Do you regret not working harder at school?

Encouraging GCSE students is particularly challenging this year – but does it really matter how hard you work at school, asks Sarah Ledger

Sarah Ledger

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Sometimes I feel that the business of head of Year 11 is to avoid the possibility of regret

Like a pastoral coxswain in an educational boat race, during the run-up to exam season I’m bellowing out advice and encouragement, and steering the unenthusiastic in the right direction. 

It’s at this point in the year that there’s usually a handful of students who have lost any sense of commitment, just at the point when commitment is what counts. What I want for them is to remain on board – I promise, I’ll stop with the nautical metaphors after this one – until they’ve at least had a go and can make informed choices about their future.

It’ll be no surprise to anyone that, this year, the task of student motivation is much more difficult.

A while before the pandemic, a colleague and I strolled down the corridor on the short trip between classroom and staffroom. As we reached a window overlooking the top yard, where a joyous boiling approximation of Association Football was in progress below us, my colleague sighed. “I sometimes think,” she said, “they only come here to play football.” 

She was probably right, but there’s no harm in that. The education that comes with breaktime shenanigans is a delightful bonus. And they’re in school – which is half the battle.  

GCSEs: Necessary for their chosen path?

This year, we don’t even have lunchtime football. Most of our students are working online and, it has to be said, most of them are cracking on. But getting through to my handful of disaffectees is tougher than ever. The offers of support are being made, but a few are simply not biting. 

In previous years, I’ve had the advantage of being able to pop into lessons, have impromptu conversations in the corridor and arrange targeted meetings with students and parents. Sometimes I’ve seen the penny drop; at other times I’ve met with the firm conviction – occasionally backed up by a parent – that GCSEs are unnecessary for their chosen path. 

In one meeting, a student who – and I say this with love – looked as if he’d been whipped up out of pipecleaners, outlined his qualification-free plan to become a cage fighter. Mistaking my expression of amused incredulity as approval, he warmed to his theme and mentioned his side project: an underworld protection racket that may or may not (he hadn’t yet decided) carry out hits for money. 

When I pointed out that the hallmark of a successful assassin was an element of anonymity, his mother (whom he frequently called upon during the day to drop off a Penguin and a bag of mini-cheddars if his school lunch hadn’t been to his liking) burst out laughing, and the student silently placed me at the top of his list of future professional jobs.

Coronavirus: Does anyone really regret not working at school? 

Towards the end of last half term, I found myself flagging. Am I being ridiculous for flogging unwanted expectations? Does anyone really regret not working at school? Would anyone’s life genuinely be different if they’d worked a bit harder and attained better grades? 

I posed the question on my Facebook page and, while I recognise that the small circle of my acquaintances does not constitute scientific data, the responses were interesting.

Most colleagues and friends said no, they didn’t think their life would have been different and they didn’t regret not making the most of their education. A few expressed regrets that they hadn’t learned a language or how to play a musical instrument

I’m in touch with a lot of former students on Facebook, and many replied to say that they may not have taken my advice, but they were really happy with what they were doing in life. Some said that failure had actually made them stronger, and that they had sought out training and qualifications they’d never imagined at school.  

But other replies stuck with me. A few wrote about how valuable it was to have been able to make choices, even if they didn’t make the right choice the first time – that having someone else believe they could do a bit better was a powerful and long-lasting source of motivation. 

That cheered me. After the break, I’m returning to full capacity and resuming the positive advice some kids need. 

They might not take it – after all, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it learn French – or they might remember it years down the line and act upon it then. The important bit is that they’ve heard it.

Sarah Ledger is an English teacher and director of learning for Year 11 at William Howard School in Brampton, Cumbria. She has been teaching for 34 years

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Sarah Ledger

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