Maintaining a fine balance

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Being a sixth form tutor can look like a soft option - how could working with mature, motivated students be anything else? The truth, of course, is that it's as demanding as any pastoral role and will engage you in developing a range of new, complex skills.

Your tutor group will have the potential high-flyers, but they will be only part of a mixed bunch. Some will be re-sitting GCSEs and will come to you feeling a bit of a failure. Some will be concentrating on more vocational qualifications, such as business or sports studies, or leisure and tourism.

Others will not be sure of what they're doing and are with you to give them another year to grow up and prepare for the outside world.

Your tutor group may not be as large as you'd find lower down the school, but you can be sure that you will be dealing with a much greater number of sharply differentiated and very specific individual needs.

Your relationships will be different, too - they are volunteers and will walk if they are not happy. Much of your work will be focused on helping them become independent, but they still need structure and support. You need to be comfortable with this balance; your authority will grow from your usefulness to them, rather than from your title.

Harry Dodds


When you first met your group, their hearts and minds were still in Year 11. They should have settled into their new social situation and be coping with their increased freedom, but they will still need your interest and support, as well as coaching in the skills that will help them make best use of their opportunities.

Plan by setting up a "learning agreement", a document that gives details of the student's courses and targets, and outlines your expectations of the student, and the student's expectations of you. Educational maintenance allowance (EMA) students have such an agreement - extend it to all.

At least once each half-term, arrange a formal, focused interview with each student, concentrating on:

* progress in subjects

* worklife balance

* monitoring paid employment. Students think 12 hours a week is right. Most teachers feel six or eight hours is enough

* coursework deadlines, and students being on track

* practical revision schedules

* talking about and offering study skills

* establishing career aspirations and needs - guide them to advisers

* pointing out opportunities - work experience, subject-focused courses and conferences outside school

* finding ways to contribute to the whole school - mentoring younger pupils, joining the school or year council

* keeping records of achievement up to date.


It's easy to spoon-feed A-level students, and some schools do so effectively. It does the student no favours - not knowing how to study on your own, or how to balance your social and academic lives can lead to disaster at university or in the workplace. As a tutor, as a trusted adult, helping students become autonomous individuals and independent learners is your core task. Monitor what your students are doing and make sure that they are offered the skills and resources they need:

* check membership and use of libraries

* suggest websites relevant to their studies

* ask them to log their use of time over a week. They will be shocked to see how much potential study time they have, and how little they use. Build an action plan and:

* make sure you're a good role model - be organised, show that you value learning, and that you're still learning yourself

* give students informal opportunities to use their knowledge - if you know nothing about particle theory get a physics student to explain it to you

* discuss feedback from subject teachers with your students

* show them how to plan for a term's work

* show them how to prioritise tasks

* make sure that they have proper facilities for study at home, as well as at school. Involve parents, if necessary

* find opportunities for praise. Use them.


There's a clear advantage for students in making UCAS applications as early as possible, certainly before the January deadline, and begin the process as early as the April of Year12. Talk to students about their intentions - identify potential leavers, and make sure they understand the implications of leaving after one year. With potential higher education applicants, raise awareness of the processes and timings. Direct them to resources; university leaflets are good, especially if backed up by Brian Heap's "Degree Course Offers", which will keep aspirations realistic.

In June, start the application process proper. Gather information from subject teachers who you'll need to use in references. Display a calendar with deadline dates for applications. Oxbridge applications, and those for medical, dentistry and veterinary schools must be made early, usually by mid-October.

Invite Year 13 and first-year undergraduates to talk to Year 12 about their experience of applying.

Persuade those students who don't think they want to enter HE to go through the UCAS process: they may change their minds.

Ask students to draft personal statements - on a computer, so that changes may be made more easily. Discuss and refine the statements - it will help if you have exemplar materials from previous years (anonymised, of course).

Check the record of achievement is up to date.


You need to help with personal statements and you'll be asked to write references. This doesn't have to be as scary as it may sound. A good statement will:

* be positive - in content and vocabulary

* be specific. Explain what led to the application, accounts of how the interest in the subject arose and developed; experiences that confirmed the choice; details of courses and other activities that offered insights on the subject; a notion of how the qualification will be used

* show how the applicant is positive about school and about learning

* list the achievements and interests that define the applicant as interesting

* be grammatically correct and fluent.

You'll write a better reference if you bear in mind who will read it, and why.

* The admissions tutor may not know your school - give a brief idea of its size and of the courses it offers.

* Be specific about the university-level skills and attitudes your students are already displaying - ability to study independently, qualities of mind, reading beyond the subject specificationI

* Include positive personal qualities.

* Match the students' qualities and abilities to the course they're applying for.

* If writing about an underachiever with potential, give evidence of the ability and explanations of the underachievement.

* Be fair, be honest - good references build your school's credibility.

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