Yesterday, 8 students out of the 16 who applied to Oxford University in my school’s sixth form received offers. The Cambridge offers are yet to come through, but already the congratulations and celebrations have begun. To get into such a prestigious university after working hard all their way through school is a fantastic achievement and the congratulations are well-deserved. The announcement in the staff briefing of the success was received with pride that our students had beaten undoubtedly strong competition to achieve their places. Happy people all round.
But there are over 250 students in our sixth form, approximately half of those in year 13. What is happening to the other 117 students? Have they received offers for any of their chosen universities? Have they even applied? Do we care?! In such pressurised school environments as we now often see in the private sector, why are we putting so much emphasis on being accepted into ‘top class’ universities at the expense of celebrating the success of every student?
Schools are now under so much pressure to evidence their successes, and what better way than boasting ever-increasing numbers of Oxbridge acceptances? Whilst I agree that such achievements should be celebrated by all involved, I am severely against doing so whilst ignoring what appear to be considered the ‘lesser’ pupils.
I teach ICT and Economics at A level. The two subjects get completely different sorts of students in the cohorts – Economics is generally full of academic students who want to enter careers in business, law, finance and the like, whereas ICT attracts perhaps less academic pupils who are skilled in creative subjects and have a wide variety of ideas for career paths. Both cohorts are a delight to teach and their individual skills and assets are strikingly obvious to anyone who takes the time to get to know them. I could easily pick out the ones who will excel academically, but that does not for one second make them any better as people than those who will excel in other avenues. My worry is that the latter type of student is now being made to feel inferior by the constant glorification of strictly academic achievements, when in fact their own skills and attributes are just as valuable to themselves and the wider world.
I consider my role as an educator to extend beyond the classroom and, despite sometimes being greeted by grunts or yawns from seemingly disinterested teenagers, I do want to try and get the message across to them that Oxbridge, even university, is not necessarily the key to a brilliant life. I know plenty of people who did not get an offer from their first choice universities and their lives did not end. I recall one person in particular who was absolutely devastated to receive a letter from Oxford informing him he had not been given a place. His plan was to reapply the following year and all his efforts, probably since age 11, had been focused on attending that institution. After school we lost touch for a number of years but when we found each other again on Facebook I was absolutely delighted to see that his life had taken a completely different path to the one he was so certain of around the time of receiving that letter. He had travelled, taught, learned, explored and was living an accomplished and extremely happy life. Oxford didn’t feature once on the timeline of his life post-sixth form, and yet he is living a life far more fulfilling than a lot of people I know.
Working at such a high-achieving school has a lot of perks – the enthusiasm and natural drive of the students being the main one. It is extremely grating, however, to constantly hear that, in order to be successful in life you need to attend a top university and then go into a finite number of careers. Finance, law, medicine, architecture – all fine. You will definitely be a success and you will definitely be happy if you go to a top university, get a first class honours degree and then enter one of those professions. Preferably in London. Anything else? Why bother wasting your time? Just get yourself in the dole queue where you belong and leave it up to your more successful peers to sort the country out.
The fact that this message is often spewed by educators, who are clearly not raking it in working in the City, would be comedic in itself if it wasn’t so damaging. To sit in a school assembly, at the school I attended and now work at, and to hear that those sorts of actions and results would make you a better person is downright insulting. When I left this school I achieved better grades than the vast majority. I was even awarded 3 completely different prizes in my final year – something that I don’t think had ever happened before. I didn’t apply to Oxbridge because I didn’t want to go – I wanted to be in the North and have a different experience of uni. I went to the University of Manchester, had a blast, didn’t throw my heart and soul into the academics as much as I did the local drag scene and left with a 2:2. I did my PGCE, graduated with Masters credits and have worked at high-achieving independent schools ever since. I have made great achievements with my horse, I have maintained excellent health despite a number of mitigating factors, I have fallen in love and married my husband, I have moved half way across the world, I am having a baby soon….all of these things work together to make me a very happy person. I feel accomplished, like my life so far has been worth something. Or I did, until I started being told that the only way to be successful was to go to Oxbridge. Apparently, returning to the school to educate the current crop of students is a long way from being a success. Why do I find myself sat in these situations at work, as a happy, efficacious adult, being made to feel like a kid who hasn’t bothered to hand in their homework? It’s one step short of being told that my teachers weren’t angry, just disappointed.
It isn’t just teachers, though, who are spreading this message. Parents often have a very limited view on how their children can succeed and the results of this are clear to see. I recently emailed a parent of one of my students, expressing how amazed I was with some work he had done recently and how hard he had worked. The particular child is not very academic but works very hard and has a very low opinion of himself, coming from a family of academic high-fliers. I went on to say he should be extremely proud of himself and hoped it would boost his confidence – that he would succeed in life because of who he is as a person and university isn’t everything. I received no reply. Clearly this is not what the parent wanted to hear. Perhaps if I’d have recommended hours of extra tutoring and spending every weekend between now and June at home studying in order to scrape a couple of semi-decent grades would have been more to their taste, but at what cost to the child?
I am now making it my mission to allow my students to realise that university is not life. University is 3 or 4 years of life – nothing really in comparison to the exciting and fruitful years yet to be lived out. Yes, university and your achievements there could send your life along a different trajectory, but not receiving an offer from somewhere does not have to mean that your life is over from age 18. Kids need to learn to handle rejection, or ‘failure’, if that is what it is sold to them as. They need to know that positives can come from seemingly negative situations and that all they need is a bit of optimism and enthusiasm. Students at that age are still so open to the influences of the world and we should be encouraging them, nurturing every single talent or interest they have and applauding it. It is not up to us to dull their shine with out-dated, damaging rhetoric that they must follow one path or no path at all. As adults, we have a very precious role in this vital stage of a child’s development into a level-headed, positive human being. This role should be held in just as much regard as teaching today’s children to read and write. The world was not built by people with 3 A*s and first class degree. We need to celebrate the wealth of talents each child can bring to the table as equally special and unique individuals.