickling down: parents actively seeking out schools in the PiXL Club (‘Partners in eXceLlence’, apparently), assuming all of its members to be, well, eXceLlent. What else would they be?

So, blessed are those who get to be geeks. I’m glad they’re getting something: they have a hell of a time…