We were delighted to welcome sixth formers, teachers and parents from across the UK to this recent forum hosted by the Independent Schools Show.
Our specialist US College Consultant, Jamie Boygo was joined by admissions teams from Tufts University, Northeastern University and Tulane University to discuss what makes an application truly stand out from the crowd.
The last few months have been flooded with debates surrounding our past. In particular, questions have been asked of the way Britain remembers its history. Important conversations have been started by the Black Lives Matter movement, questioning the way we present our heroes and the voices we choose to amplify within our history. School curriculums are key in shaping perceptions of Britain’s past, which play a huge role in our culture and beliefs. A burst of online petitions and protests have demanded we ‘decolonise the curriculum’, but what does this mean and how can we do it?
A large part of this movement is the obvious need to promote works from more black and minority voices across a range of subjects – especially English Literature and History. This is another hugely important discussion, but as a history tutor, I will focus mainly on the content I have taken issue with in schools’ curriculums over the past few years.
I have had moments of disbelief when teaching from clearly outdated textbooks. Few offer a balanced view, with the British Empire still portrayed as a force of good across the world and minority voices often pushed to the side.
As one example, a common entrance revision guide I was recently using to help teach a Year 8 student had a whole section about 19th century Imperial rule in India. The 19th century was a brutal period of colonial rule, with British officials disregarding local customs and stripping India of resources, resulting in mass famines. Despite this, the revision guide in question only used one case study to highlight rising tensions – the Indian mutiny, where Indian soldiers rose up against the British and killed unarmed British civilians. Whilst it is important to view cases like these in context, highlighting this one event alone helps feed the narrative implemented in school history curriculums from a young age that we are historically the ‘good guys.’ Although the killing of civilians was a shocking moment, the British soldiers also responded brutally, burning villages and killing Indian soldiers and civilians in return. There is no mention of this in the revision guide, which chooses to focus solely on one atrocity against the British during colonial rule rather than offering a balanced perspective, which would find that there were many more atrocities committed by the British Imperials than suffered by them. There is no mention of the hundreds of thousands of Indians who were killed or starved to death due to brutality and misgovernment around the same time. Instead, the guide chooses to ignore this part of Imperial history.
Even as far back as the Crusades, textbooks have a tendency to create one-dimensional British heroes. On the same page, one history textbook describes Richard the Lionheart as ‘devout, strong and courageous’ before writing of how ‘he openly massacred… several thousand Muslim prisoners.’ Despite bringing light to this event, Richard is still named as ‘courageous’ and ‘brave’ and sent to ‘free the city of Jerusalem from the Muslims.’ Again, few Crusader atrocities are mentioned pre A-level and no effort is given to portray Saladin and the people on the other side as anything more than a vague mention of ‘the Muslims.’
It wasn’t until university I found out about the horrendous atrocities committed by the British Empire. I remember feeling physically sick when reading about the methods of torture used by British soldiers against the Mau Mau people in the 1950s, anger at the slaughtering of Indian civilians at the Amritsar Massacre in 1919 and confusion when finding there was more to Winston Churchill than just the cartoon-like grumpy yet charming war hero we are taught from a young age to know and love. My school history lessons rightly covered the horrendous loss of life during both world wars, but never once taught me about the over one million Indian soldiers who served in World War One, or the 2.5 million African soldiers. In addition, the curriculum is quick to tell us about the importance of the Magna Carta in building modern Britain, but less so about the Windrush generation brought into reignite the economy after World War Two. There is a distinct lack of minority voices among historians, primary sources and textbook authors throughout school curriculums. When looking at History, students should grow up with a view that considers everything.
In a 2019 YouGov poll, 32% of British people stated they were proud of the Empire, with 19% saying they were slightly ashamed and the rest unsure. So that’s 49% of people who don’t know enough to express an opinion about the Empire, a key part of our history.
The government has dismissed the need for an overhaul of the history curriculum, which is a mistake. Black Lives Matter has opened new opportunities to revisit uncomfortable debates and we should be seizing them with both hands. Positively, schools such as Winchester, St. Pauls and more have taken this moment to ‘reconsider’ their curriculums, investigating a lack of attention on Britain’s role in the slave trade and the darker parts of Imperial history. Children should be learning everything about our historical figures and events – the good, the bad and the ugly. We appear to be ashamed of admitting the flaws of our heroes and national figures. Instead of ‘Winston Churchill was a wartime leader who did no wrong’, why can’t we have ‘Winston Churchill was an important, intelligent and charismatic wartime leader, but also held controversial opinions and was partly responsible for a manmade famine which killed many people in India.’ We need to present students with a balanced view, instead of raising our heroes on pedestals and erasing the bad bits of history. Now is the time for a rethink of our national curriculum, embracing both the happiness and the pain that Britain has caused in its long and bloody history.
Useful / well-rounded resources:
BBC Bitesize History – Generally offers a more balanced view of common History topics than school textbooks.
Has time lost all meaning? Even our most trusted and reliable metric seems to have succumbed to the endless bedlam of pandemic life. Just yesterday we were grimly addicted to a sombre tea-time address from three men on podiums and now, we’ve had a couple of reduced-price suppers, cancelled (then rebooked, then cancelled) a few holidays and suddenly it’s September, the heatwave is over and it is back to school.
It’s all a little unsettling. Here’s how you can help your child adjust:
Reinstate Routine – Much research has gone into the efficacy of routine in helping children handle grief and trauma and the same applies to adapting to major change. The return to school will enforce some structure back into family life. It will no longer be acceptable for them to be eating Wotsits in their pyjamas at 2pm. Whilst this may feel like a major imposition on their newfound liberty, having to be showered, dressed, homework completed, school bag packed etc will restore purpose, giving them a timetable and more definition between work and play. If some of their extracurriculars have been cancelled, insert a few yourselves. Family games night on Wednesdays, Zoom with the grandparents on Sundays, pizza on Fridays. The reassuring recurrence of these events will provide some certainty in a most uncertain time. Establish as many as you realistically can keep up.
Admit when you don’t know the answer to a Corona related question
Will we see our cousins at half-term? When will things go back to normal? Why does Mrs Wilkinson’s mask make her look so weird?
Parents and teachers are often held up as gatekeepers to all the world’s information but it is absolutely ok to explain that we are dealing with something highly unusual here, many variables are unknown and some of what we think we know, we might get wrong as the situation is constantly changing. Don’t attempt to conceal your uncertainty and worry by not talking about it. This will increase the fear it conjures in young minds, not unlike horror films, the most effective of which you never actually see the evil, you only sense it. Bring Covid out of the shadows and into the light and the whole thing becomes less scary. Joke about it, explain that everyone is having to ride the coronacoaster and all of us (including the politicians) are having to wing it.
Accept that all safety precautions and preventative measures implemented by the school will not succeed all the time. My primary school teacher friend had me in hysterics regaling her dismay at duly quarantining the class rubbers for 72 hours after each and every use, only to find her pupils licking each other in the playground during break. They are only 6 years old. Encourage your children to adhere to all safety efforts but let’s not get overly neurotic. If everyone does their best, most of the time, then with any luck, it should be enough. Which brings me on to…
Give everyone a 25% margin of being a covidiot. I got yelled at by a lady ambling out of a supermarket the other day. She was ignoring the massive arrows and exiting through the entrance.’That’s not 2m!!!” she shrieked. My eyebrows shot up. “I’ve got vulnerable people at home” she added, as if it were case closed. Honestly, reader, I was seething at the pure injustice of it. Yet it has taken me years to realise there is no point arguing with idiots. – it does the blood pressure no good. Emit a silent sigh and bite your tongue because we never fully know the burden someone else is carrying. This woman and I are not operating under the same circumstances. We all have vastly different home set-ups, family demographics, health concerns, attitudes to risk, anxiety levels, political ideologies and we certainly all have different theories on how we would have handled this better if we were in charge. Allow everyone – teachers, pupils, other parents – a margin of getting it a little wrong and extend that tolerance, compassion and empathy to yourself too. Trust me, it’s a better way to live.
Look for the good. Sorry to go all ‘gratitude warrior’ on you but dwelling on the positive where you can is crucial. It becomes easier the more often you force yourself to do it and will have a knock-on effect on the perceptions of those around you. Yes, it has been an awful time, but hey, it’s also been fascinating. Humanity has had to rapidly innovate and adapt to survive. There have been notable winners as well as losers (shout out to anyone who bought shares in Zoom at the beginning of the year). Our human spirit has found benefits to this new life, salvaged from the wreckage. That’s the macrocosm but in the microcosm find as much joy in the minutiae of family life as you can, celebrate each and every achievement even if it feels insubstantial in the grand scheme of things. This morning one of my students was dancing with happiness on scoring 41% in a maths test. Not impressive in isolation but given that she used to hit 30%, this was a milestone. Celebrate them all. Attitude is everything.
I recently heard someone say that they are looking forward to the moment when things become precedented again after Covid 19. I think we can all agree that a little normality would go a long way towards calming the storm whipped up in the wake of all the changes we have seen. Schools and universities have been hit hard by the UK’s attempts to navigate the best course through the pandemic. However, there are some common, perhaps subconscious assumptions about teaching and learning that Covid 19 has given us cause to question. In the long term, I think that the true value of private tutors will be better understood as a result.
We often associate learning with a specific place and time. For many, school is a limiting factor on their education, a place that bounds and confines the potential for new opportunities and challenges. Now, parents may rightly be questioning whether there are other options for their children. Whether out of concerns for safety, the demands of practicality or the preferences of individuals, people are seeking out alternative times and places for their children to learn. One of the more obvious options available is hiring a tutor.
The greater flexibility and more personalised learning experiences that having a tutor makes possible has always been useful, but never more so than now. Perhaps more families will take the opportunity to hire a live-in tutor now that we are advised to keep social contact to a minimum. I expect that many will come looking for tutors because of the pandemic, but that they will continue to use them long after the present crisis is averted. Tutors are a little like academic umbrellas. Most people go about their lives without bothering to use them. Most of the time, the rain is only a little annoying, sometimes the weather is even sunny. In most cases, parents only look for tutors around exam time or in other important moments in a student’s development, but, much like umbrellas, once you get used to having one around, it is difficult to imagine how you ever got by without one.
If I tried to list all the advantages of using a tutor, we would most likely have a new head of Ofqual by the time I finished. Tutors provide a learning environment free from the pressures and expectations of peers. In a classroom, it might seem more important to crack a joke than note down that physics formula. In a Zoom class, there is often no need for any engagement at all. With a tutor, your questions are not lost in the maelstrom of considerations even the best of teachers cannot overcome all the time. Even the most dedicated teacher will struggle to give each individual student the degree of attention that a tutor can. And now, the value of having the chance to learn in the comfort and safety of their own homes has probably never looked more appealing to students.
So many things have become available to us in our homes lately. It seems as if you can find a take-away option for almost anything at the moment. The tutors from Bonas MacFarlane are no exception. Unlike a standard take-away, Bonas MacFarlane does not make a mess of your kitchen or give you a stomach ache the next morning. In fact, the report system used by our tutors helps to ensure that you are kept in the loop and able to tailor the experience to best suit your children. There is no need to put all of your academic eggs in the uncertain basket of the UK’s school and university system. Get a take-away tutor. They deliver results.
by Jamie Bogyo, US College Consultant | Bonas MacFarlane.
It’s been a rough couple of months for US Universities. Students have had to pack up and leave campus, schools are still scrambling to determine how they should balance remote vs. in-person learning, and Ivy League universities are either suing the US Government over immigration laws or being sued by the US Government for discriminating against white people in their application process. The situation is – to borrow from the verbose tweets of America’s current leader – “Sad!”
In this fraught time for US universities, I’ve found myself reflecting on my own collegiate experience, and the value of US higher education at large. I entered Yale fully expecting to major in Mathematics. Math was by far my strongest subject in high school, so when I walked through Yale’s gothic gates I imagined the wonderful world of Differential Equations, Combinatorics and Analysis would await.
What I didn’t expect was to bounce between majors throughout my undergraduate career – careering between my interests in medieval history, theatre, astronomy, classical civilization, creative writing, and music – before finally settling on theatre studies with a playwriting concentration as my official major. Four years since receiving my undergraduate diploma, I’ve graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where I trained as an actor for three years, and am a playwright with a top literary agent. My life now has no resemblance whatsoever to the one I envisaged when I first arrived on Yale’s campus, cracked open the now digitised “Blue Book” containing more than two thousand undergraduate courses, and decided I’d done so much math in high school that maybe I’d give it a rest for the first semester, just to see if there was anything else I liked.
This, in a nutshell, was what my college experience was all about: the freedom to explore and the opportunity to discover new passions. Also a whole lot of singing, but my musings on undergraduate a capella groups might have to wait for another time. Nowadays, as the chair of Bonas MacFarlane’s US Admissions Team, I help students gain acceptance to universities where I hope they too will uncover new interests from the smorgasbord of academic opportunities offered to them. Whether it’s in sociology, psychology, biology, Egyptology or something that doesn’t end in –ology, there is a whole world of courses and disciplines available at American universities, and I encourage every student I work with to make the absolute most of them during their education.
Because that, in a sense, is their education – not just what they learn at university, but the experience of choosing what it is that interests them and pursuing their own interests, as opposed to following a pre-ordained path decided when they were seventeen. There are several hugely important differences between US and UK Universities (four years vs. three years, cost, Freshers week vs Frat life etc…) but the most fundamental pedagogical difference is the flexibility of the US system.
Students at US Universities don’t have to declare a major until the end of their second year – and even then they still have the option to switch majors, as I continued to do until the fall of my senior year. Ultimately, a student’s chosen major – whether “declared” in freshman or senior year – will still only account for roughly one third of the classes they will take at university – which leaves a whole lot of room for exploration and discovery.
If this sounds like a model that would work for you, you’re in luck. US universities have never been more interested in international students than they are right now. Top schools across America are fearful of the impact Covid-19 will have on their draw to international students and are going to great lengths to expand their international recruitment. Schools are also becoming increasingly flexible with their standardized test requirements. Some are even dropping the tests altogether, removing one obstacle that’s traditionally been a major deterrent to international students who aren’t as familiar with standardized testing as their American counterparts. Additionally, rising fees in the UK and falling fees in the US, not to mention the existence of several “need blind” US universities, means that the price- gap between the two countries is lower than ever.
My academic journey at Yale was one I could never have foreseen when I was accepted. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way. For international students who aren’t sure what interests them most, or are open to studying multiple disciplines in parallel, I always recommend they look at applying to US universities. These universities, in turn, look for an intellectual curiosity and proactiveness from applicants, as these are the students who will make the most of a university’s resources!
I’m incredibly grateful for what Yale afforded me, and I would never have had the freedom to embark on the path I ultimately chose in any other higher education system. I encourage every international student looking at universities to look past the headlines and explore what the US really has to offer. As I learned from my own time in college, you never know what you might find.
Gbenga Ojo-Aromokudu reviews A Search for Belonging by Michael Fuller
Over the past few months, you have likely heard many discussions about defunding the police, and calls to stamp out racism on an individual, and structural level. It is essential that everyone engages with these topics, or British society will never reach an equitable solution to the problem that is racism.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement began in the United States in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer.1 Since then, there have continued to be a disproportionate number of killings of Black people at the hands of the police, both within the US and beyond. Scores of names have unfortunately been added to the list of the deceased, while the perpetrators in many cases have gone unpunished, or simply lost their jobs.
The United Kingdom is by no means innocent when it comes to racism and racist policing. While it is helpful to make comparisons with the United States, it is important to say that being “not as bad as the US” is not inherently good enough. Racism very much exists here and is a problem that must be addressed irrespective of what goes on abroad. To give just one, very recent example, the current Metropolitan Police commissioner recently denied the existence of institutional racism in the force, in response to accusations of racial profiling.2 This is particularly important, given that the Macpherson report of 1997 did in fact label the force as institutionally racist.
For most people, our understanding of the police is based on the present, but not on the past that lead us to be here now. This is what makes Michael Fuller’s book so timely. A Search for Belonging (Bonnier Books), was first published in 2019 when it was titled Kill the Black One First. The book is a memoir by Michael Fuller, who in 2004 became the first Black Chief Constable in the United Kingdom. Fuller examines his experiences as a senior police officer, as well as his life leading up to this appointment.
Fuller was born to Windrush-generation3 Jamaican parents, which provides an additional dynamic to his relationship with British institutions and makes his story particularly important to reflect upon. In this review I will focus on three crucial important moments in Fuller’s story: his decision to become a policeman; an encounter with skinheads; and coming face to face with rioters.
In the second chapter, Fuller recounts the moment he stated his desires to become a policeman to his father and his friends. “They all stared at me as if I had just announced I wanted to be an axe murderer.” Those in the room gave multiple examples why Fuller could not become a police officer, like “Don’t you know they are our enemy?“. However as Fuller attests, the gap between the police and Black communities is not one straight border, but a nuanced and individual relationship. Black police officers do indeed exist.
But when acknowledging the existence of racism in the police force, where does a Black police officer align themselves?
Fuller describes going to a Black barbershop and choosing to conceal the fact he was a policeman, to avoid being ostracised amongst the other customers. The same day, he intervened when passing a Black man being attacked by skinheads, using his police status as a lever to defend the victim. This is a perfect example of the duality (or multiplicity) of the Black identity. Many people want to join the police force with a goal of helping others. While a noble intent, this will only be possible if you as an individual are accepted and supported by your colleagues.
What happened next is both literally and metaphorically an example of the reality of being Black. Fuller entered a phone booth to call for help, and the skinheads continued to threaten and insult him, calling him a “Black bastard.” Fuller notes that “Most criminals did that. It wasn’t enough to call me a bastard. My colour was an important part of their hatred and always had to be named.” Ultimately a police car arrived and the assailants scattered, but had they chosen to physically assault him or worse, his status as a member of the police would not have saved him. If you are Black in a racist system, no amount of accolades or titles can protect you from the danger that your Blackness might attract.
Later, Fuller describes the experience of being on a bus with colleagues and commenting on people on the road outside. These were the events that led up to the book’s title. It was a moment of multi-faceted intersections. While sat on a bus full of white police officers, hearing all manner of racist comments and slurs he had to decide whether or not to speak up. Crucially, he recalled advice he was once given to “not taking it personally” and “sit tight and complain through the official channels“. All the while his “official channel”, namely the Inspector, was engrossed in a crossword. This is so emblematic of discussions around race in the United Kingdom, both then and now. Black people have to spend energy bringing attention to the very existence of racism that is occurring in plain sight, before even getting into the possible solutions.
This episode evokes very clear imagery. Fuller was sat on a bus, with the glass windows reinforcing the metaphorical and physical barrier between the police and the public. Although both parties could see each other, it does not make them one and the same. The other officers spoke with full knowledge that there would be no negative consequences for their words, rendering Fuller himself almost invisible. However, this is contrasted harshly a few pages later, when in a confrontation with rioting crowds, he was anything but invisible. Fuller recalls,“a strange lull and then suddenly a single cry rose from inside the crowd, ‘Kill the Black one first!'” Fuller’s Blackness separates him and isolates him from both the Black public, and the White police force.
The juxtapositions of being Black and existing in a racist environment are crystal clear throughout. By communicating his own experience to the reader, Fuller does an excellent job of holding the mirror up to his reality and allowing us to see it for what it is.
For a more contemporary example of what it is like to work as a Black police officer in Britain, I would really recommend the following episode of the Over The Bridge Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/overthebridgeuk/over-the-bridge-black-police. Topics discussed include: increasing representation within the Met Police, addressing the necessity of the police, and an insider’s perspective on the implicit rules of policing.
The educational landscape has shifted significantly in 2020, with online schooling and tuition becoming the norm. This has worked well for many and has highlighted the benefits, for some families, of a more flexible approach to schooling.
For a long time, I have worked as a residential tutor with children who are either home-schooled during term-time or receiving extra tuition during the holidays. Whether due to the pupil’s particular needs, complicated family schedules or simply down to personal preference, many children spend time being educated at home or while travelling rather than attending a formal institution full-time. The experience of working with a dedicated, residential tutor can be extremely positive and the results can be profound.
For many families, residential tuition provides an excellent solution when travelling abroad; a way of keeping their children’s development on track and in line with the rigorous standards at most British schools. Such was my first residential placement as a fairly new tutor several years ago, when I accompanied a family to Almaty, Kazakhstan. The two children had been attending prestigious London prep schools and the family wished to keep up with and expand upon the curriculum, enabling a seamless transition on their return. The trip was a great success; the children delighted in having their lessons tailored to their interests and abilities and made fantastic progress across the board.
Since then, I have been fortunate enough to join numerous families on their travels across Europe, Asia and the USA. Some, like my pupils in Kazakhstan, were temporarily missing school; many others were preparing for exams or an imminent move to the UK. In these cases, residential tuition can be of great help in order to work on language proficiency and revise key skills and subjects. Likewise, many families take advantage of the summer holidays to ensure that their children keep up with their learning over the long break and return to school in September having filled any gaps and feeling ready for the year ahead. Despite the understandable reluctance of some pupils to have tuition during their holidays, most quickly come to appreciate the regular routine and to enjoy the one-on-one attention of a skilled, motivating tutor.
One of the most unique advantages of residential tuition is having the scope to study and develop topics far beyond the school curriculum. My home-schooled students have often embarked on exciting assignments, frequently informed by the location. Favourite projects have included studying marine life whilst in French Polynesia, American History whilst in Washington, D.C, volcanoes whilst in Asia and the Great Fire of London whilst stopping off in the UK. This cross-curricular approach to research and learning is of huge benefit, and great enjoyment, to a young student. They learn to notice and appreciate their environment and collaborate on an extended piece of work, working alongside an enthusiastic and knowledgeable mentor.
In the UK, we are fortunate in that most schools recognise the benefits of such ‘time out.’ Unlike in many countries, where each school year has to be passed in order to progress, British schools are usually happy to accommodate requests for a term or even a year to be missed in order for a pupil to follow a programme of enrichment. A residential tutor, or team of tutors, can help to optimise that time and ensure an outstanding experience for the family. As for the tutor, it is always rewarding to see the growth and transformation, both academic and personal, that can result from a successful trip.
When your child progresses beyond formal education, how do you want them to sail through life?
Happiness, inner peace and personal fulfillment often come high up on the list; with such admirable goals, why does it often go amiss?
Schools ‘promise’ the delivery of a mind that is academically both analytical and creative, platformed in attributes that will successfully carve a path through career and personal life. What most education systems overlook (including the UK), however, is the immense value of character development.
Why is this important? If you were to forensically examine the curriculums in schools, there is a huge divide between what you learn in school, and the ‘real’ world. For example, the curriculums in the two core subjects – Maths & English – are archaic; whilst there are certain relevant fundamentals that exist in each curriculum, the majority of learning is forgotten as it is never used past the exam itself. Why is Maths so far removed from the business / economical skills that are relevant in day to day life, and why is analysing a literary text taking precedence over effective communication skills (which are incredibly important to healthy relationships).
Like with most social problems, Scandanavian education is pioneering. For example, Finnish schools instill a philosophy of holistic development, a growth mindset and a drive to develop the ‘self’ as well as society as a whole. This is how all education systems should look; whilst other teachers I speak to agree with this, change is hard to enforce as things get worse before they get better: the UK system, for example, will inevitably be overwhelmed beyond the point it currently is (Scandanavian countries are smaller, and therefore it is arguably easier to initiate change).
So what can we do? The home is the most important place a child learns; of any environment, it is where they are inspired or ‘shut down’. Yes, some children are certainly harder to inspire than others (there is a spectrum), but well-guided effort can mitigate these challenges. What we can’t do, however, is continue to overweight our focus on academics. A razor sharp mind is vulnerable to the capricious rhythms and challenges of life if not anchored in a range of underlying characteristics. It is imperative that ‘soft’ skills are developed (particularly as they are neglected in our schools): organisation (sleep, food, time, exercise), resilience, a ‘growth mindset’, listening and speaking skills, teamwork, respect, courage, honesty, humility and independence are some that spring to mind.
Like an iceberg is supported by what lies beneath the water, our minds are guided by these ‘soft’ skills. The biggest changes in my tutees have come about with this holistic viewpoint; in this light, there is life-changing value in thinking outside the box for select periods of your child’s educational journey. Weekly tuition with this holistic lens, homeschooling, residential tutoring or / and a well planned ‘gap year’ in these formative years can have meaningful and seismic positive effects for life. You can do this easily (as long as you take the essential formal exams like GCSEs and A-Levels); with a thoughtful plan, I can guarantee the rewards from this approach will reverberate through their life more than many of the things they learn at school. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘Character is higher than intellect. A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think.’
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.