The institutionalised sixth former

The education system is built on inherent contradictions and tensions.  There is much debate about the role of education alongside the bitter warfare of whether one adopts a progressive or traditional approach to teaching methods.  It seems as though schools have to walk the tightrope of these tensions and find a path of best fit amongst the push-pull landscape of education.

It also seems clear that schools represent both societies hopes and fears about the next generation. On the one hand, education is seen as the key to social change and aspirant futures whilst, on the other hand, we are a means of transmitting social values and more critically maintaining the status quo.  So much of school life is occupied by these tensions as angry mobs rally around this weeks poster boy or girl.  The contradictions and tensions include debates around:

  • Stability versus Change
  • Care versus Control
  • Intellectual versus Emotional
  • Dependence versus Independence
  • Knowledge versus Skills
  • Inclusion versus Segregation
  • Teaching versus Learning
  • Individual versus Group

This week I have been wondering whether I have got one of these tensions right for my sixth form students.  I am wondering whether we have created students who are too dependent on us?  Whilst I know my teaching strategies will help them to achieve high grades – I wonder whether we have truly done enough to prepare them for life on the outside?  Clearly, we are constantly developing strategies to develop more independent learning approaches but I am more concerned about independent living and independent being.  In the space of a few weeks, these young people will move from having to put their hand up in class to go to the toilet to a world of complete independence, autonomy and free will.  In a couple of months they will have to organise themselves, pay their own bills, and register at the GPs.

Some will take to this like a duck to water and some will flounder for a bit, but like most of us they will learn from their mistakes and grow into their independence.  However, there is a growing minority of whom I wonder whether they have been institutionalised by our education system.  They seem quite stuck.  They find it difficult to think without the worksheet or the writing frame.  The brave new world of university does not fill them with wonder and awe but overwhelms them with dread and fear.  They will need to be brave to cope with this transition.

The advantages of working in a school sixth form are that we are able to provide a great deal of support for students.  Our class sizes are smaller, our pastoral relationships are stronger and we can help the students through every step of their A-levels and UCAS process.  For many, there is the continuation of a paternalistic relationship developed in lower school.  We chase them when they are absent, nag them for homework when it is late and generally worry about their progress.  I am not saying these are bad things, I think they help them stay safe, feel contained and ultimately achieve success.  However, our actions will always have unintended consequences.  At what point does the help become helplessness?  When does support become too suffocating? When does the answer sheet wipe out any original thought?  What can be done to walk the tightrope between independence and institutionalisation?