'Schools need to redouble their efforts to deliver some "tough love" early so that pupils can develop into confident and resilient young people'

Posted on: 10 Jul 2017
Posted by: Hilary French

Hilary French, Headmistress of Newcastle High School for Girls, considers the issues of a recent report which states more can be done to prepare young people for university.

Headlines have warned that many students are floundering when they get to Uni – and the experience is nothing like they’d expected. Whose fault this is, is open to debate. The issue has come to light following the publication of a report by the UK’s think tank on higher education, the Higher Education Policy Institute co published by United Students.

Worryingly, the report shows that many students are woefully unprepared for the realities of Uni life - from the rigours of learning, to independent study and living – many are struggling to cope and it is certainly not the experience they’d hoped or prepared for!

The report and the resulting headlines made us all sit up and not only take notice, but review our own practices. We were keen to ensure that we’re doing enough to equip our young people with the skills they need when they leave school and enter new environments, including Uni. The media blame game that followed the report’s publication pointed the accusing finger at schools, sixth form colleges and mollycoddling parents.

But realistically, what more can we do to help?

As a school we know we do not operate in a vacuum and recognise we are responsible for preparing young people for the world beyond our school gates.

Leaving school and home for the first time is a huge step and it is normal to experience a range of emotions and vulnerability. Most people find they run the gamut of emotions in their final year of school especially during the application process in preparation for university. Those who only focus on the excitement of the next chapter without addressing the potential pitfalls, or acknowledge their emotional wobbles, are often those who have the rudest of awakenings. When faced with the reality of their solitary bedroom in Uni Halls, the need to shop and prepare their own food and the fact that they may have as few as only 6 contact hours each week, it is then that it can all come crashing in.

Most expect their education path to be a progression – but the jump from A level to Uni – can feel more like a slide. From the report and from our own experience with some of our past pupils, many do feel they are learning more, but are sometimes slightly underwhelmed by the contact time and the lack of pastoral support available. Even more worrying from the report were the high levels of negative feelings among today’s students – over half have had trouble sleeping and a quarter have experienced panic attacks.

Making young people confident and robust enough to deal with emotional set backs is key to changing these negative patterns as well as managing expectations. Both are crucial for any successful transition and we all have a part to play . One of the biggest hurdles is the reality of all that they will face and have to do for themselves, on their own, in unfamiliar environments with people who are not familiar.

At Newcastle High, we start this process by encouraging girls to see themselves as part of the world beyond school and this starts from an early age. The starting point for our curriculum and teaching is helping our girls to understand themselves and developing generic skills and competences which will stand them in good stead in a rapidly changing economic, social, and technological world. At the heart of these skills are resilience and determination. Building up strength of character enables girls to deal with whatever life throws at them whether at university, in work or in personal relationships.

Small steps are taken early – annually we mix form classes to encourage the girls to make links with each other, breaking down barriers, encouraging wider friendship groups, and an ability to build new relationships. We are part of a UK wide network of 26 schools, the Girls Day School Trust (GDST)– and work across this network to extend relationships beyond the confines of our school. The bonds that are formed within GDST can be lasting and are often resurrected at Uni or in the workplace. The reach of the GDST network is amazing.

In building this resilience and fostering networks we aim to encourage a broad world view, one in which girls are confident about who they are, and the role they play and we hope are not afraid to be in new places with new people.

Life is sometimes hard, often not fair and rarely lives up to our expectations. We help girls to experience these vicissitudes in a ‘safe’ environment while growing up so that they can deal with disappointment.

Our CareerConnect initiative uses parents, employers, alumnae and HE institutions to inform girls and give them real role models, real stories of challenges overcome and failure used as a learning experience as well as broadening support networks and establishing career connections.

Taking the initiative and building your own support network is also important; understanding that a virtual network of “friends” on social media is not an adequate replacement for face to face contact and discussion is a new life lesson we need to teach our children. If we equip them with the basic social skills necessary to make human contact and build relationships in those crucial first few days and weeks away from home, their experience will be very different from someone who is relying on their phone, or computer to reach back to friends and family miles away.

Of course, schools, parents and the universities themselves, all have a duty of care to prepare young people for life but we will not fulfil this responsibility if we merely create more scaffolding and safety nets around them. This will only generate even greater dependency and fuel the ‘entitlement culture’; instead, we need to redouble our efforts to deliver some ‘tough love’ early so that we develop confident and resilient young people.

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About Hilary French

Hilary French is Headmistress at Newcastle High School for Girls GDST, a leading day school for girls aged 3 - 18.