Wednesday, December 05, 2007

What's with all the extras?

With our elder son coming up to his GCSEs, we're turning our attention to 6th form options. Of course, he could stay at his current school, but he is underachieving fairly spectacularly there. Since the university he plans to attend is one of the most selective in the country, he is probably going to need a change of plan to attract their attention.

Last night we attended the open evening of a specialist science school in a nearby town. Unlike his current school, which is a comprehensive (no entry criteria), this school has a selection policy and kids have to qualify to get in. There are only 40 places available to those who wish to transfer in from other schools.

Judging by the attendance last night, competition is going to be fierce!

According to the information we were given last night, this school is one of the "top 50 schools in the country".

Today, I've been thinking about what that means. Are their students the happiest? The best educated? The most well-balanced? The best equipped to deal with life-after-school? I suspect it is based purely on their results and, since I question the validity of the assessment process, this places a question mark over the relevance of this achievement.

Sadly, though, the system is what it is and it is within the constraints of this system that my son is going to have to prove his worth to the university of his choice if he is to have the chance to follow a career in forensics (this is the legacy of CSI and its ilk - every second child now wants to study forensics, whereas 10 years ago, hardly anyone had ever heard of it).

He is too young to see how tough the adjustment to this school will be, should he be accepted. At his current school (unusually for the UK), there is no official uniform. At this school, the sixth form boys must wear suits to school every day. Last night, he was blissfully unaware of the fact that he stuck out like a sore thumb. There were many other kids in civvies, but none of the others was wearing his trousers below his butt, with his underwear on display. Nor did they wear T-shirts that informed the reader that the only reason the wearer had not yet made a pass at them was because "You ugly!"

At his current school, the teachers are known by their first names. At this school, it's Mr this and Dr that (I doubt there is a single PhD on the staff of his current school, but I saw at least one last night and am trying to decide whether this is a sign of anything in particular). At his current school, the stated ethos is one of equality for all (I have my doubts as the successful implementation of this approach, as I have mentioned before on this blog). At this school, the teachers are without question exalted beings. They expect the students to stand aside for them. My son complained to me that one of the teachers had shoulder-barged him. In fact, what had happened was a conflict of expectations: the teacher had expected my son to step aside to let him through, while my son was making his way from point A to point B via the shortest route.

None of the other kids left their parents in their wake and interviewed the teachers for themselves.

Standing back and watching this whole interplay, I realised that my son was not making a good impression. That he was coming across as brash and yobbish. In a one-to-one interview (which will form part of the selection process), he will fare very well, but he has clearly been influenced by the culture of his current school, and it hasn't all been to his benefit!

Listening to the feedback from teachers and students, it certainly seems that they promote a culture of independent learning and diligence. All the students emphasised the need for "further reading" and "reading around the topic". In amongst all the other bumpf, this was what I wanted to know about. It is this that my son does not do. He sails along on the bare minumum of effort. We were chatting to the mother of a boy who transferred to this school from my son's current school. He and my son have similar interests and similar strengths and weaknesses. She assured me that my son would become motivated to work very hard in the new environment. She told me about daytrips to Switzerland for significant events. About opportunities to assist in scientific research. About trips to universities to attend lectures.

So why is it that schools that impose such seemingly irrelevant and outdated constraints such as formalwear, formal forms of address, etc. produce such good results? And why is it that schools with a more liberal approach have such a high incidence of crime and poor performance? Where is the link and why does it exist at all? Surely these factors shouldn't have an impact on learning, and yet in the UK education system, it seems they do. Or is this a case of the Forer effect?

As we drove away, I asked him if he wanted to apply for a place. Unhesitatingly, he said he did. When I hinted at the difficulty he would have in adjusting to the restrictive environment, he said he thought it would be exactly what he needed. I felt as if a huge wave had just loomed up, and I was paddling my surfboard like mad. I realise we are either, by dint of enormous effort, going to ride this one to the shore, or we are going to get unceremoniously dumped and churned (if you've every surfed you know exactly what I'm talking about!). I don't feel as if I have enough left in me to put in the effort to ride that wave, but I also don't relish the thought of the buffeting that is the alternative.

... and we will have to go through this all over again in two years' time with our other son. Oy vey!

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