A few years back, a colleague of mine found that a group of students were having trouble making the transition to life in the sixth form. They were messing about in class and handing in assignments late, and, after another unproductive lesson, he ended up shouting at them all in frustration: “You're not Year 12 students, you’re just Year 11s wearing your own clothes!”
I’m reminded of his outburst at this time of the year as all over the country students receive their GCSE results, and prepare to make the jump to post-16 education and life beyond uniforms, detentions and lunch queues. Education after the age of 16 carries with it new privileges, but as Spiderman said, "With great privilege comes great responsibility," and it’s here where problems can lie.
Background: Five things not to say on GCSE results day
Transition: Free lessons
Take the free lesson, for example – a truly wonderous thing after a lifetime of having to show up to class every hour of the school day. The free lesson signals the move into the adult world, and some students will dash to the library, keen to knuckle down to work and demonstrate that they’re worthy of their new freedom. Others, however, will need regular reminding that the idea is to spend at least some of this down time working, and not just lounging around in the common room seeing how many cups of coffee they can drink in an hour.
The lack of uniform
For most, a life free of GCSEs is also freedom from school uniform. We need to remember how incredibly important this is – at 16, clothes define your entire being. I remember agonising for weeks during the summer before I started at sixth-form college about what I was going to wear on my first day (artfully ripped Levi’s and a Siouxsie and the Banshees T-shirt). For the majority of students, thinking about what to wear will take up far more of their time than is helpful and certainly more than they’ll be spending on reading lists or preparatory work for their course. Let them have their fun because, thankfully, this dies down after a few days when they realise that they’re all dressed identically anyway.
Probably the biggest challenge for students entering post-16 education is that we dramatically change the whole notion of how education works. Gone are the days of ramming knowledge down their throats, asking them to remember it, and then testing them on it repeatedly until their eyes bleed. All of a sudden we tell the students that they’ve got to become “independent learners”. They’re expected to take notes from textbooks or from teachers lecturing them and, in what will be a serious shock to some of them, to actually read things.
Some schools begin the year with a few study skills lessons, but it’s rarely sufficient. The skills involved are complex, and require time to master. A lesson or two isn’t long enough to get to grips with them. A full week at least would be better, with the opportunity to revisit and check that they’re getting the hang of it at least once a half term for the first year. A corollary of this problem is the greater value placed on doing your own research and giving presentations to the class. There’s often considerable unlearning to be done in this regard: I usually have to spend the first term weaning them off the axis of evil that is Wikipedia combined with PowerPoint.
Working with, not against, teachers
Not all students have a problem adjusting to the new regime, of course. This partly divides along gender lines, girls tending to mature at an earlier age than boys. Although you’ll certainly find mature, hardworking boys and girls who just want to piss about. The biggest issues come with the kids whose experience of school up to this point is one that pitches teachers against pupils. Suddenly being told that school can be a collaborative process can be a bit disconcerting. When you throw in the notion that not doing the work may no longer result in any immediate sanction, just a warning that they may fall behind, it can spell trouble – “You mean, if I don't do the work... you won't actually do anything?”
The big problem is that by the time the new intake have realised they needed to be a totally different kind of student, it’s halfway through the year and they’ve already fallen behind. Let’s all try and hit the ground running, and as the fresh faces bound into classrooms across the land, let’s get the key messages across loud and clear: your learning is your responsibly, copy and paste doesn’t count as a research method, and the clapping sound effect on PowerPoint is never OK now you’re a grown-up.
Callum Jacobs is a supply teacher in the UK