I have just bid farewell to the U6 yeargroup. Hopefully the students will spend the next few days in further independent revision before showing their best form in the exam room after half-term. Year 11 and the L6 are also away on exam leave, albeit for a temporary absence, meaning that an eerie quiet has descended upon the school.
‘Exam in progress’ signs have appeared in unlikely places and the remaining students must find new routes from lesson to lesson in an eccentric and continuously changing orienteering course.
Teachers feel slightly bereft having spent the last few weeks building up to a crescendo of past-paper marking, extra tutorials and revision sessions. Rather like an orchestra falling silent after the final chords of an enormous romantic symphony, they now pause for a moment of reflection and recovery after a performance that has drained the emotional energy as well as the physical reserves.
I am always amazed at the changes that have occurred in the U6 over 2 short years, the personality development that has occurred in transforming uncertain 16 year olds into distinctive near adults. Of course the students grow and change before the Sixth Form and will continue to mature through their university years but the change seems most striking through this period.
Prospective Sixth Form parents frequently ask me what role the school plays in this transformation and what difference attending Birkdale would make to the character, skills and life-chances of their offspring. A pragmatist might merely point to the Sixth Form waiting list and leave it at that. However, the question deserves an answer even if it is difficult to disentangle the effects of environment upon development: clearly no student can attend Birkdale and take some other option for these 2 years, preventing a direct comparison of outcomes.
Inevitably I talk initially about fine exam results, preparation for university level study and the academic value added by the school but I quickly move on to the ‘values added’. All good school Sixth Forms provide a myriad of opportunities for honing social abilities and learning to develop and manage real (rather than virtual) relationships with a host of other students of different character and interests as well as with younger pupils and with teachers. Community living prevents anonymous interactions and inevitably promotes some degree of honesty, kindness and commitment to others and many life-long friendships are forged within the Sixth Form years. Formal community service helps many students to become less self-centred and more aware of the lives, needs and concerns of others. At Birkdale we have a number of community service projects; a partnership with a maintained sector primary school on the other side of Sheffield has been of particular mutual benefit and has broadened horizons for all of the students involved.
The unfolding tragedy caused by the earthquakes in Nepal has prompted an unusual and amazing degree of generosity from the school community this term. Because of our personal links to some of the people of this unfortunate country this event will certainly shape the attitudes and views of many students towards empathising with the plight of others on a life-long basis.
House events allow Sixth Formers to develop leadership skills: public speaking, arranging sports teams filled with often disorganised younger boys and sustaining energy and enthusiasm towards the end of a long term all demand determination and resilience. Extra-curricular activities tend to develop team work skills: loyalty to others and a desire to play for the team rather than for individual glorification are important life-lessons.
The classroom dynamic in Sixth Form lessons is subtly different from the rest of the school: teaching small groups of students who have genuinely chosen the subject of study alters the relationship between student and teacher in a way that encourages greater expression of individuality and open discussion. A level study demands a much greater level of independence of the student and meeting this challenge entails taking a greater share of the responsibility for learning. By the time they reach the second half of the U6 the students have offers of university places riding on achieving particular A level grades and this brutally clear scenario induces maturity in even the most reluctant workers.
The school won’t be quiet for long: the students who are entering the L6 in September attend an induction week towards the end of term and I look forward to watching them grow.