The process of waving goodbye to the Upper Sixth students is well underway.
Over the last 3 weeks, I have met with all the students in small groups to chat through their plans for ‘the next stage’. They also seem to enjoy a good reminisce, particularly about the last 2 years, as half of the Sixth Form join Birkdale after GCSEs. Most are still intent on university next year with just a few planning a Gap Year.
What difference has 2 years in the Sixth Form at Birkdale made to them?
Inevitably, we talk about getting great exam results and the mild eccentricities of particular members of staff and preparation for university level study but it is not long before conversation turns to broader and less quantifiable matters. Let me try to summarise the common themes from over 110 conversations.
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. These relationships were clearly very important to the students who poured forth anecdotes and reflections of real depth. 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 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 seems to have been of particular benefit and has broadened horizons for all of the students involved. Every Wednesday afternoon, 2 taxi-loads of Sixth Formers visit the school to help out and to try to raise aspirations, acting as role models for 11 year olds who may not be aware of the huge range of possible careers.
House events allow Sixth Formers to develop leadership skills: public speaking, arranging sports teams filled with, sometimes disorganised, younger boys and sustaining energy and enthusiasm towards the end of a long term all demand determination and resilience. A number of students remembered particular House assemblies with some fondness, sometimes for the content but often the experience of watching a friend take charge.
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. Sport, Drama and Music all featured heavily in the students’ enjoyment of school.
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. Students had discovered that teachers were real people with a life beyond school as well as having a passion for their subjects.
The leaving students appeared mildly anxious about their A level examinations, as they should do; stressed enough to work hard and achieve their best but not so worried that they are unable to revise effectively. At this stage 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.
A leavers’ assembly this week gave me the opportunity to ramp up the rhetoric and stray into valedictory mode. I also offered some advice, hopefully without being too pompous; this year my theme was around seeing and taking the opportunities that the students will have to grow and develop. Too often, a lack of confidence, apathy or the search for the perfect opening stops people from making the most of the chances that they are given.
The leavers’ lunch was a final social occasion for the students to eat with their Form Tutors, sign year-books and display a new hoody. Over the next few weeks, I will see at least some of them entering and leaving the examination hall and try to soothe the nervous and encourage the worried. The students also have a Prom in a few weeks’ time and we will welcome them all back in August on results day.
Above all, the students seemed ready to move on, suitably impatient and frustrated with the petty regulations that all schools must enforce and possessing the maturity to embrace more freedom and responsibility. Pleased though I am that they have now out-grown school, I hope that their sense of relief is tinged with sadness at leaving a community that they have enjoyed being a part of and that has given them friendships and memories to last a lifetime.