Now that shopping centres are opening again, surely minds will be turning to universities and schools as well. When students do return to schools and universities, I imagine the temptation will be to minimise activity in clubs and societies. Whilst I wholeheartedly support taking measures to ensure the safety of students and faculty, my thoughts are drawn back to a mistake I made at university. At school, I engaged in several extra-curricular activities and clubs, which likely played a large part in my attaining a place in my first-choice university. Once I was at Oxford, all thoughts of societies and clubs went out the window. I would like to explain to you why I made that mistake, why it matters in the first place, and how you can help your children to avoid making it.
The problem with university is that, unlike school, almost all of your time is your own. At A-level, study periods provide a break in the lessons of the day. At university, lectures are the break in your routine, and that is if you even have any that day. There is a good reason for this. Universities develop independent work and time management. However, beyond the bare minimum requirement that you do the work set for you, there is not much of a system to help students analyse and optimise their use of time. I spent half of my time working and the other half doing just about anything else but work. Knowing this, you might think I would have had time for societies and sports. Due to the pressure of university work, however, I never joined a single one. I had a near constant feeling that I did not have enough time to do my work, so I never made the time commitment to these societies. I was wrong, of course. I did have time. I ended up writing comedy, exercising regularly and socialising with my friends in the evenings, but I did it all in my own time.
You might not see the problem yet. After all, I did most of the stuff I wanted to do. What does it matter if I was not officially part of a club? It is an issue of networking and the sort of thing that you can put on a CV to impress employers. For instance, I wrote comedy, but I did not have the opportunity to befriend anyone in The Oxford Revue, the proving ground of Rowan Atkinson, Monty Python and more. Some people treat The Oxford Revue with disdain, as if its glory days are long gone. That may or may not be true, but I might have missed the opportunity to get in the boat with the future’s next classic comedians because I did not want to pin myself down. There is also the issue of how it looks on paper. Saying that I wrote some comedy in my free time is not nearly as impressive on a CV as saying that I was a member of The Oxford Revue where I wrote and performed comedy for three years. Students can easily find out what societies are on offer: they simply need to attend the societies fair during freshers week. There they will be able to meet and sign up for any society or club that remotely interests them.
I hope your children will not labour under the same delusion as I did about what I would or would not have time for. However, if you want to take precautionary measures, it is very simple. Rather than making the odd comment encouraging participation in societies and sports, you could drive the point home that there is always more time than one might think, even whilst staring down the barrel of an essay due in a week. When I started writing, running and learning the guitar, the only things I had less time for were procrastinating and worrying about work. I am now at a slight disadvantage to those who did those exact things as part of a society for the reasons I have already explained. If I could have my time at university again, I would sign up to every club on offer. I hope that this article can help students make university worth their while. After all, it is quite expensive.
Imagine this… you slaved your way through the relentless pressure of GCSE’s and A Levels, spent hours freezing on a hockey pitch, shocked everyone by reaching Grade 8 with some pretty questionable violin technique and survived an unnervingly odd cookery residential which you were told was essential to your Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award… Later, you nailed the subtle nuances of a UCAS statement that was both personal and profound, flattering yet humble. You’ve done it, you’re leaving home, flying the nest, off to a limitless future that is yours for the taking… except you’re not… you’re in a Zoom waiting room with the rest of the Class of 2023’s untimely incoming Freshers…
Sadly it doesn’t take much imagination as this is the reality facing this year’s university applicants hoodwinked out of a ridiculous first term of parties, new friends and wide-eyed fun. Without these hard won rites of passage and with the prospect of glitchy lecturing, awkwardly constricted to the parameters of our screens… is there much point still ‘attending’ university? If this unexpected (I refuse to say unprecedented) predicament now applies to your child then (and apologies for trotting out another of the government’s most overused pandemic phrases) you are not alone.
Will the next academic year at university be the same? 100% no. It cannot be. Should they still go? Categorically yes.
Allow me to explain why. First off, let me manage your expectations. I do not claim to possess any prophetic skill and although we share a surname, Sir Patrick Vallance is not my Dad, hence I am privy to no insider information. Yet it is my suspicion that a recovery will come sooner than expected. Last month Cambridge spearheaded the move to online tuition and other Universities are predictably following suit. I don’t believe this will be a permanent move. Although there are some clear advantages. My own Land Law lectures would have been substantially more palatable had they not mercilessly began at 9am following another raucous night out. The ability to pause and rewind would have also been incredibly useful when a professor muttered another intricately complex legal theorem. So perhaps for a short period only, lectures will suit the students timetable and learning style at the sacrifice of the small amounts of socialising we crammed in en route to our seats (I soon found that chatting during lectures themselves was the quickest way to be hated by both the lecturers and my more conscientious peers).
My general impression of the human spirit suggests that anytime we feel something has been taken from us we overcompensate to make up for it. Did you see the queues outside Primark when it reopened? Why anyone would queue for a £1 thong in a global crisis is beyond me, but hey, whatever gets you through. In a less déclassé example, the Roaring Twenties directly followed the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 so we may well find this pent up need to party like it’s ‘99, results in the time of their life when they finally are released into the wild night.
Compounding this hope is the fact that universities themselves are fiercely competitive, it is not in their economic or reputational interest for students to have a bad time. They will be keenly aware of the limitations of remote classes and I expect them to work hard to make up for these shortcomings. Perhaps tutorials will continue in person, welfare provisions will be enhanced, socialising in small groups will be enabled and encouraged.
Furthermore university towns rely on students to frequent their bars, restaurants, clubs and shops so for the sake of our battered economy and the thousands of associated jobs, they will want the students back in person, posthaste, stealing traffic cones and singing songs about tea drinking penguins as they meander home at 3am.
I’d like to caveat my argument thus far with the exemption of one demographic who I think would self-identify quicker than they would self-isolate. If your child is not academically inclined, if every essay has felt insurmountable and you doubted whether they would emerge from an exam hall alive, then this Corona-induced situation is the strongest get-out clause imaginable. With remote learning, excruciating tuition costs and an especially volatile graduate jobs market converging to form an unholy trinity, never has the pursuit of a vocation seemed as strong a prospect. One of my least academically successful friends is killing it as a personal trainer… and although I doubt she would regret one second of her three years spent drunk at Bournemouth, her degree has not aided her lucrative career enough to justify the time, (mild) effort or expense.
If you were questioning your child’s fit for a traditional university long before Wuhan’s wet markets hit the news, then this is the perfect time to reassess. Talk to them. When do their eyes light up? I can guarantee there is a course or apprenticeship to match whatever sparks a fire, no matter how esoteric or useless it may seem. Did they bore you with the minutely detailed analysis of their new Topshop skirt? London College of Fashion. Are they so obsessed with Call of Duty that they haven’t left their room in weeks? The Marines. (Or perhaps Games Design at Staffordshire University dependent on athletic ability). Have they neglected their coursework because they are in an electro-pop band? Brighton Institute of Music. Do they like money but are hopeless at time management? We need more electricians and plumbers. Be the coolest parents ever: allow them the liberation of choice, it will serve them better than having to dogmatically adhere to the accepted narrative of the conventional epistemic path.
I must now attempt to be ‘woke’ enough to check my own privilege: I do not underestimate the substantial financial commitment of a degree, exacerbated by the lack of Covid fee reduction, when the finances of so many are under strain. If you can afford it however, I think the cost: benefit ratio still pays dividends. Whilst the UK may suck at virus control, it excels at further education. Our institutions are some of the oldest and greatest in the world and I would urge anyone considering studying here from abroad to not be put off by the political blunderings that have caused international embarrassment. Much research is done into the value of a degree. Some is easily quantifiable: job opportunities, increased salary potential etc. Others are less tangible but arguably more important: friendships, living away from home, the expansion of one’s horizons. To be surrounded by bright, creative young minds is endlessly inspiring whether you are deconstructing psychotherapy in a seminar or drinking in a pub (still discussing Freud, possibly).
Both the opportunities offered during your degree and those resulting are amplified. On graduation I was flukey enough to be offered a job at Channel 4, a place on the BBC’s grad scheme and a place at drama school. In the final interview stage of all three, the panel were only ever superficially interested in my Law degree. What they all wanted to talk about instead was the play I had written, produced, directed and starred in, in my final semester when I should have been balls deep in the Law library. Children of the Underworld was a study of mass hysteria, a collection of dark tales and scenes that I staged in promenade at night in a brutally cold February. It was the first time a play had taken place outside the theatre but I just saw too much atmospheric magic in having my actors set their stories amongst the misty lake, woods and eerily magnificent buildings standing proud against a real life backdrop of stars.
Running around a frozen campus donning a long coat yelling ‘follow us, but take care, the ground is treacherous underfoot’ to the shivering audience my audacity had just endangered, like some Dickensian Russell Brand, directly translated into running around a muddy field with the BBC at Glastonbury yelling stage times at Ed Sheeran. I could not be more grateful for either of these experiences and the many, many more.
It is true that the greatest creativity is born from pain, that humanity progresses because it has to solve problems and the solutions generated don’t just push us beyond the problem, but on further. We are adaptable because we have to be, university life must continue because life has to continue. It may be a lighter experience for 6 months or so, but your time at university enriches your full life, not just the 10 week terms it occupies. It is greater than the sum of its parts. It endures: the knowledge, those places, the people, they echo down the corridors of your life, long after the books are shut, the caps flung and that joyous orange traffic cone has been returned to its rightful place on the newly quietened, the temporarily quietened street.
The Common Entrance exam can often seem like a mythical beast. Tales are told in hushed tones; it is notoriously difficult to tame, and sitting the exam separates good knights from bad! Of course the exam is important, but what often gets lost amidst the tutors, the cramming and the pressure is that the English component of the exam contains every literacy skill a pupil needs to set them up for life.
Literacy isn’t just spelling and punctuation, it is a whole set of skills that encompass reading and writing and enable a person to understand, communicate and express ideas. The exam at 13 is testing the student’s literacy ability and measuring it against his or her peers.
Whilst it would be impossible to go into the exam without ever looking at a past paper, it would equally be a mistake to just look at exam papers. Not only would boredom set in early, but the student would not necessarily get any better because they would not be addressing the skills required for literacy. I am going to briefly outline these skills below and demonstrate a few ways in which they can be improved.
Lost in a book
There are few things better for your child than a reading habit. Reading develops not just the obvious things like vocabulary or the ability to organise and express thoughts, but the intangibles, like expanding the limits of the imagination.
That does not necessarily mean knowing your hobbits from your orcs, but developing your thinking, your ability to think or feel what it is like to be in other people’s shoes – and that is a skill that can be applied to just about anything in adult life, from science to business.
As a rough idea of what a good reading habit entails, you should be looking at about 100 books completed between the ages of 8 and 13. After the age of 13 the amount of school work increases and the distractions mount.
We start learning some of these skills from the moment we are born: a baby will gradually pick up cues from its parents’ behaviour – are they happy? Angry? Worried? You can’t fool a baby! This skill is called inference.
Inference is the number one skill tested in the comprehension section of the paper. Consider this example:
We have an appointment for a lesson at 3:00. You have been so busy revising (!) that you haven’t left the house all day and so it is a surprise when you answer the door and I am standing there soaking wet.
What is the weather outside?
Well, you and 99 out of 100 people will then say that it is raining heavily. Of course, but how do you know? Where is the evidence?
Of course the most effective and enjoyable way to expand your vocabulary is read, read and then read again. This goes for adults as well as children. When we read we learn words without even knowing we’re doing it.
So, how can you practice for the vocabulary question in the exam? Well, are you able to explain your word meaning efficiently? We all know what a table or a pen is, but how many of us are able to briefly define the word?
Try this exercise with your son or daughter. Can you define a simple word? Explain what it means to someone who doesn’t know. For example, a doorbell – a device placed next to a door which, when pressed, alerts the occupant of a visitor.
The good news is that children practice this skill every single day of their lives. Simply by answering the question: how was your day at school today? your child is offering up a summary of that day’s events, even if the answer is simply “fine”! Dinner around the table is a great place for a relaxed conversation. Ask plenty of follow up questions.
Almost all 12 year olds share a pathological reluctance to check their work. I’ve often wondered why this is, and the only conclusion I can come to is that homework has generally become a task that needs to be completed, so much so that placing the final full stop would seem to signal the end of the homework procedure. As any professional writer will tell you, it is the proof reading, the editing and the redrafting that constitutes the vast bulk of the writing process.
Ask your child to write a story in 5 minutes. They won’t have time to check it so wait 24 hours and then give them their own story to read. Ask them to underline the mistakes. They will be amazed at the number of errors.
On some of the old home counties’ grammar school consortium papers there used to be a task that required the student to describe how one ate an ice cream or made a cup of tea. Even though the question sounds easy, it does actually test a genuinely key skill: can you explain a process utilising all the key details, in the correct order and make your explanation efficient and easy to understand? Many adults struggle with this skill; thoughts need to be organised and sentences efficient.
Beyond the Common Entrance
I offer this skills-based approach because by the time students reach secondary school so many of these skills are not practised. Instead, the content of the various courses becomes the focus of classroom activity: writing essays, reading and analysing the set texts. But these skills are applicable not just to the CE, but to GCSE, A-Level and beyond. I have worked with university undergraduates who struggle with their coursework because they have never really mastered the keys skills of summary or explanation.
In a series of blogs I will outline in more detail each of these skills and what parents can do with their children to improve them – often in ways that are actively enjoyable.
Words by Nicholas Christiaan – writer, English tutor and literacy consultant.
If you would like to know more about the support that Nicholas could offer your child, please contact Bonas MacFarlane’s Tuition Team on 020 3638 0462 or email Ellen Sowerby: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bonas MacFarlane’s Director of University Admissions, James Higgins, offers advice to GCSE and A Level students who are looking ahead to the next stage of their education.
Choosing your degree
Choosing the right course for university can be a particularly stressful challenge for students. It is often the first time they are given control over what feels like a life-defining decision with an infinite number of choices – 37000+ to get somewhere close to the number of UK courses available. Lockdown offers a singular benefit: students now find themselves with a great deal of spare time. This time can be well spent if students make an effort to carefully consider all the possible options.
What lies at the heart of choosing the right course is finding an area of study that the student has a real interest in. As I put it, I want to find something that causes a reaction in them. Students often feel pressure to pick something related to a future career but this is only the correct way to pick a degree for a small number of professional fields. Let’s address this method first…
Future career… if that career is Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Science, Engineering (and possibly Architecture).
There will be a few other instances where it is necessary to base your decision on career but the main ones are covered here. The reality is that most graduate jobs do not specify a particular degree that is required to apply to their organisations. Students need to look at The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers so that they can begin to understand this.
Students may have a clear favourite subject that they are already studying or have studied. What I would urge them to do is to think a little more specifically about exactly what they do and don’t enjoy in each subject area. They may want to be a little more granular in their subject choice – so rather than studying English, a student might specialise in Literature, or Creative Writing, or Linguistics or Journalism…
This refers to my earlier point. We want to encourage students to notice what causes a reaction in them. This will get them to think outside the box to reveal subjects that they might not have considered for university before.
Can they think of famous people that they admire and what that might inspire them to study? Likewise, public figures that they dislike might also give rise to a course choice. I often use the example that thinking of Donald Trump might push me to consider a degree in Politics, Climate Change, Human Rights… what we want is a feeling to be caused in the student and for them to link that to a potential study area.
This is about getting students to reflect on how they spend their time when they’re not doing obligatory tasks. When they are not completing schoolwork, communicating with friends or doing chores, what are they up to? What kinds of documentaries do they watch, what sort of books do they read, what are they drawn to watch on Youtube, what do they do outside the house?
Read, read, read, and read some more
It is no coincidence that the lexicon permits us to say “I’m going to Oxford to read Classics”, or to read Mathematics or to read Medicine. There is a lot of reading to be done at university no matter the discipline. If a student cannot engage in reading around their subject in the few months running up to application, they might need to reconsider studying the subject for three or four years during their degree. Students should read around the subject to check for genuine interest – the added benefit is that this is the single best way to become a strong applicant for the very best courses.
A final note…
It is not easy for a student to pick their course and universities. Ultimately, they will begin to understand that they are not bound by this decision forevermore. Their life is unlikely to be linear and this should be embraced. There are many routes that they can take on this journey that may or may not lead to what they think is the destination. Students need to read and reflect on what holds their interest.
How to approach the UCAS personal statement
The personal statement is the key part of the UK university application process. I’m not suggesting that grades aren’t important – grades allow the student to be part of the conversation. But it is the personal statement that will allow them to stand out from the crowd.
It is perhaps the crucial nature of the personal statement that strikes most fear into a high number of applicants. However, if students have dedicated themselves to the process of reflecting on their interests and passions, they will find the drafting of their statement much easier.
The Four Ideas to include in the Personal Statement
I write the four ideas rather than paragraphs because I don’t want to be too prescriptive with the way in which the student expresses themselves – after all it is a personal statement. But students must understand how it is personal. It is not in the sense that the university wants to hear all about their personality but rather about the student’s personal relationship with the subject to which they are applying.
1) Where does the interest come from? What was the spark?
This is usually the idea that students find most difficult to define. The advice here is that students do not have to attempt to make this more profound than it is. It could be that they’ve determined their degree choice through reading during the past 6 months – so they should describe that process. It might simply be that it’s the subject that’s captivated them most since their GCSEs. It might have been a cool science experiment in Year 8, reading an article about Steve Jobs or seeing Dippy the Dinosaur at the Natural History museum. We need to understand what prompted the student to want to explore it further.
2) How have they demonstrated that interest?
Primarily this will be demonstrated through the student’s reading. We will want them to refer to specific texts and ideas and then to engage with those ideas critically. What do they have to say about an idea expounded by an author? What theories have they read that counter the idea? Finally, where do they come down on the issue?
3) Name a specific area of interest
Students should point to something specific (either taught in one of their current courses or discovered whilst reading) that they would like to learn more about. They can use this to grab the attention of a particular university. If, for example, Manchester focuses on a certain field that other universities are not so well renowned for and the student expresses that they have a desire to learn more about this topic, it could serve to pique the interest of Manchester.
The personal statement and the application to apply to the UK’s most elite institutions is overwhelmingly an academic endeavour – as is the experience of studying at one of these famous institutions.
If a student elects to write about an extracurricular interest, it would be advisable that this is closely related to the student’s chosen discipline or that it is, in some way, demonstrative of their academic prowess. It would have to be quite compelling if the activity or experience was not directly connected with the student’s field of study.
And a word on style:
Precise language and concise expression should be the applicant’s goal. Students should be clear that they know the meaning of each word used in their personal statement and that each sentence communicates exactly the intended message. Students should also aim to be as economical with their use of language as possible. It will lead to a clearer and more impactful personal statement.
What can GCSE and A Level students do to increase their chances of success?
Understand cognitive bias
Cognitive bias refers to you being able, in some small way, to still have an impact on your grades. Teachers are human (even though you’ve probably questioned it at points!) and their impression of you in the final weeks as they make their decisions on what grade you will be awarded will have some influence. So keep working and sustain positive interactions with them whenever possible.
Pick up a new habit or discipline
Once it is clear that you have done as much as you can to positively influence your grades, forget about them and focus on what’s next for you. Add a new skill, habit or discipline to your daily routine.
My key bit of advice here is to set the bar low in terms of the time you can commit to this each day. This will get you started and create momentum.
Try to carry out the new discipline at the same time each day or attach it to a pre-existing habit – e.g. straight after lunch go for a fifteen minute walk, come back in and write a reflection on how your morning went and what your focus is for the afternoon.
Receive your final grades and then deal with that reality
Results days remain the same:
GCSE – 20th August
A Level – 13th August
IB – 6th July
In most cases, I don’t think that students should consider sitting exams in the autumn or next summer.
Your focus here is ensuring you get to your next step – for many of you that will be A Levels or IB. So long as you are accepted on to the courses you are aiming for that is probably enough. If you score less than 6/7s in English, Maths or subjects related to the degree that you want to study, then you might want to consider resits.
A Level and IB students:
If things don’t go to plan, you will enter Clearing. The key message for Clearing is don’t panic! It is a fluid situation and remember, it is not a single one-day event.
Only accept an offer that you feel is right for you. If you’re not absolutely certain, take at least four or five days to look at different options as the picture changes each day. Suitable places do not necessarily become available on the first day of Clearing as it takes time for all students to go through the process of receiving grades and accepting their places.
With over half of all 10-year olds owning a smartphone, parents are finding screen time battles more and more of an issue, especially in the school holidays.
Camp Bonas is a brand new kids’ holiday camp offering a complete tech-free experience. This UK camp gives kids valuable time-out, allowing children to re-wild their minds whilst they learn through new hands-on experiences at this fantastic rural escape.
Camp Bonas is situated deep in the English countryside amidst seventy acres of rolling meadows and woodland in the Quantuck Hills. The retreat welcomes campers aged 8-13, where they’ll learn to look after themselves through real-life adventure.
Getting your kids outdoors
Whatever you do, don’t waste the summer in London! According to a recent study, 75% of UK children have less time outdoors than prison inmates.
Whilst the idea of using nature to improve mental and emotional wellbeing has existed for millennia, growing levels of research have confirmed how beneficial a natural environment is for the mind.
A new wave of therapy called eco-therapy has pushed research towards the mental health and educational benefits of immersing children in a rural setting. Being in the outdoors has been proven to reduce anger, fear, and stress, as well as boosting physical fitness, emotional wellbeing and academic performance.
Reconnecting with nature
According to new research by the RSPB, only 1 in 5 children have a ‘connection to nature’. It’s a sad fact that time spent playing outdoors has halved in just one generation. The great thing about camp is that it allows children to reconnect, and develop an interest in the great outdoors.
Camp Bonas makes sure all campers get the rest they need to be able to enjoy the week-long outdoor adventure. With cosy wooden lodges and the opportunity to camp under canvas towards the end of the week, your children will enjoy a complete back-to-nature experience.
The camps take place at a dedicated outdoor activity centre on Lydeard Farm, run by Colonel Michael Kingscote, an acclaimed provider of leadership and outward-bound training. Michael and his wife have been running courses for over 22 years. The farm has purpose-built cabins, a field kitchen, outdoor classroom and other facilities that allow the courses to continue whatever the weather.
In London and other urban areas, our views of the stars are obscured by artificial light, and believe it or not, some London children have never seen our own galaxy. Camp Bonas is set inside a dark-sky reserve, where the views of the milky-way are awe-inspiring. Stargazing while eating toasted marshmallows around the camp fire sounds like the perfect summer evening to us.
Getting children active
It can be a challenge for kids to engage in enough daily activity. This can be due to demands at school, a feeling among some kids that they aren’t good at sports, a lack of active role models, and busy working families.
Even when kids do have the time and the desire to be active, parents may not feel comfortable letting them freely roam within towns and cities. All of which limits their opportunities to lead fully active lifestyles.
Camp Bonas itinerary
The guys at Camp Bonas know that physically active kids are more likely to be motivated, focused, and successful in school. That’s why physical activity is at the heart of the camp’s itinerary, with a week jam-packed full of countryside adventure.
There are lessons in yoga, fire making, bushcraft and raft building, map and compass reading, as well as drama, poetry, and creative writing.
Health benefits of an active outdoor lifestyle
Mastering physical skills in an outdoor setting will help your child build confidence, as well as reaping huge health benefits.
Encouraging your child to develop a love for the outdoors will help them build strong muscles and bones, enjoy better sleep, and a positive outlook on life. Active children benefit from being a healthier weight, with a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Harness the power of experiential learning
Camp Bonas harnesses the power of experiential learning (the process of learning through reflection on doing) in a way that no other camp does. Not only does their programme offer a huge range of new and hands-on activities, but built into the week are chances of creative reflection, journaling and story writing based upon the experience of the week.
The Camp Bonas programme has been inspired by popular children’s books. Using their surroundings to stimulate the imagination, campers can engage with professional instructors in creative writing, the performing arts, and outward-bound training, giving students their very own adventure stories.
Personal development, social skills and school life
Holiday camp is a time for discovery and making special life memories. It’s a truly unique opportunity to branch out on an adventure with other children.
Nurturing self-esteem, and developing confidence and independence with the chance to learn new skills is at the forefront of life at Camp Bonas. Your child will make new friendships and form special bonds while completing tasks, undertaking activities and working as a team. The social skills learned through camp life will help your child navigate their way through their teens and set them up for later life.
Reports show that it’s so important to work with children on their physical/emotional and social/intellectual well-being. For some campers, this will be the first time they have had an extended stay away from home, allowing them a perfect opportunity to test out boarding and develop independence vital for success at senior school.
Camp Bonas is a transformational experience. With a new peer group to muck in with, children will enjoy a perfect balance between having fun and being on the most exciting adventure, as well as building on their character and resilience. Their time at Camp Bonas will give them something fantastic to discuss at school interviews.
This year marks ten years since I attended a group interview in Notting Hill for a tuition position with Bonas MacFarlane. As the coronavirus lockdown enters another week and its grip brings out the nostalgic, contemplative side in us, it seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on my experience of working for Bonas MacFarlane and the emergence of ‘Bonas MacFarlane Art’.
My CV showed that my prior teaching experience had been primarily based in adult education. Teaching life drawing classes had led to me being recommended to Cubitt Arts, the renowned art studio complex in Islington. As a condition of their charitable status, Cubitt maintained an educational outreach programme delivering innovative art classes to local senior residents. My years in adult education were richly gratifying, showing people with a lifetime of experiences that through art there was always something new to be discovered. I still receive cards from Doug, a fine gentleman who had spent his career captaining large cargo ships, updating me with his latest watercolour paintings of boats and seascapes. It was in that environment that I learned how to structure classes, how to move between what was planned and what emerged spontaneously, how to be in turns encouraging and challenging, and how to communicate a project’s technical and conceptual aspects with clarity. It was also where it became clear to me how deeply education could affect a person’s sense of purpose and self-esteem, and that teaching art was rather more than ‘just a job’.
Despite those years of experience, it was the idea of teaching students in the early stages of their education on a one to one basis that gave rise to my curiosity that day in Notting Hill. I left the interview with a renewed resolve, and spurred on by their genuine passion for education and enthusiasm for looking into new ways of teaching art, I emailed them that very evening with a list of ideas for art tuition and events. Like many tutors I had approached several agencies, and like many art tutors I had been repeatedly told that they would keep my details on file but there wasn’t much demand for ‘art tutors’. Unlike the other agencies, Bonas Macfarlane were immediately encouraging and receptive to my ideas for finding and supporting more art clients rather than accepting that art was an overlooked subject. A few weeks later I would find myself on a train to Heathrow airport for a series of sessions in a hotel conference room with my first client, a student visiting from Jeddah preparing for art scholarship applications. And so began my work with Bonas MacFarlane.
There’s a very particular dynamic to working with someone one to one. Clearly you can’t talk non-stop with someone for two hours, and you can’t move your attention around the room as you can when teaching a group. Art needs to be instructive, but you also need to allow pockets of exploration and ‘doing’ to open up around your guidance so that the student can put your words into practice, and allow the materials to reveal their possibilities directly to the student. With their attention wholly focused on the end of their paintbrush you can’t simply sit back and watch, or provide a running commentary in the manner of a TV sports commentator. Those early years in tuition where all about developing a feel for the movement within a session between guidance, co-making, assisting, switching the focus to the ideas, then to the materials, knowing when to let the student be and when they needed a boost of energy or inspiration, and all the while maintaining an atmosphere conducive to being creative and playful, yet serious and focused. Visiting clients’ homes or hotels would take me the length and breadth of London and the surrounding counties and gave rise to an encyclopaedic knowledge of London’s art shop locations where materials could be picked up en-route at short notice (not to mention the best cafes to sit and collect your thoughts over a good coffee between sessions).
Every client has a completely unique story. Art and a person’s creativity are deeply woven into their personality, and helping young people discover the direction of their artistic journey continues to be an incredibly rewarding experience. From the initial consultation to seeing them burst with joy when they gain a place on their first choice course, there are many obstacles to overcome and discoveries to be made. UAL (University of the Arts London), just one of the many institutions our clients apply to annually, has over 70 degree specialisms. Within the area of fashion alone there are 30 degree choices. With the national curriculum in both UK and overseas schools being centred around fine art, graphic design or textiles, how can a young person begin to understand the vast array of options ahead of them and choose a course that will define their future careers and lives?
A couple of years into my work with Bonas MacFarlane I was invited by the Head of Mentoring to meet with a client who was experiencing personal problems that were adversely affecting their studies. Our work together went well, with the student gaining in confidence and making a successful application to the prestigious Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL). Rather than being solely focused on their art projects, our art mentoring programme has subsequently developed to include a schedule of open day, degree show and gallery visits, work experience, and a continuous dialogue parallel to the student’s studies aimed at exploring their relationship with art and their future educational options. The process is often revelatory, shining a light into hitherto unknown areas of art and design and leading to students making applications to courses they would never have previously considered.
The benefits of mentoring have been particularly clear during the current crisis as a means of emotional support, structure and continuity in the face of exams being cancelled and application responses being heavily delayed. Working online with our clients is something that we are already very familiar with, having successfully mentored and tutored overseas students this way for many years. At any one time we maintain an experienced team of tutors who have either graduated from, taught at or currently teach at some of the UK’s best known universities and art colleges. What better way to prepare an application to Central Saint Martins than be tutored by someone who has both studied and taught there? Every year the world’s leading institutions for art, design and architecture see increasing numbers of applications making the competition for places higher with each round of entries. It’s a process that constantly keeps us on our toes, updating our information and research, improving our team and refining our support skills to ensure our clients submit the very best applications possible.
Every year I attend the same open days, and the same foundation and degree shows at the same institutions, and every year something new is revealed. This is largely because the person accompanying me is different every time. Their questions and responses are different, and the ways in which they respond to the tasks my tutors and I set are always unique and surprising. From their personal statements to their sketchbooks and portfolios, art is a form of autobiography, and it is a unique privilege to be part of the formative chapters of these young artists’ lives.
Words by Darren Marshall, Head of Art at Bonas MacFarlane.
Over the last few years there has been an interesting shift in thinking when it comes to parents seeking assessment for their children. In the past, families would usually seek the services of an educational psychologist or independent consultant when they were worried that something might be wrong. The role of assessment in identifying specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia can really help to turn around the fortunes of a student who is underperforming but who can’t seem to work out why.
This pattern has started to change, and to change significantly. More and more families find themselves wanting an independent measure of their child’s abilities that is not coloured by the subjective nature of national testing or the sometimes unpredictable trends in school entrance examinations. Furthermore, parents of more able children want to know about their children’s strengths in order to make sure that they are being nurtured and extended by their teachers. “Gifted and Talented” is a phrase that has proved divisive in the past, but it is an inescapable fact that a significant percentage of children within any school environment will be functioning at a level well above that of their peers. Their needs are every bit as worthy of attention as those of less able or learning-disabled students. The Department for Education recognises that many schools are good at spotting their talented students, as skills in music, sports and drama are regularly promoted and celebrated, but gifted students tend to receive less focussed attention, presumably because time-stretched teachers do not consider it a priority to tailor lessons and resources to students who are coping just fine with the mainstream curriculum. As any good senior manager will recognise, there should be as many pupils on a school’s Gifted and Talented register as there are on its list of those with additional needs. Most schools still have some way to go towards realising this vital aim.
And now families are discovering a whole new need for independent assessment. The closure of schools to control the spread of COVID-19 has led to an education lottery unlike anything the UK has ever experienced, with provision from school to school resembling a lucky dip where the odds are impossible to predict. Independent schools and academies appear to be leading the way, with online learning, interactive lessons and an ongoing requirement for students to submit work (that they hope may one day be marked). A quick trawl of Facebook groups reveals that most parents are crawling the walls as the schools have done little or nothing to support them in their unofficial new roles as home educators. Families find themselves in the unlikely situation where Joe Wicks is regarded as a national hero for making sure that P.E. doesn’t suffer, but the core skills of literacy and numeracy seem to be left in the hands of YouTube offerings from resting actors.
At this time more than any other, an independent assessment gives parents an incredibly detailed picture of where their child is at and, more importantly, offers a swathe of practical recommendations to keep them moving forward while their peers are treading water. Bonas MacFarlane began assessing students online long before this pandemic, helping to find places at British schools for children from all around the world. The last few weeks have seen their skilled assessors and educational psychologists working at a distance from those who are closer to home, and the gratitude of parents has been palpable. With mums and dads around the country suddenly finding themselves as headteachers of an understaffed school with very demanding pupils, an independent assessment provides them with tailor-made teaching notes, learning targets and lesson plans to keep the parents sane and the kids afloat.
Good Schools Guide have produced this useful guide to paying school fees during the current situation.
Communication and transparency are absolutely key when asking parents to pay for a service they will not be getting. Full financial disclosure and schools eliminating all unnecessary costs, whilst remaining solvent to operate again, seems right the balance. Furloughing is the perfect scheme to prevent disaster and allows for considerable cost-cutting measures.
We are all affected by the current situation whether or not we (or anyone close to us) actually contract Covid-19. There will be few whose income is not impacted by it and many will suffer a severe drop in financial resources with the uncertainty ahead, perhaps for many months, even years.
Independent schools are in the same position, with many extremely worried about the impact of parents being forced to withdraw their children.
Most schools are providing remote teaching and support programmes for their pupils, and from what we have seen so far they are doing the very best job that they are able to. Schools we speak to are working round the clock – and we are told that many will continue to do so for the duration of the Easter holidays – to ensure a quality continuation of their pupils’ education. Furthermore, most schools are remaining open to accommodate and teach the children of the key workers on whom we all depend, and need to provide catering facilities, in some cases transportation, for these and the staff on site supervising them.
Schools realise that families may reasonably expect some reduction or remission in the fees for the summer term and some have already made such offers to parents. Some schools can afford this, but others are less well-resourced; parents should expect schools to want to retain their staff and be able to return as a thriving community when the current situation is over. We think that schools should take parents into their confidence and show how they have arrived at their decisions on fee reductions.
We are now starting to see what various schools are offering parents in terms of discounts, although many are yet to show their hand. We think that, apart from the odd flash of arrogance, most schools are behaving fairly. The importance of considering the financial position and resources of your child’s school is crucial context, but in summary The Good Schools Guide believes that all schools should be considering the following steps as a bare minimum in order to strike a fair balance between supporting their parent body and securing their own futures:
Schools should commit to saving on as many outgoings as possible over the summer term (lunches, transport to matches, grounds maintenance are just a few possible areas), relying on the government’s furlough scheme for employed staff, and to offering parents a refund at the end of the academic year in line with these savings. The school should be open with parents as to how the figure for the reduction has been arrived at.
Fees for services that are clearly not being provided – eg boarding and transport to school – should not be charged.
Schools should do their best to help parents who need help to pay the summer term’s fees, from delayed/staged payments to forgiveness.
We are all in this together: to help the school look after parents in difficulties, parents who can pay the fees on time should do so, proprietors should forego their profits, and well-paid heads should take a summer salary cut.
In acknowledgement of the fact that everyone is going to feel financial pain during the current situation and beyond, schools should take a hard look at what they are spending money on. They should start by freezing fees for the next academic year. The relentless above-inflation rise of independent school fees that we have seen over the last two decades should be ended, and to some extent reversed.
For parents who are no longer able to meet the fees on an ongoing basis and need to withdraw their children from school should a bursary not be available to them, schools should suspend the usual formal full term’s notice of withdrawal.
Communication is key. Senior school staff with decision making power should be readily available to respond to and reassure parents who are concerned about meeting fee payments.
All parents are entitled to ask their schools what arrangements are planned and whether financial support of some kind is possible. Schools will understand – particularly in respect of parents whose children attend on bursary provision as well as in the case of parents whose income has been severely impacted by the pandemic – that some may simply be unable to pay the agreed fees for the coming term. Our advice is to contact your school, in as collaborative and cooperative a frame of mind as possible, to see what help can be offered. Resist the urge to air your views and drum up negativity on the class WhatsApp group. No school will want to lose pupils and none are profiteering from this situation; they will want to help as much as they can, while still being able to maintain the standards you expect.
In the end, when parents choose a school to which they entrust their child, they invest in that school in a very tangible way. It is in everyone’s interests that the quality of education and overall provision offered by that school is maintained to the highest degree possible in the current very challenging situation. It is to be hoped that the community spirit so heart-warming around the country can also infuse the negotiations and agreements schools and parents can forge together.
Our responses to what parents are most frequently telling The Good Schools Guide are given below.
My income has been severely damaged by the current situation and I can’t meet the fees for the summer term, what should I do?
Contact the bursar at your child’s school without delay to find out whether they are able to offer delayed or staged payment terms or a reduction in fees. If your financial situation has been damaged so severely that you don’t think you can meet the fees long-term, speak to the school regarding the possibility of a means-tested bursary.
I’m angry that my child’s school is charging full fees for the summer term and am thinking of withholding payment.
If you are able to find the money to pay the fees we would strongly recommend against withholding them as a protest. Check your contract with the school – you will be legally obliged to meet the payment. Not only will failure to pay create animosity between you and the school – a relationship which should always be kept as positive as possible for the benefit of your child’s education – but it could lead (if a lot of other families do the same) to the school being forced to close its doors for good leaving you, and countless other families, to make alternative arrangements at short notice. If you are genuinely unable to meet the fees, contact the school bursar as recommended above.
I don’t feel that the ‘virtual’ education being offered by my child’s school is worth the fees I am being asked to pay.
The current situation was totally unforeseen for schools as much as for parents. We would advise parents to breathe deeply and bear with the situation. Most schools we have spoken with say they plan to fine tune their home school offering over the Easter holidays and are committed to offering the very best provision they can when the summer term starts. Unfortunately, there are some things that will fall to parents (eg providing lunches, pastoral and emotional support and provision of physical activity); we would recommend taking the approach that – at this point in time – you will support the school and your child by doing what you can to plug any gaps that simply cannot be filled remotely. If, once the summer term is underway, you still feel that the school is falling short of its commitments, contact your child’s class teacher or head of year (whoever would usually be responsible for their academic progress) to voice your concerns, escalating your views to the senior leadership team if your feedback isn’t taken on board.
We can’t afford school fees any longer and our school isn’t able to offer a bursary.
In this most unfortunate situation, we would expect schools to allow the children in question to complete the academic year with their friends before having to leave. You should let the school know of the situation as soon as possible with a view to discussing reduced or staged payments for the summer term. If there is absolutely no possibility that your child will be able to stay on, contact your local education authority who will help you find a place in a nearby state-maintained school. The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants also offer reasonably priced consultancy packages to guide parents through changes such as this and can be contacted at email@example.com.
I have heard of other schools offering much larger discounts than ours. Is that fair?
It depends. Some schools are rich, or have cash to hand, others may be in very different circumstances. Some may find it easy to cut outgoings, others hard. You should expect schools to be open with you as to how they have arrived at the discount that they offer.
The initial glee of being able to sleep in an extra hour or two will soon wear thin. We face the prospect of having to find productive and fun ways of spending the whole day together en famille in the same building – learning, earning and, in most cases, just getting along.
Waving a child goodbye at the school gate before heading off to a meeting. Racing home from a day’s work in time to hear about a child’s completely different day at school, then read a bedtime story. Long-awaited school holiday activities outdoors among friends and cousins.
With the realisation of yet another three word, Borisonian mantra – ‘Stay at home’ – these socially orientated, physical separators between parent and child seem to already belong to a bygone, golden age. Parenting has suddenly changed. Children and parents are compelled to stay at home together. All day long.
Life will of course return to normal. But right now parents across the world are being forced to pause their over-scheduled and digitalised lives and focus on their children. The initial glee of being able to sleep in an extra hour or two will soon wear thin. We face the prospect of having to find productive and fun ways of spending the whole day together en famille in the same building – learning, earning and, in most cases, just getting along.
The positives of self-isolating with your children
Bonas MacFarlane has over 25 years of experience of educating children at home. We want to emphasise some of the positives of the family time that many of us might need to spend in isolation. Although social media may amplify the fears of the pandemic, it also gives us a platform to show we are there for each other, to check in with friends and family and to inspire us with things to do with this unexpected time at home.
Bonas MacFarlane was established in the early 1990s by young tutors who saw the benefits of educating children in their family homes. Not all of these children were immediately willing participants. Their parents often sympathised. The father of one of our first tutees recalled his own reaction to being introduced to a governess who had come to stay for the holidays. With his brother, he charmingly invited the shy spinster to go boating at dusk. They rowed alongside her to the middle of a loch, whereupon they removed the oars from her boat and raced for home. But, like most children, they came around to appreciating the transformative effects of individually tailored tuition at home: they sailed through Common Entrance exams to Eton.
Educating a child at home is actually quite straightforward, provided two basic principles are followed:
We are biologically wired to follow strict routines. We all know that securing a routine for a baby results in less interrupted nights. Daily routine is just as important for older children (and their parents). Follow the mantra that it takes twenty-one days to form a habit and three days to break one. Schools run on stricter timetables than a Swiss mountain railway. Why? Because being governed by what one of the great Victorian Harrow songs called ‘the voice of the bell’ works. This is how schools control hundreds of children in a confined space. Don’t try and beat them at their own game; if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Of course, there is greater flexibility to be had in a routine designed for a few children (or even a single child) than a school of hundreds. If one activity works really well, schedule more time for it; if a child performs better a little later in the day, respect that. One eight-year old we schooled at home in the Dordogne for six months in 1997 enjoyed reading. So she spent the first ninety minutes of her school day just reading classical children’s literature. This gave her ideas for the creative writing that was her second activity of the day (she is now enjoying a successful career in advertising). At school, reading is often consigned to the evening, when a child is tired.
But unless there is a daily schedule agreed – in writing – the night before or at breakfast, very little will be achieved.
2. Outcomes, aims and objectives
With a solid routine in place, the family can make clear and achievable outcomes, aims and objectives for their children’s learning. Understanding the expectations for each child will provide the right content and achievable goals. (An excellent resource for understanding your child’s educational expectations is through The School Run which outlines the Key Stages and the development of children in these stages).
Know the desired outcome
Be clear on the aims required to achieve the outcome
Prepare objectives (activities) to practice the aims
Desired Outcome?: Year 6 KS2 (SATs exam)
Reading and Writing exams focus on themes, character development, events, understanding literary elements such as ‘between the lines’ meanings, punctuation, and range of vocabulary.
Aims?: Develop vocabulary, use correct punctuation, understand elements of reading, literary techniques.
Objectives?: Reading and writing exercises, SATs past paper practice, reading comprehension, listening comprehension, writing comprehension. Spelling quizzes, vocabulary quizzes. Creating and writing stories. Reading passages and answering questions about the passage.
The objectives must be scheduled; each task has to have a time limit. If a child manages to complete the objective well within the time limit, there can be a reward of extra free time or favourite activity.
Every activity should have an aim, objective and outcome. And make sure the child knows the time limit and the reason for the exercise. An example: ‘In the next five minutes we are going to make a plan for an essay and write the three lead sentences for the three main arguments. Why? Because cracking the first sentence is the hardest part of writing.
Four other suggestions:
The best way of knowing you know something is to be able to teach it to someone else: One of the most strategic ways a child can learn is to teach back to their teacher what they are learning. This technique can be used in any subject on any learning objective. The parent effectively becomes a classmate. And remember – just like adults, children do not like being told what to do and how to think all day. Example: ‘pretend I have never heard about Henry VIII. Tell me all you can about him in exactly two minutes’.
Keep a diary This pandemic is probably going to become an episode in history. Perhaps the future for our children will hold many more pandemics. But this is the first time the whole digitalised world has been faced by exactly the same threat. Children can understand that, but writing about the positive effects should be encouraged. Parents have time to talk to children about the uncertainties they faced growing up; self-isolating grandparents can talk online about their childhoods. This is a great time for children to record their oral family history.
Celebrate the removal of peer groups School communities are artificial in the sense that children spend fourteen years in the same rooms as other children who are within exactly a year of their age. Not a single adult workplace replicates or even reflects this; in all of our working lives, we collaborate with colleagues of varying ages – they might even be several decades younger or older than us. And this is the great joy of schooling children at home. They start to see adults and younger children as contemporaries and engage with them as equals. So we encourage parents to use this time to its maximum benefit by learning together as a family. And to repeat: children do not take well to being instructed all day so engage in an activity where they might have the edge, such as learning a completely new modern language or craft.
Have realistic expectations There is a limit to how much structured learning young children will accept. Remember that working individually with a child tends to be highly concentrated compared to the group activity and wide-angle focus of the classroom. Two hours per day of solid concentration on learning new material is an impressive outcome for an adult let alone a child. And the younger the child, the more these two hours need to be interspersed with less focused activities – drawing, discussing, reading and being read to, etc. This is what happens at school. Again, don’t try and reinvent the wheel. Remember: too many children are over tutored.
Online or Offline?
Bonas MacFarlane invests in researching cutting-edge digital learning platforms. With the onset of school and work closures, the digital realm will be key in developing children’s futures. While online tutoring can be just as effective as in-person learning, securing a balance between digital and non-digital delivery is vital. An essential factor in your child’s day is their ability to simply play and exercise in fresh air. YouTube exercise videos, playing music, or educational physical games are all excellent ways to keep moving to pass time, let energy out or learn through the body. Physical exercise can present educational options for memory games (learning a dance, number counting), strategy games, or simply keeping healthy.
Although COVID-19 has brought a storm of major disruptions and changes in everyday life, we can be thankful for the opportunities to reconnect with family and think creatively about our children’s futures. Children can now learn in ways that are quite different and complementary to their lives at school. They will almost certainly be working at home for much of their careers. This is the time to instil the routines that make working at home preferable to living at work. And when our children look back on this remarkable time of isolation, the fear that is rampant and thick in the air right now will be overruled by positive memories of the resurgence and regeneration of family time.