Making University Worth Your While

If I had my time again…

by Harry Constant

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. 

10 years of Bonas MacFarlane Art

Examples of students work

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.

Why we think the Bonas MacFarlane Academic Assessment is so helpful?

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.

C-19 lock down and School Fees

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.

This article from Good Schools Guide sets out many of the key issues.


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 advice@goodschoolsguide.co.uk.

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.