Friday, 31 December 2010

Gap Year or Gap Yah?

We have a very good system in place at our school for guiding students and their parents through the tricky process of applying to university.  Last year, all bar five of the 120 students who applied via UCAS were successful in securing places with an additional 30 students electing to take a gap year.  I suspect we will see an increasing number of students making a first application while in the Upper Sixth but with a game plan of putting in a more focussed bid the year after they have left.  Certainly they offer a great deal to universities with an extra year's maturity and known A Level results especially where their Gap Year engages with opportunities to strengthen their application.

The best Gap Years are those with an opportunity to gain careers experience, academic breadth and the opportunity to take on independence and autonomy.  If that includes an element of service either in the UK or overseas so much the better.  Twenty years ago, my Gap Year led me to spend six months farming in the Falkland Islands, a job as a lambing shepherd in Sussex and two months exploring Europe through an Inter-Rail ticket.  I was still seventeen when I left school and it was an incredibly valuable opportunity to 'grow up' away from school and home and left me much better equipped for life at university and beyond.

Gap Years have always been a little divisive with some seeing them as glorified holidays for public school layabouts.  For a very amusing take on the Gap Yah rather than the Gap Year have a look at this video from YouTube.

Grade inflation increases the pressure

Imperial College, London have made what is being described as the toughest ever offer for a place at university.  A student at Magdalen College School, Oxford has been offered a place to read Mathematics conditional on him attaining two A*s and three As at A Level.  Tim Hands, his Headmaster, made the wry comment that it wasn't the best present Santa could have popped down the chimney although he backs him to make the offer next summer.

I was discussing university entrance over lunch with some of my Upper Sixth last term and talk turned to the changing face of university applications and offers.  This year is expected to be the toughest ever in which to be applying to university with funding being cut, places reduced, some degree courses being scrapped and more students than ever applying to try and beat the introduction of new tuition fees in 2012. In 2009 139,000 students missed out on university places (22% of all applicants).  2010 saw a sharp rise with 188,000 failing to get into university (27% of all applicants) and 2011 will once again see many disappointed applicants.  See this link to the BBC for more details.

Each August the press is full of stories about grade inflation (hence the need to introduce the A* at A Level from last summer).  What is often overlooked is that grade inflation, far from making life easier for today's students, has also had the effect of dramatically increasing pressure on them.  While the grades may be easier to attain, with so many students attaining the top grades there is no margin for error.  A good set of grades can be met more with relief than elation and that is scant reward for the hard work which has led to them.

Our students remain confident and early indications are that they are doing well at securing offers but many of those offers will be extremely challenging and they will need to have sensible insurance offers in place as it becomes increasingly unlikely that universities will honour an offer where it is missed even by one grade.  Increasingly universities are making offers above the tariff published on their web sites and this has led some to make applications in good faith which turn out to be wasted.  Immoral?  Yes and UCAS say it shouldn't be happening but it is and has been the topic of much discussion and annoyance amongst HMC and GSA schools.  Most of our students do a great job of taking it all in their stride but morale is an important component in the process and we should appreciate the pressures on them which didn't exist a few years back.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Dress to impress at school and UBS

The Swiss Bank, UBS, hit the headlines recently when their dress code was leaked. Running to over 40 pages it lays down a comprehensive list of rules to which their employees are expected to adhere and this made me think about our uniform policy at school. Sixth Form students wear a blue suit which they can choose themselves as long as it falls within reasonable parameters of shade, cut and, in the case of the girls, skirt length. It seems to pass the common sense test and looks smart although there will always be those who seek to stretch the boundaries. Our uniform policy is based on what would be acceptable in a professional business environment and I was interested to read a number of articles agreeing that projecting the right image is a key to confidence and success.

There is much in the UBS document that will be familiar from school uniform lists but the areas which have caused most discussion and derision seem to be where the bank has been highly prescriptive such as the most appropriate length of toenails or not putting bulky wallets into the pockets of suit jackets. Certainly it's good for students to realise that looking the part is important but you have to wonder if UBS will need to draw on the expertise of schools in mediating between their desire for conformity and the natural human zest for individuality. Working out how to fit in while retaining a sense of yourself is a great thing to learn in life and it looks as though getting the dress code right remains another part of the 'hidden curriculum' in school.