Careful preparation key to students being able to thrive at university

Posted on: 06 Jul 2017

Charlotte Avery, Headmistress at St Mary's Cambridge, responds to recent reports that new students are 'unprepared for university' and details what her school is doing to better equip students for life beyond school.

This week the Higher Education Policy Institute and Unite Students joint report into university-goers’ experiences was released. While it is certainly beneficial to schools wishing to prepare students for Higher Education, and to universities wishing to ensure a smoother transition and level of satisfaction among students, to have a lively snapshot of current university-goers’ experiences, the findings are by no means surprising. Rather it acts as welcome evidence of how the work many schools are already undertaking to prepare students for life beyond school should be upheld, and further developed.

All schools will no doubt already be doing what they can to equip students for their futures, including the transition to 18+ education. One of the primary distinctions, however, of independent schooling, is the freedom that leadership teams have to ‘ring-fence’ activities that they deem essential – and so through careful preparation, we are fortunate to be confident that our students will thrive at university.

We deliver a Sixth Form experience that encourages independent learning (while still providing regular access to subject experts’ direction and feedback) which helps students to learn how to practically manage their learning and engage in thinking on their own. Smaller classes foster beneficial peer-working groups, enabling students to form their opinions and practise explaining and defending them in a ‘safe’ environment before being expected to do so in a less familiar space.

A former Head Girl explained that the best thing our school ever taught her was time management. The independent sector offers a wealth of co- and extra-curricular activities; the primary concern is more likely to be about fitting everything in than being at a loss as to what to choose! Our students are used to the challenge of embracing multiple opportunities with enthusiasm, and more adept at juggling different interests – e.g. prioritising deadlines at the same time as honouring commitments to team mates ahead of sports training or fixtures. This is priceless experience ahead of arriving at university where there will be yet more freedom to manage time and priorities alongside an increased range of opportunities.

Our schools are also in a good position to be able to prioritise young people’s well-being. Support networks of school nurses, chaplains, counsellors, form tutors, Heads of Year and class teachers who have time to get to know students, give students easy access to adult professionals. Strong friendships are better able to develop in an environment that promotes well-being, and so peer support is also valued. With good habits developed during school years, young adults will be better able to adjust to the new surroundings, routines, friendships, support networks, responsibilities (from finances to food shopping and determining their own behavioural boundaries away from the family home) that await. In the unfortunate situation where a student may find the transition more difficult, the habits they have established, and the exposure to adult professionals, gives the knowledge and confidence to seek similar support in the new university setting.

Finally, our strong and purposeful school ethos allows us to invest time in encouraging each young person to be the best version of themselves: setting their ambitions according to their aspirations, talents and interests, and developing a greater sense of clarity of purpose. They are more at ease therefore with the decisions they have made, and more resilient upon encountering setbacks. Quality careers advice and opportunities to access relevant work experience further helps students to make well-informed decisions.

Schools and universities should endorse this report, using it to make the case to continue, and enhance, efforts to ensure students are prepared to take full advantage of invaluable Higher Education experiences.

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About Charlotte Avery

Charlotte Avery is Headmistress at St Mary’s School, Cambridge and GSA President