Author

Peter Hogan

Ten tips for getting into the best university

Helping to get a daughter or son into the right university should be looked at as a campaign; a series of stages over the last two years in school with a single goal in mind. Year One is the step up from IGCSE and the major goals are excellent marks and the development of a broad and unique CV. It is also a time to make important decisions with school about Higher Education plans so don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Year Two is all about hard work, maximising exam grades and hitting all the targets set. A vital part of the campaign is leaning about the organisations that manage the university admissions process around the world. No one should rely just on the school, other children, those well meaning friends or even parents hoping they know enough based on their own experience. It is abou setting objectives, gathering information, collating facts and making positive but realistic plans. The admissions process is ever changing and always presents new opportunities and challenges.

It is not like it was. Change is everywhere in Higher Education and different institutions offer different things. Also a degree does not necessarily mean a job anymore. Ten per cent of university leavers remained unemployed after graduation and on average nearly 70 graduates are vying for every job. Having said that the vast majority are still getting jobs and graduates earn more than non-graduate in almost every instance. The difference in gross hourly earnings between graduates and those educated to A level or equivalent remained high at 47% and the average lifetime earnings of a graduate is millions of Baht more than those of a non- graduate with two A levels. Getting the best degree from the best university are very important steps to employment and greater security.

Getting to the right university remains a complex matter and there is greater global competition, made even more opaque with the challenges of Covid-19. Universities struggle to find ways to choose candidates and there is a cold hard fact to keep in view: it is getting harder to get in to good universities. Applicants need higher grades and the process is more complicated. In the last 5 years the number of universities requiring students to achieve top grades in their A levels has tripled. A typical Russell Group university in the UK or Ivy League one in the USA may have 1,500 applicants for just 50 places on a course. When you are looking at universities and working out which ones are good, better than others and so on, it isn’t always as simple as it looks. Everyone knows the names of the very top ones but bear in mind that the star rating and league table position of the university is based on the quality of their research, not the undergraduate degrees. A typical undergraduate will have little or no contact with the research side of university as part of their first degree. This means there is a disconnect (in some cases) between the reputation as defined by the league table and the student experience as felt by the undergraduate. In addition to the headline grabbing league table positions there are other useful measures of university performance. These can include student satisfaction and graduate employability. Both of which may feel more pertinent to a youngster aged between 18 and 21 than they quality of research undertaken by MA, Ph.D., postdoctoral students and full time academic staff.

Image of engineering objects on workplace top view.Construction concept. Engineering tools.Vintage tone retro filter effect,soft focus(selective focus)

Ten takeaways


• Everyone benefits from positive but realistic career advice.
• Ambitious, organised and focussed pupils do better in their applications.
• Results are objective, predictions are subjective. Don’t hang everything on estimates.
• Universities want facts; every grade counts.
• The workload in the last two years at school is considerable and the jump from GCSE greater than some anticipate.
• Independent learning is essential for higher grades. Students cannot be spoon fed high grades.
• The CV needs to be active and meaningful. It cannot be done last minute. It also needs to be loaded with the right elements.
• Schools can help in all aspects of Higher Education preparation.
• The social life has to fit around the work, not the other way around.
• Personal statements matter – if there is an interview this is the only chance to shine.

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How can anyone who loves their children even think about sending them to boarding school?” asked the friend of a friend at a dinner party. This was a farewell party, a week before I was to take on the headship of a UK boarding school. Perhaps the comments were understandable given her lack of knowledge and experience of such places. However, looking back now, having run boarding schools for 20 years I can attest that love is not something in short supply in residential education. 

Boarding began in earnest in Victorian Britain, mainly as a means of helping the disadvantaged and the needy. 1855 saw the opening of the Manchester Warehousemen and Clerks’ Orphan Schools providing education and a home, of sorts, for children of local workers whose deaths had left their families in need. Six lost and lonely children were their first boarders and the new school took as its motto the little known Latin phrase “in loco parentis” meaning in the place of the parents. This paved the way to a law in 1870 making it a legal requirement that teachers act as would a reasonable and caring parent. The school may have changed its name to Cheadle Hulme School and now educates 1,500 boys and girls but the motto remains the same and this commitment to children runs like a seam through all good schools everywhere. 

Prior to headship I worked at a school in Nottingham that had a long and close relationship with Thai families. Among many Thais who boarded there were Prime Minsters Mom Rajawongse Seni Pramoj and Mom Rajawongse Kukrit Pramoj. In those early days a boarder may not return to Asia for years, instead remaining with their Housemasters in the holidays, living as part of their family. The men and women looking after Thailand’s future leaders carried a responsibility far greater than making sure they passed exams. Then as now, it’s all about care, guidance, support and… love!

Teachers who look after boarders do so much more than teach subjects. They build excellent relationship with parents, getting to know the strengths, weaknesses, problems and circumstances of every child. They become counsellors, mediators, disciplinarians, comforters, helpers, supporters, planners and companions for every child every day and night of every busy term. Nobody can do this and just see it as a regular job. 

  

In my experience, families who don’t send their children to boarding school sometime have a distorted view of why people do it and what it’s like. This isn’t helped by the naïve and inaccurate media view of boarding, so maybe it’s time to untangle a few “nots”:

What it’s not

It is not Hogwarts although the camaraderie among the children, the shared enthusiasm for sports, the sense of community in dining together and the high points of parties and visits are all real enough.

It is not a fantasy of top hats, toffs and tail coats. The lazy media stereotypes of a few posh boys in fancy clothes posing on the steps of grand old building exist today only in the picture libraries of some media outlets.

It is not a world of cowering, enfeebled youngster and bullying, entitled older students getting away with horrible behaviour while the school is at the mercy of their wealthy parents.

Children are at boarding school for one core reason (explained later) but with a variety of purposes.

Why it is needed

Families are on the move. Business, diplomatic, service and other highly mobile parents do not want to be transferring their children from school to school, country to country as their contracts, commitments or tours change. This can be traumatising for you people who will struggle to make and remake friendships and deal with different teachers, school environments and subjects. Boarding gives stability. 

Families need a place of safety. When we look as the lives of the famous and wealthy with their lovely houses, glamorous lives, celebrity events and international routines spare a though for their kids. Typically, grownups choose the lives they lead but their children have little or no say in the matter. They do not want to do their growing up in the glare of the public and the scrutiny of the media. We can all be challenging, different, experimental and temperamental when we are young and should be allowed to do our growing up in private. When a school community is familiar with these challenges and its community can keep school matters inside the school, keeping everyone safe and secure, a child can relax and grow up in a stable and supportive community. Kids can be themselves, not just the offspring of somebody rich and/or famous.

Families need help. The world is increasingly open and accepting of the fact that we can’t all do everything and that keeping a stiff upper lip or burying our feelings is good for nobody. It is not good for us and not good for our families. Admitting that our parenting skills might not be our strength and that we need help may be very difficult but sometimes being open to this can be the very best thing for parents and child alike.

Families are remote. Farmers, island workers and many others live and work in environments where there is a lot to do but other children can be few and far between. If ever you get away from it all and enjoy a few weeks of isolation or drive past the rolling fields in agricultural areas, think about how lonely this can be for a youngster who is there all the time. Many people are needed to keep remote resorts working and every farmstead is a home miles from any other. It is seldom healthy for children to grow up away from others their own age and a local school may not be an option. 

Families see it as the best type of schooling. Many boarders are from families where parents or grandparents boarded or the have close friends or family with boarding in their family. Families who have very happy memories of boarding life want their children to have the same experience. There is hard data to show the value added in terms of improved results for many who study as boarders with fewer distractions, more personal attention and closer supervision.

Families are given a special opportunity. Although boarding schools charge fees, many are eager to offer free or discounted places to children with academic, sporting, musical or other potential. These scholarships can be as much as 100% off fees and can provide some talented children with opportunities that simply do not exist near to where their families live or are affordable for their parents.  

At the core of all of these issues is one simple thing. Parents love their children and want to do the best for them. Their circumstances, location, lifestyle and earnings may be wildly different but this doesn’t mean they don’t feel the same way about their kids. A family who chooses a boarding school does not love their children any less or any more than somebody who see their child every day.    

In my office a few years ago sat the ambassador to one of the UK’s larger, more important neighbours. We were talking about his son, who I will re-name Patrick in this article and his Dad had was seeing me for some advice. Running schools means you see a lot of family unhappiness and unfortunately, you tend to gain some expertise in teenage trauma, tantrums and torpor. Patrick’s family situation was not so unusual but this is no comfort to anyone in the heat of the arguments, harsh words, door slamming and the other high octane drama that some parents and kids go through. Patrick was pushing all the boundaries – big enough and smart enough to challenge his Dad and hurt his Mum but not so wise as to know what he was really doing or why. His recent school reports were awful, his grades had fallen off a cliff and he was just as disengaged at home. His parents were busy and knew they were not giving him the time he needed although Patrick seemed to want to spend as little time as possible with them.

Between us we decided to split the parenting. In term time we took over and made sure Patrick was up every day and that the work got done. We fed him, looked after him, gave him plenty of ways to get fit as well as express himself, make friendships and keep in touch with family and old friends. When Patrick went home it was for proper family holidays. His Dad was no longer the taskmaster, instead he took him fishing and to football matches. His parents had plenty to deal with as we all do as parents but at least they could focus on the positives and work with the school to navigate the difficulties. I only met Patrick’s Dad one more time – four years later when he sat in the audience watching his son graduate and address the whole school in his role as Head Boy. Patrick has become one of my most reliable, role model students, one who could speak form the heart when younger boys were causing difficulty and one who I know had a loving and firm relationships with his parents. 

Patrick’s is just one of the many happy ending stories I could tell about the transformational aspect of a boarding education. Loving a child and allowing them to board are not opposites, for many they are two parts of a greater whole, developing the young person and extending the family.   

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Schools are open in Thailand so everyone can breath a sigh of relief. Parents have stopped being unpaid substitute teachers, academic staff are no longer staring into screens and children can learn with their friends once more. But maybe this is more than a time for wanting everything to go back to the ways they were. This could just be the best of times to ask where schools should be going next. Lockdowns around the world have shown us that the imaginative and the resourceful thrive even in the face of adversity. Schools have taken a step forward by embracing the existing technology and shaping it to fit needs in an emergency. Now that the worst may be over schools should not stop or go backwards, they should be looking to the future.

     

Imagine going to sleep in 1995 and waking up in early in 2020. You might wonder why nobody was wearing baggy tops, what happened to grunge music or what fresh-faced teenager Leonardo di Caprio was doing these days. You may have read about a new idea called e-banking and wondered if banks had changed much while you were away. How you would react when you found you could do all your banking, your shopping and even run your business from a tiny pocket sized computer?

Banking is unrecognisiable from the 1990s as are so many of our industries and sectors. Banks have hardly any branches and the new ones have none at all. The world’s biggest taxi company owns no cars, the most popular media company creates no content, the world’s most valuable retailer carries no stock, the biggest accommodation provider owns no property and the owner of the largest selection of movies has no cinemas. In fact, banks don’t even hold a monopoly over regulating money now that cryptocurrencies, can be used without banks being involved at all. 

So, dazed and confused by so much change, you might marvel at the crazy new world you had woken into. But if you visit a school it will look so familiar and hardly changed at all. Of course there is much more hardware and software and a greater focus on equality but these are not big changes compared to those outside the classroom. In fact the actual system of education doesn’t look very different today than it did way back in the 1950s. Students move along in same age groups, fixed by blocks of time all trying to learn the same material in the same way at the same pace. Most will write in the same kind of exercise books and sit the same kind of exams in rooms and in rows that have hardly moved on at all. It is an industrial factory style model, sorting by testing and grading, filtering out more and more the older the students become. This seemed to work half a century ago when there were career ladders in trades and apprenticeships that provided meaningful alternatives for those who did not make it to the top of the school pile. Now despite the fact that many of these routes have gone much of the actual education, supposed to be there to help young people, remains the same.

When Covid-19 forced millions to stay at home for work or study we all looked to tech for the answers. Thailand is ahead of many countries in getting children back into schools but few would claim with any confidence that this pandemic is over anywhere in the world. Once airports open up fully and there are more international visitors Thailand’s school may have to close again. Who can tell? Rather than wringing our hands and wishing things were different, this is the best time to rethink what a school should look like and how it should operate. This can be the dawn of the new era for schools and the time for technology to be embraced in a profound, forward thinking way.     

The world’s big tech companies are already looking at this and investing heavily. They see a business opportunity as well as the chance to truly empower learning. The most advanced model has been developed by Microsoft and can be seen in its Showcase Schools, a new and growing initiative aimed at moving schools into the realm of high-tech, high-spec teaching and learning. If you ask as typical school if they have heard of Getting Smart, Gensler, Education Changemakers, Steelcase or Fielding Nair International they are unlikely to be familiar with them. Yet these are Microsoft’s collaborators in a radical rethink of what the classroom and the whole school could look like in the years ahead. They are pioneering new ideas, new approaches and new technology. Microsoft wants to offer an effective guide for education leaders to navigate the complexity of transforming schools. This is a holistic and systemic approach grounded in research from policy makers and academics around the world. It is about so much more than hardware.

Paper cut of children play

So what might it look like? Imagine if every lesson in the school involved the integration of technology in to teaching not just a blackboard replaced by a whiteboard, video lessons on YouTube, online quizzes and Zoom but each child linked to all of their teachers through seamless online resources. Children have tablets instead of books and a digital pen/pencil. There are still lessons, classes, test and teachers but work can be exchanged, ideas shared and comments made digitally in real time. Students don’t all have to be in the same place or the same age but can collaborate and communicate either online or in person – whatever works. All books, notes, videos, links and resources are available all the time and students are doers not watchers, engaged not just looking. Everyone reads, writes, draws, annotates, watches and records. Teachers are not replaced; they are integrated into a wider, richer experience. The choice is not whether we use the teacher or the computer, because the answer is to both – all the time. If the class are together the lessons are great and if the class has to stay at home then they can carry on without interruption. A student’s work is their own and private but their learning world is open and safe.

This is not an educational utopia – it is happening at the moment in some schools round the world. Schools that have applied and been assessed before joining a new elite of schools that are forging ahead.

What makes them so different?

  • The whole school community is committed to the future of digital transformation in education. 
  • All staff are trained and committed to working with cutting edge educational technology.
  • Students and parents get on board and work with the school.  
  • The school invests in the necessary technology and licenses to get the job done. 
  • Schools lead and share innovation in education transformation in their local community and around the globe.
  • Less hierarchical and traditional, more collaborative and open to change. 
  • The school staff are one team all working to the same end.

Banking moved from filling out forms and monthly statements to real time, online, fast moving payments and receipts. With this came a modern approach, new entrants to the market and bold, new thinking. Older banks fell away, staff stuck in the old ways struggled and those committed to the future thrived and grew. If the past is any guide to the future of progress it is unlikely that the green shoots of change will grow in government department anywhere in the world. The answer might not be in the hands of Microsoft or another big business, it may emerge somewhere smaller, somewhere unexpected and different. This is the model of change we see everywhere from Alibaba to Uber in every country. 

Schools are not under threat and machines will never replace teachers but schools must adapt. The factory style industrial model of how we run society is collapsing in many sectors and it is about time the status quo is questioned and replaced in all our schools. There will probably be some resistance and a few false starts but we owe it to this and future generations of children to make sure learning is future proof and can never be interrupted again.  

 

Peter Hogan has been the Head of schools in the UK and Asia for 20 years. He writes about schools, teaching and learning at hogan.education

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by Peter Hogan

The pandemic of 2020 meant that an alternative to GCSE and IGCSEs had to be found. Young people survived and were none the worse. Maybe this is the best time to stop, think and find an alternative to these outmoded assessments. 

 

Sitting examinations at 16 is tough. Whilst most other parts of the life of the 16 year old are in state of flux or confusion, British society determines that this is the best time to decide how clever you are.

Impulsive, moody, lacking good judgment, anxious and at times downright dangerous, teenagers can often be hard to handle. Research abounds about the issues associated with the risk-taking, teenage brain and even if we don’t read the research anyone the other side of 17 will know at least some of the problems by cast back their minds to their behaviour and that of their friends. Normally these will settle down as we get older but at 16 we tend to be in the thick of all sorts of changes. 

 

Some of this is biological. Cognitive processes including planning and reasoning become the responsibility of the prefrontal cortex as we leave our teens but they can still be the business of our more primitive subcortical and limbic structures. In essence as teenagers were are just not able to see ourselves objectively and in the way others see us. We cannot always think abstractly outside of ourselves and we are not always aware of the consequence of our actions. So why choose this time to do do potentially life changing exams?

 

Every May and June, all the 16 year old pupils across the UK and in thousands of international schools sit the same or similar exams on the same days and then they wait until the end of August for the results. Over the years the grading have changed many times and will probably change again. There will be comments on standards, on how many top grades there should be, on whether they are easier or harder; experts will give opinions about what it all means for industry, for Britain, for schools but every year one question will remain unanswered. What is the purpose of GCSEs? 

 

16 isn’t a time in life where society decided to make big decisions about any other aspect of a relatively young life but we make it the first big sort out of academic ability. Not everyone is ready to do them and many do very badly even if they would have shone a few years later. Times have changed but this old fashioned weigh station has not. Now all 16 year olds stay in school or some other form of education for another two years after these tests. We no longer need this the great academic Sorting Hat that replaced O Levels in the 1980s. 

 

When we learn to drive we do an exam. One exam when were are ready to be classed as able (or not able) to drive. If we fail it we can do it again. We do not do one driving test when we have done some of the lessons, then another one later on. If we are to drop a subject at 16 then an exam is a must. However if a pupil is to study subjects at A Level or Scottish Higher they still have to do exams at 16, then exams again in the same subjects about 20 months later. It seems wrong. We should do exams like we do other important tests – when we have finished studying the subject and are moving on. 

 

With change forced upon us in the pandemic maybe the education system should move on too with more learning and less testing. 

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Inspiration helps children to think of new opportunities, propel them from apathy to possibility and change the way they see their own potential.

It would be wrong to say that I hated my piano lessons. At the age of 14 I cared so little that I didn’t put in the energy to hate them. My parents had told me that learning the piano would be good for me, whatever that meant. It certainly wasn’t true by any definition that I believed of good things as a confused and needy teenage boy. I went to the lessons, played the scales and arpeggios, prepared for the exams, scraped passes and had more classes. Certificates and old music piled up in the piano stool and on it went. It seemed to make my parents happy and as my brother and sisters were all older and had passed more exams than me these family pull and push factors kept me going. But it didn’t make me like it. I attended the lessons religiously and with the same sacred fervour one sees in an infant being dragged screaming into church. Things were made even worse by the fact that I had piano lessons after school, after sport and the cold, dark evenings were the worst of all. I would go to my piano teacher’s house with bruises and cut knuckles after two hours of hockey training with an attitude not at all in harmony with the nuances of music and the intricacies of keyboard techniques.

One evening, sucking my knuckles to staunch the bloody grazes and warming my fingers I was in a foul mood. Throwing my sports bag in the corner of the room I sat slumped in front of the piano dreading the arrival of my teacher. I was cold, the house was cold and I hadn’t practiced all week so I was in for a scolding. I would stumble over the keys, she would write in my notebook in capitals if I had played badly and there were always a lot of capitals. It would be really bad but at least it would all be over in 45 minutes. When the door creaked open I was disturbed to see not her but an elderly white haired man creep around the door. His wife, my teacher, was ill and he was going to take the lesson. He told me this in the shaky, high tones of a man who I assumed, summoning all the experience of my 14 years, to be well over 100. Could things get any worse? If she was ill I had banked on the lesson being cancelled but now I was going to have to perform to a stranger. I had no idea how he would react to my terrible playing. 

This little old man sat next to me, asked me to play my exam pieces and I lurched along bar after bar, page after page until both hands reached the end at not exactly the same time. I stared at the keys, at the music, at the wall, anywhere but at him. There was a long pause. I am sure he was looking at the back of my head. I don’t enjoy it and I was sure he was not having a good time either. What were we both doing there? When would it end?

“What else are you learning to play at the moment?” he asked, after what felt like an eternity of discomfort and silent embarrassment. What else? I thought. Why would I be playing anything else? I played what I was told to play, I didn’t practice enough, I took a verbal mauling every so often for my troubles, I sat exams and the cycle continued. How could there be anything else? I didn’t know how to answer and so sat in silence. He helped me out by asking, “Sorry, I mean what are you playing for fun?” I was completely stumped. I mumbled an answer about being busy, about not being sure what else to play and hoped that we would move on. Surely it was time to go. It wasn’t. He didn’t move on. He just said something else. 

“I won’t charge you for this lesson. Instead I want you to use the money to buy some music that you like. Learn to play it. Just for fun. Not for me, do it for you.” 

That weekend I went out and did as I was told. I was stunned by this simple idea and his kind approach. He focussed on me enjoying myself, not the music or the lessons. I bought the book of sheet music for Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, by Elton John. I had the album and loved it, my male friends loved it and the few girls I knew seemed to love it too. Amazingly the songs weren’t as hard to play as I thought and I realised that all the boring practice, all the scales, chords, arpeggios and the discipline of timekeeping were pretty useful. I learned to play it all, just for fun, just for me and later with friends. It started a love affair with the piano that has lasted the rest of my life. It led to me buying shelf-fulls of music as well as a few pianos and practicing long after the lessons stopped. In truth, I am still not a very good but I made a living as a pianist for a while and I don’t think I could live in a house that didn’t have a piano in it. It’s a thing I do to relax, to test myself, to shake off the challenges of the day, to entertain my friends and I just love the sound it makes. 

I never saw the old man again. I never thanked him. I never knew he was a successful composer and a close friend of the legendary Sir Yehudi Menuhin. I never read the loving, respectful and lengthy obituary in The Daily Telegraph when it appeared. I learned he died a few years after our encounter and he was nowhere near 100. If I hadn’t spent time in the company of the husband of my sick piano teacher I’m sure I would have given up playing. I would have been one of those people who used to play but gave up, wistfully thinking they should have stuck at it. He made all the difference where and when I never expected it. He inspired me.

Inspiration is a rare and precious commodity, especially valuable when bestowed upon the young.  In schools we can become all too obsessed with measuring ability through exams and tests and can overlook the role of inspiration. In fact, instead of ignoring it we should recognise that inspiration can be the vital spark that ignites amazing changes and opens up new possibilities.  Inspiration helps children to think of new opportunities; it can propel them from apathy to possibility and change the way they see their own potential. Sadly history and fiction have tended to see it as mystical or even divine and this hasn’t helped. In truth, we can all be inspired by what and who is around us. Research shows that it’s not down to luck. Inspiration can be activated, captured and directed and it can have a major effect on important life outcomes. As psychologists and inspiration-exerts Todd Thrash and Andrew Elliot put it, “The heights of human motivation spring from the beauty and goodness that precede us and awaken us to better possibilities.” 

Thrash and Elliot found that inspired people were more open to new experiences, they were not more conscientious or hardworking than anyone else, in fact they tended to be less competitive and more optimistic. It seems they are people looking to be stimulated, open to the new and the different and not particularly focussed on the achievements of those around them. This is not so easy to manage in a school if you want everyone to be the same, to blindly follow orders and compete against each other. However it makes for a much more exciting and stimulating world if you are brave enough to let children follow their dreams and dare to be different. 

When I was a headmaster in the UK, I invited an Arctic explorer into school to talk to the students. I really wanted to wake them up to different and better possibilities. The explorer had spoken in over a thousand schools all over the world and always asked the audience who their inspiration was. It’s a great question! We spoke afterwards and he told me that in the UK and the USA when he asks children they say they are inspired by pop stars, footballers and TV personalities but in many Asian countries the children say they want to be like their parents. 

This is a very telling observation and although anecdotal, it feels true enough to me. It is a reminder to parents that what they do and say in front of their children matters every day and their influence is enormous. Inspiration can change a child’s life forever and we all have this phenomenal power within us.

Peter Hogan has been the Head of schools in the UK and Asia for 20 years. He writes about schools, teaching and learning at www.hogan.education and is a qualified Life Coach. He can be contacted at [email protected]

 

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The pandemic of 2020 meant that an alternative to GCSE and IGCSEs had to be found. Young people survived and were none the worse. Maybe this is the best time to stop, think and find an alternative to these outmoded assessments. 

Sitting examinations at 16 is tough. Whilst most other parts of the life of the 16 year old are in state of flux or confusion, British society determines that this is the best time to decide how clever you are.

Impulsive, moody, lacking good judgment, anxious and at times downright dangerous, teenagers can often be hard to handle. Research abounds about the issues associated with the risk-taking, teenage brain and even if we don’t read the research anyone the other side of 17 will know at least some of the problems by cast back their minds to their behaviour and that of their friends. Normally these will settle down as we get older but at 16 we tend to be in the thick of all sorts of changes. 

Some of this is biological. Cognitive processes including planning and reasoning become the responsibility of the prefrontal cortex as we leave our teens but they can still be the business of our more primitive subcortical and limbic structures. In essence as teenagers were are just not able to see ourselves objectively and in the way others see us. We cannot always think abstractly outside of ourselves and we are not always aware of the consequence of our actions. So why choose this time to do do potentially life changing exams?

Every May and June, all the 16 year old pupils across the UK and in thousands of international schools sit the same or similar exams on the same days and then they wait until the end of August for the results. Over the years the grading have changed many times and will probably change again. There will be comments on standards, on how many top grades there should be, on whether they are easier or harder; experts will give opinions about what it all means for industry, for Britain, for schools but every year one question will remain unanswered. What is the purpose of GCSEs? 

16 isn’t a time in life where society decided to make big decisions about any other aspect of a relatively young life but we make it the first big sort out of academic ability. Not everyone is ready to do them and many do very badly even if they would have shone a few years later. Times have changed but this old fashioned weigh station has not. Now all 16 year olds stay in school or some other form of education for another two years after these tests. We no longer need this the great academic Sorting Hat that replaced O Levels in the 1980s. 

When we learn to drive we do an exam. One exam when were are ready to be classed as able (or not able) to drive. If we fail it we can do it again. We do not do one driving test when we have done some of the lessons, then another one later on. If we are to drop a subject at 16 then an exam is a must. However if a pupil is to study subjects at A Level or Scottish Higher they still have to do exams at 16, then exams again in the same subjects about 20 months later. It seems wrong. We should do exams like we do other important tests – when we have finished studying the subject and are moving on. 

With change forced upon us in the pandemic maybe the education system should move on too with more learning and less testing. 

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cool and cruel bully kid ft

Every parent has to decide at what age to give a child a phone or if to give them one at all. However in my experience the question isn’t if families should get one – but when and which one. It seems part of the growing process for most children and while having a phone isn’t a necessity it seems more and more like one. Every child seems to want one and few seem to live their lives without one but this doesn’t answer the big questions about the impact of handing over a phone and letting children roam free.

Families who haven’t been through this will wonder when is best – what age is just too young to have a phone when there is always someone in your child’s class who has one already? In youth parlance there is the FOMO (fear of missing out) as “everyone” has got one and the accompanying pester power can be hard to resist. Then there are the more obvious safety and communications reasons – having a phone is a sensible way to keep in touch and stay safe. In short there are plenty of practical, peer, social and commercial pressures. There are also loads of great teaching tools, translators, maps and apps to use in school to help teaching and learning.

So what about the downside? New data from about online bullying is enough to make any parent or teacher stop and think.

Reliable UK think tank Davos claim that almost a third of boys and just less than a quarter of girls admit to cyberbullying and this is most likely to take place via phones. Their Facebook and focus group research in different cities found “shockingly high incidence of hostile behaviour to peers”. Added to this over 90% of those who admit to bullying say they have been bullied online themselves. As a school leader in the UK and abroad I have had to deal with countless horrible experiences of phone bullying – it is a problem that crosses class, age, race and cultural barriers and I fear, it is not going away any time soon.

So what do we do? What about prohibition? One exclusive school in the UK has gone on the attack banning mobiles altogether. The Head’s criticism of “wretched parents” buying phones suggests she is out of sync with the needs and lifestyles of many families. When she said that she wanted to rid the school of WiFi altogether it was only the “huge international student rebellion” that stopped her. Such so called rebels have good reason for wanting to communicate with families when they are a long way from home.

Bans seldom work and tend to subvert rather than solve issues. Even Demos, whose survey revealed the extent of phone bullying in schools, warns against barring young people from social media as they deem it counterproductive. When I posted this story on LinkedIn I received the most replies and most outrange I have ever had for an article. Many voiced concerns about the challenges of understanding the behaviour of modern children and it seems clear we have a way to go in balancing the good side of phones with what can be troublesome and downright dangerous.

We have to be vigilant against one to one bullying online but also the growing problem of trolling – contributing to the strings of negative and hateful messages added to website about anyone who is in the public eye. Evidence suggest that young people are all too willing to take part – some seeing it as cool to be cruel.

Solutions are hard to find but schools are working hard through good safety policies, training staff to look out for the signs of bullying and providing information for families. The best advice for anyone worried about this growing and important phenomena is to talk openly with their children and look out for changes in their behaviour. From the moment of giving a child a phone we should insist that it can never be completely private and parents should approach their school to raise concerns no matter how small.

cell bullies

Almost a third of boys and just less than a quarter of girls admit to cyberbullying and this is most likely to take place via phones

10 signs your child may be the victim of cyberbullying

1. Spending more or less time on the phone or computer

2. Opting to delete accounts

3. Asking how to block others

4. Sudden surges of connections

5. Mood shifts after using social media

6. Loss of self-esteem

7. Change in eating and sleeping habits

8. Suddenly not wanting to go to school or losing interest in school

9. Secretive on the phone or computer

10. Shutting off from family and friends
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