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Friday's child

Cassandra Hilland on . . . what it's like to be a late developer.

Our brains, like our bodies, mature at different rates. Some of us take longer than others to master a subject. For example, Joe's academic performance at school was consistent, but unremarkable. While his peers were getting GCSE A*s and walking off with school prizes, he struggled. His reports were encouraging, testifying to his "potential". But they also said he had "room for improvement".

So, school passed in a bit of a blur for our Joe. He left with a clutch of D and C grades. Sadly, his English grade wasn't so good. To Joe, and many others like him at that age, English could just as well have been Chinese. Why, he argued, spend loads of words explaining something when a couple would do? And there were all those funny words to remember, like "alliteration" and "onomatopoeia". And as for Shakespeare - well what was that all about?

This is where college can help students like Joe. They come to make a fresh start, to repeat their GCSEs in an adult environment where nobody will pre-judge them. You see them in their first week, looking a bit defeated, knowing their mates are there to start exciting A-levels while they are there to "repeat". "It's not as if we didn't try," they tell you. "The coursework was fine. It was the exam that did it." If they're not careful, they can become preoccupied with past mistakes rather than future potential.

Joe's teachers face an onerous task. Before they can start covering an intensive "mature" GCSE in 30 weeks rather than two years, they face the tougher job of persuading Joe that No, he's not hopeless and that Yes, he can get his GCSEs. He may act up a little in class, to mask his insecurity. He's scared of facing up to his demons. He knows he has a lot of catching up to do.

With Joe, it turned out that confidence was the key to catching up. He benefited a great deal from the smaller class sizes. Now he can ask those questions about the tricky bits he'd never understood before. He finds it "loads easier" to talk in front of 12 people than 29. He's learning how to push himself, how to direct his study. The student who never shone at school is now on fire.

Another student, Rosie, struggled with writing. Spelling had let her down in the past. She couldn't "get it over right". After a lot of workshops and practice activities, the penny dropped. Only when she'd faced her main obstacle could she work her way around it. She always knew what to say. It was just that "now everyone else can see what I mean as well". She learned how to articulate her ideas clearly.

Phil, another repeater, needed to contribute more. Always a quiet boy, he could finally relax more in the smaller, friendlier group. As he pointed out, his new classmates didn't make him feel bad or stupid when he gave a good, well prepared speech. He learned how to enjoy communicating - and he had a lot of great stuff to say.

Of course, some of them don't manage to pass GCSE second time - again, for many reasons. But most of them do. And that's a massive achievement for such mixed-ability students in such a short time.

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