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Roland Martin - Issue #53

Free their minds

Roland Martin

May 23 · Issue #53 · View online
Headmaster - City of London Freemen's school; Chief Officer - City of London; Chair - Society of Heads - '...write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing' Benjamin Franklin

Free their minds

Oxford don
We welcomed a don down from Oxford on Friday, and I enjoyed a robust collaborative discussion with her about the state of the education-nation ahead of her meeting with key staff at Freemen’s. Aside from teaching the History of early Britain to undergraduates, her main teaching focus is on study skills - essay writing, exam prep, work scheduling and coping with an undergrad’s academic lot. We had previously, fortuitously, met at an Education event up in her College, where my wife pounced on an opportunity to connect her with Freemen’s.
The landscape
Something which we learned, or perhaps something which our visitor confirmed, which we have long suspected, was that sixth form students the length and breadth of the country can struggle to make the leap from school to university because they are not equipped with the right sort of resilience or stamina while at school. There is some truth in the suspicion that students read less than they used to; what they have to read at university is likely, then, a shock to them. Especially given the reading lists which Oxford dons hand out. Today’s students - perhaps it was ever thus? - struggle with the sheer amount of work and the intensity with which one has to attack it. Furthermore, much more independence is demanded from these young scholars than many have previously experienced, being well taught - or more aptly, fed - in schools; it can be beyond frustrating trying to produce the perfect essay in week one, particularly for students used to being the highly (or even over) achieving in school. She confirmed to us all that nobody expects that; you need to be teachable rather than already know it all. She asserted that they (Oxford dons) don’t need perfection, that perhaps students need training to accept as much, that good enough need not always look like perfect.
Free Minds
What was encouraging for us to hear, is that having looked at our Free Minds programme, she was excited that we are actively addressing this shortfall in independent learning - encouraging the love of learning for learning’s sake.
Not so long ago, a colleague was asked by a student, preparing for an exam, ‘What should my personal opinion be?’ and it is just this sort of over-reliance on an ex cathedra schoolmaster that we want to discourage.
The EPQ - which we steer our students towards - is a fantastic further opportunity for independent learning. It also, if the end result is an essay, helps students to think about what a university style essay looks like, something which few tend to be equipped to grasp; what does a university essay look like? What does the question mean? The majority of A level essays are not always the best preparation, as they tend to be more prescriptive, less expansive in tone. Alongside the EPQ, though, the English department is looking to blaze a trail with a free choice component in their new A level syllabus of choice.
Here are a few articles which I’ve found interesting, on why independent thinkers are the way forward, and how to encourage our children to be free thinkers, hard though that may be at times for a parent, as I appreciate myself.
Mehdi Toozhy in the Huffpost reduces the argument for independent children to a very palatable read; why independence is the greatest gift that a parent can give a child:
Dr Jim Taylor writes in Psychology Today on responsible and contingent children - why security is essential but dependence is not, why children need to be learn about accountability and not be cossetted from every potential failure. And he uses the word stymied, which is always going to get my attention.
Following on from that, Jessica Lahey in The Guardian writes of how ‘setbacks, mistakes and failures are the very experiences that will teach [our children] how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative and resilient.’ I’ve written before on why parents need to let their children fail, and referenced that Times letter which I wrote in response to famous actors/directors doing their daughter’s work for her.  Lahey goes a step further in The Atlantic, putting it far more forcefully. Jean-Marie Selvam suggests communication as the answer in her advice to parents on ’riding out the storm’.
Some of the articles are invariably American in tone, but still worth a thumb through, or a click, more accurately these days. Dr Michael Thompson in Parents, for instance, advocating for children being better off without their parents sometimes, a case for boarding, one might wonder; there’s a whole series of associated articles over on Brainy Child, starting with Andrew Loh’s advice in a competitive world; Nathaniel Turner revels in his son’s ability to make up his own mind, writing - and adding Travis Tritt John Mellencamp music clips - in his blog on being a dad, Raising Supaman.
Are admissions tests to blame?
In addressing the epidemic of overly cautious children, we’ve started to look critically at our entrance tests at Freemen’s. In a waiting room last week I was struck by the latest edition of Families Surrey peddling adverts for 11+ tutors across the county, an ad on the front cover and a whole feature inside. Increasingly, we don’t want glib, over-prepared children with rehearsed answers, and neither does Oxford. Interestingly, in her piece, Heather Vale-Goss cites Debbie Mancini-Wilson, a children’s rights activist and author of the children’s poetry book Color My World. ‘I believe that the current 'teach to test’ system which most schools follow is setting our children up for failure. One of the biggest problems that I see around the country is that students are being sat upon; they must check their creativity at the classroom door.’ 

I was aghast to hear that some parents are also paying tutors not only to coach their 17 and 18 year olds into Oxford but also taking the coaches to the interviewer’s front door. Parents are paying tutors to drill these strung out young men and women in the lores of an Oxford interview in tea rooms adjacent to Colleges minutes before the main event.  I stand by what I always say: if a child needs tutoring to get into an institution, they shouldn’t be there; there will be another course, another university, college, professional training course, which better suits the applicant. You don’t want to be a member of a club that doesn’t want you or one in whose company you are ultimately not comfortable. And if - at the age of 17 or 18 - you need (rather than want) to be accompanied to an interview, that’s probably telling you something …
What an Oxford interview looks like
Our visitor did let us see behind this particular curtain; we were not massively surprised, but again, grateful for the reassurance. The dons are looking for teachable students, young men and women who are prepared to debate, discuss and discover. Yes, they will try to present students with something they won’t have seen before; yes, like we do with applicants for places at Freemen’s, if a whiff of tutoring is suspected, they will go hard in to unpick that and try harder to push a student and see what is under that veneer. They want to see someone in front of them that they will gladly see week after week for three years, someone whose curiosity and appetite for learning is infectious - teachers and tutors need a little stimulation too, that extra X factor that an exciting student brings to the table.
A plan
We are hoping to invite our guest back in the early Autumn to speak to students. We might even ask her to speak to parents too. Ideally, to answer these questions: Why are we wanting to prepare independent learners? Why does this matter for university? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

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