Shchool’s Back . . .

You may have noticed Truro High School hitting the national headlines in the last week. We were in the Daily Mail, The Sun, the Daily Mirror and Metro.

It’s enough to start a headmaster’s pulse racing and bring on cold sweats. These papers usually only show an interest in independent schools when there is some sensational scandal. But, no, there was no such scandal at the School, though there was one outside it. Some contractors, who were undertaking work to the School’s electricity supply, found themselves challenged by spelling.

Here’s the offending item:

Spelling mistake outside of Truro High School

The mistake was hastily corrected and there was some debate amongst contractors as to who was to blame, but it did give me an opportunity to crow about our excellent public examination results in the national press, where I was quoted as saying, ‘Our A Level students have just achieved a fantastic set of results with 100% of those taking English getting grade A. If the road repair team need any advice on spellings in the future, we would be more than happy to help!’

It certainly is good to be back at ‘shchool’ after a refreshing summer break and it was a delight to see the many happy, smiling faces on GCSE and A Level results days. Truro High School girls did themselves proud.

It is, however, a turbulent time for the public examinations system and the radical changes which Michael Gove dragged through in the face of a great deal of resistance are only just now taking effect. Next year will see the first papers sat in the new GCSEs, with their (apparently) more rigorous syllabuses and with a numeric grading system from 1 to 9. This summer we had our first results in the new-style AS examinations and next year we will see the same at A Level.

All of this no doubt puts further pressure on young people. Ed Elliott, head of the Perse School, was quoted in last Saturday’s Times as saying, ‘The relentless pursuit of top GCSE grades – the new 9 grade in reformed GCSE will add further pressure to achieve – may compromise both pupil well-being and wider learning.’ (Times 3 September 2016, p. 29).

It is a tough time to be a pupil, and it is a confusing time to be a parent. One of the burning questions must be how are universities going to react? Some, like Cambridge, have relied heavily on AS marks in recent years to select students, but as fewer and fewer students take these, they will be forced to change their approach. Others, like Oxford, have relied on GCSE profile, but how will they react to the ‘mixed economy’ of letter and number grades and to the new grade 9, which is supposed to be more difficult to achieve than the A*?

Unfortunately, like so many things within this realm, we don’t really know what to expect. And we won’t know, until we know. It is impossible to predict what public examination results will be like next summer. Yes, the end of grade inflation has been a good thing and it does allow us to measure results from one year against those from another, but what about measuring this year’s results against those of next? Will that truly be possible? The DfE will of course tell you that it will be, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so. Employers and universities tend to make up their own minds about these things.

One thing that I think is certain to happen, is that there will be a further proliferation of university admissions tests. We already have the BMAT, LNAT, TSA, PAT, HAT, UKCAT, ELAT, MLAT, OLAT . . . Yes, they come in pretty much every combination of letters, although there always seems to be an A and a T in there. Unless you are a student applying to university, or a parent of one, you may not be aware that these tests exist. They are taken at different times of the year, though a good number of them are sat on the first Wednesday of every November in schools up and down the land. Some are subject and university specific (e.g. HAT – for admission to History at Oxford), but others span different universities and subjects (e.g. TSA or Thinking Skills Assessment used by Oxford, Cambridge and UCL for a range of subjects). Some pupils need to take more than one. An aspiring medic, for instance, is likely to need to sit both the BMAT and UKCAT. Each of these are required by a different set of medical schools – though some medical schools still don’t require either. They are completely different exercises too. The BMAT tests a candidate’s knowledge of Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics, in addition to questions which focus on problem-solving and data analysis and a short essay which needs to be written in quite a prescriptive style. The UKCAT is a multiple-choice test with a significant focus on moral and ethic issues and requiring skills in quantitative reasoning, decision making, verbal reasoning, abstract reasoning and situational judgement.

Many of these tests require pupils to undertake a great deal of extra work, as they are not all based on material covered at A Level. In some cases there has been an attempt to make the tests aptitude-based, but it is always possible to prepare for such tests, no matter what their content and style. And so pupils will continue to prepare for them, and schools and other organisations will continue to offer preparation help and advice. The dangerous endgame is a system where such tests are required for entry to the majority of degree courses and where the tests bear little or no relationship to what pupils are studying in school. You might think such a system would be absurd, and you may be right, but it is one endured by young people in plenty of places around the world, including China and the US.

But less the doomsday scenarios. How does one navigate one’s way through the minefield as it stands? That’s where the school comes in. It’s vital that schools are providing thorough, up-to-date and specialist advice and guidance to their pupils. And this needs to start early – the end of Year 12 or the start of Year 13 is far too late. This is one of the reasons why we have been developing our medics academy, Truro Young Medics, for pupils aspiring to read Medicine, Veterinary Science or related subjects at university, starting in Year 10. We have launched a brand new programme for the coming year, details of which will be on the website very soon. One of the exciting events coming up early on is ‘Medics Live’ on Saturday 5 November, which will see up to 60 aspiring medics from schools all over Cornwall joining us for a taste of life at the sharp edge of medicine. Our main hall will be transformed for the day into an operating theatre, with pupils taking part in a series of exciting hands-on workshops to give them a feel for the profession. This is probably not for the faint hearted, but I am sure it will inspire pupils considering this as a career.

In addition to the programme, girls are encouraged to be involved in volunteer work as part of their preparation and we are building up a special link with local residential care homes in order to help them with this. In addition, through the generous donation of a former Truro High School parent we are able to offer two free places each year to Sixth Form pupils to receive individual coaching in preparation for medical school applications. These will be delivered by an experienced coach, who is a medical professional herself.

But it’s not all about Medicine. Whatever a pupil’s ambitions, we want to help her fulfil them. Amongst this year’s leavers the range of university subjects included International Business, Economics, Physiotherapy, Law, Politics, International Relations, Classics, English, Law, Actuary Science, Veterinary Medicine, Marketing, Philosophy, Medicine, Animal Behaviour and Welfare, and Astrophysics. We are proud of all our pupils and we know they will do us proud as they go on to the next stage of their lives. And as these young women go forward, we are looking forward to helping to guide and support the year groups coming up behind them and to ensuring we do all we can to help them achieve their dreams.

‘Shchool’ is back, and it’s an exciting year ahead.


Links to ‘Shchool’ article in the national press:


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