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A wing and a prayer

Ted Hughes grimly described November as the "month of the drowned dog"; in secondary schools it is the month we drown in students' university applications. Wherever you are - in the classroom or buying wine in Tesco - you're likely to be accosted by anxious Year 13 students begging you to read their personal statements and make their career dreams come true. Unfortunately, since our senior leadership team has also picked this month to complete a school-wide scrutiny of our key stage 3 marking, this leaves teachers with an uncomfortable but horribly familiar dichotomy: prioritise marking and protect your professional standing, or do what is best for the kids.

The good news is that since my professional standing is lying recumbent in an armchair, farting and flicking the remote control, I am happy to spend my time on sixth-form applications. In theory, the Ucas process should be streamlined and simple: kid picks degree course, kid writes personal statement, kid gives it to subject teacher who adds semicolons. But the reality is shockingly different. For starters, the kids need help choosing their degrees. Left to their own devices, they are overly influenced by tales of student nightlife, the cost of beer and the availability of en-suite rooms. They have no idea of the real stakes involved; to them all degrees are equal. But with a hefty #163;27,000 price tag attached to their choice, they need a teacher to kick its tyres to check that it's a good investment.

Our job is to steer them clear of those degrees that have a limited shelf life. Print journalism is one such dodo degree. It has "best before the internet" stamped all over it, and is now as relevant to the world of media as a periwig is to men's hairdressing. Other dubious options are the vajazzled courses in marketing, events management and business-ette studies, which offer the same career prospects as a sales job in Comet.

Then there is the tricky issue of the personal statements themselves. Left to their own devices, students produce rambling, disjointed affairs that begin by revealing that their "overwhelming passion to study chemistry" was hatched at conception, before spending the rest of the essay talking about how much they love playing football. Then they print off enough copies to mail-drop Greater Manchester, giving a copy to every teacher they suspect can spell.

Finally, they pull together all their teachers' comments and email one last all-singing, all-dancing statement containing the "Best Of" everyone's advice. Unsurprisingly, no one likes this version. Louis Walsh from chemistry blames English for too many metaphors; Simon Cowell from maths derides it for having no intellectual rigour. Sharon the head of sixth form axes it for using too many cliches. And the poor student is sent slithering down the applications snake back to square one.

Often they come to me for help and I never stint on giving them time. My own degree supplied me with a Get Out Of My Council Estate Free card, and now that the kids have to pay for theirs, they deserve an even greater escape. The odds are high but not insurmountable. It's a bit like that scene at the end of Skyfall where Bond and two pensioners from Downton Abbey are being attacked by an army of human vermin armed with incendiary grenades, Uzis and assault rifles. Sometimes, a fearsome English old lady and an escape tunnel are really all you need.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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