And breathe…

Half term at last! Seemed like it would never arrive.

The previous week, I did that really annoying thing of somehow convincing myself that half term was starting a week earlier than it was. Although I figured I was wrong quite quickly, it kept “feeling” like we were due to finish, for some reason – with the result that I started relaxing way too early and the final few days seemed far too much to get through!

Inevitably, a whole load of us (staff and students) have acquired various coughs and sniffles in readiness for the break. We manage to hold them off so we can have them on our own time – how dedicated is that, eh?

Some of my colleagues doubly (at least) deserve a break. Some Year 7 form staff and members of the PE department took all the Year 7s away on a residential for a couple of nights before half term – they were doing various activities like abseiling, night walks etc. Apart from the normal additional work involved in residential school trips, the fact that you also have a number of kids who haven’t been away from their parents before, and also that the friendships etc will still be bedding down, must make this one particularly tough. I wouldn’t do it in a million years, to be honest – but have absolute respect for those who do!

Quite a few of the sixth formers will be spending their half-term preparing for assorted university entrance exams taking place in the week after half term (well, I hope they will be taking them seriously enough to prepare!). We always have to be prepared for a bit of mental trauma after those – since they are exams for seriously competitive courses, they are, generally, seriously hard, and pretty well everyone taking them will be outside their comfort zone. Since the candidates for such exams are, by definition, high achievers, they don’t usually have much experience taking exams that they find very tough, and so find the experience quite hard to come to terms with, typically.  Another thing that many find difficult with such exams is that they are intended to be tests of ability and potential, not of how hard you work – although preparation does, of course, help, there is a limit to what it can do. The analogy I tend to use is that even if you work hard at a sport, you won’t, generally, be able to turn yourself into an Olympic athlete – but accepting that something similar applies academically at times does not come easily to lots of kids.

To be fair, some teachers don’t seem to appreciate this either  – that whilst hard work can improve things, there is a limit to what it can do. I’ve seriously fallen out with an art teacher in the past who seemed to think that kids who produced what she regarded as poor work were automatically not trying – I was in the position of those kids myself at school, and know all too well that however hard I tried, I’d end up handing in something I was ashamed of.

As teachers, we run into problems with this reasonably frequently. Consider this situation – a student is choosing A-levels and is wanting to choose a subject that you feel they have no realistic hope of getting the sort of grade they want in. Do you:-

  1. Say nothing. It’s not fair to discourage them if they want to do it and grades aren’t everything
  2. Use school policies (if there are some on it) to stop them doing it
  3. Have a frank conversation with them in which you tell them what you think their chances are and do your best to discourage them.

I’ve met adults complaining of both approach (1) (“why didn’t they stop me – it’s ruined my future that I got a bad grade – they had a duty to warn me”) and approaches (2) and (3) (“I always wanted to study X but I wasn’t allowed to – they ruined my future – all they cared about were the school grades” or “I was told I was rubbish at that subject at school and my confidence never recovered” )

Incidentally, I do actually get quite annoyed when people allege that their school was doing X, Y or Z to “look after the school’s grades”. An individual’s grades make far more difference to them than they do to the school. As I’ve told pupils on several occasions (often when they are thinking of not working because they are not fond of a particular member of staff) – if they get a poor grade, it makes far more difference to them as it’s on their GCSE or A-level record for ever than it does to their teacher – the worst case scenario for me is that I might get asked a few pointed questions, but I will not be judged on it (given my 20+ years of GCSE and A-level results from classes) to the extent they will.

Going back to the advising problem – some of my colleagues go for (1) (“it’s lovely that she wants to do it”) and some (3) (including quoting some detailed statistics on what people who did the subject with that background in the past went on to achieve). Personally I probably hover somewhere in between the two – saying that the student can choose to do it if they want to – I’m not stopping them and it’s their life – but explaining why I’m concerned and emphasising that they should be prepared to be honest with themselves at an early stage (whilst they can still swap subjects) if they aren’t coping.  Needless to say, that doesn’t always work …

As so often, it comes back to the question of how far we have a duty of care to prevent someone doing something inadvisable versus allowing them to make their own mistakes. I’ve spent a lot of time debating this with people in OU circles where the trend is now towards stopping people making what might be bad decisions. I don’t like it. I don’t think I’ll ever like it. But I guess I can see the logic given the increasing expectation in society that we get things right first time rather than being able to make the odd mistake and learn from it – that’s what needs changing.




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