During my first week at my frontline placement in Elephant and Castle, I was sat in an AS Level Philosophy lesson. I was enjoying pretending that I was back in Sixth Form myself, indulging in rose-tinted memories of two years of fun with a modicum of study thrown in for good measure.
But after a while the reality of the students’ lives struck me: ‘shit, this is hard!’ These kids have so much to keep in their heads, from the intricacies of Philosophy, Maths, English and Chemistry to essay-writing skills, revision timetables and exam techniques. Simultaneously they are all, I’m sure, navigating the dramas of teenage life and trying to decide what they want to do beyond their A Levels. They are also, I know, generally dealing with much more difficult situations at home than I’ve ever had to face. I’m placed in a school where English is not the first language of over a third of students and nearly half are eligible for free school meals because their parents don’t earn enough to provide them with lunch.
A lot is expected from these 16 and 17 year olds – and I can’t decide what I think about it.
On the one hand, I do think that it is great to push these kids. I think they need to be encouraged to aim high, to discover where they want to go, and to take responsibility for getting there. But we also need to be careful with these young people. We need to make sure they know that while, yes, attainment is important, ultimately they are so much more important. Each student should be valued as a person, not just as a set of grades. They need to know that if they fail these exams the world will not end. They won’t be any less of a person and their lives won’t be ruined forever. They will just have to try again, and that’s OK.
On the Friday of my first week, a student came and asked me for help with a university application. This may seem like a bit of a non-event: I work in a school and a student asked for help, no biggie. But for me it was a biggie, and it took all of my self-control to play it cool and not let the student know I was absolutely thrilled that she thought I could be of any use to her. At the end of a week that left me feeling overwhelmed and useless, unsure of what my place was in the school and how I might be able to make any sort of difference to a hugely complex problem, this small unintentional vote of confidence made my week.
As well as focussing on the big issues facing the country, I also get to do the little things that make a difference while I’m on Year Here. I don’t always have to be focused on how to combat educational inequality, what original insight I might have or what innovation I want to implement. Sometimes I can just focus on making one person’s day a bit better– and that’s a wonderful thing to be able to do.
The other day I was chatting with a student about my role in the Sixth Form, and they asked how long I was around for. Having heard my answer they replied, ‘Oh, so you’re here for four months, then you go and we never see you again?’
My internal monologue ran something like:
Having given this more thought I’ve decided that my participation in Year Here is not just vanity. I hope the experience I’m going through on placement and the things I’m learning on the course will help me to tackle root issues. And along the way I can still do my best to help people who have to deal with the problems that systemic educational disadvantage throws up in schools across the country every single day.
And also, I’m glad of my inner critic. It’s important to consider the possibility that you’re being a twat. I’m pretty sure the 6th formers will keep me doing this for the next 4 months. They have my reluctant gratitude for that.