Page 10 - Independent Schools Magazine
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Preparing students
for the contemporary
university experience
 How well are schools preparing their students for university? What are the contemporary challenges that students face? If
TV dramas like Skins are anything to go by, sex and drugs dominate the scene. Yet comedian Stewart Lee has been critical of such portrayals and doubts
that youngsters are really so ‘con dent, savvy and cool’ when they arrive at university.
So, while it is entirely appropriate that those leaving sixth form will
have received guidance on headline-grabbers such as drugs, alcohol, sexting, and so on, this still leaves many students insecure about and unprepared for some of the more mundane social issues and personal challenges that university presents.
This article’s authors are
a Head of Politics and Citizenship at Stamford Endowed Schools and a Professor of Politics at the University of Essex. They have often compared notes on these overlooked issues... the three in focus here are homesickness, etiquette, and independent study...
70% of students will experience homesickness1. This is not of course a new problem but digital technology makes it easier for students to isolate themselves
in virtual seclusion. Schools, we suspect, drastically underestimate this problem and it is rarely discussed explicitly with students before they leave for university. Stamford Endowed Schools are creating a programme to address this issue, based partly on links with the National Citizen Service (NCS) which university guidance guru
Liz Salt has described as ‘the best kept secret in education’. Let it be
a secret no longer. The NCS2 has a tailored programme of volunteering and teambuilding activities involving two weeks living in university campus dorms. It targets Year 11 students and gives them
a taste of the twin experiences of being away from home and living with new people. Impressively, the whole experience currently costs no more than £50 due to government backing, so there are no cost implications for schools or students. Meanwhile, within Stamford Endowed Schools there is a thriving cooking-for-university course and this year this is being extended to include washing and ironing skills. Most fundamentally, all students will be given speci c guidance
on recognizing homesickness and strategies for tackling it.
Like interactions with peers, interactions with academics do not always slot easily into place. Part of the problem is lecturers’ complaints of a perceived lack of initiative. Schools accustom students to extensive support and a swift answer to questions. Academics are less accessible and less willing to respond
to queries about things like essay deadlines and textbook availability – especially when answers could be readily found
in a handbook or syllabus. The problem is exacerbated by a lack
of formality. Every academic
has a story about a student’s
email beginning ‘Hey Tony’ – or indeed without any greeting at all. Students used to texting and social media are unduly colloquial and struggle to recognise the grades
of formality within university life. Admittedly, academics do not make it easy. All but the oldest are children of the less deferential society that the UK has become over many decades, and many
are comfortable with  rst names rather than titles. Yet academics are not without a sense of their own importance and they resent any assumption of informality.
An echo of French classes can
be useful here. Hopefully most sixth-form students can still distantly remember the distinction between the formal ‘vous’ and
the informal ‘tu’. They then need to learn the norms of usage: you begin by using ‘vous’ with any potential authority  gure, but may then receive a signal to switch to ‘tu’. The rules in academic life are the same: assume formality, and switch to informality if invited. These may seem trivial issues but understanding them not only saves embarrassment and stress but also helps in the building of personal relationships with academics – potentially a very rewarding part of university life.
The challenges of independent study are manifold. There are questions about what and how
to read, how far students can
and should work together, how to take notes during lectures, and above all about the notorious issue of plagiarism. This crime
David Tuck is Head of Politics at Stamford Endowed Schools is the co-author of ‘Political Ideas’ published by Hodder Education
 With mental health and
mindfulness now part of the
national consciousness, schools
need to offer more speci c and
practical guidance about the
challenges of leaving home.
Research from the University of
Warwick show that that up to
1 2
Rob Johns is Professor of Politics at the University of Essex and is author of Takeover: Explaining the Extraordinary Rise of the SNP published by Biteback
intellectual ownership. Plagiarism is covered in some ‘A’ level subjects with heavy coursework elements, but all students should be made explicitly aware of what it is and how to avoid it. This might reasonably be thought the job of universities but, through convention more than lack of time, they provide too little such guidance – especially on academic practice beyond plagiarism. To give their leavers a running start, schools need to incorporate this into their own programmes.
Schools have become adept
at preparing students for the more lurid aspects of university life but at the expense of the more mundane – and the more common. Through proactive working between schools and universities, and eliminating each’s guesswork about the other, students will receive a much improved preparation. Recommendations from such collaborations can easily be worked into existing personal development programmes, and the National Citizen Service in particular provides excellent life experiences at minimal cost. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.
is so much more tempting given the ease of cutting and pasting, and also more confusing in an age of streaming and  le sharing which has blurred the concept of
 10 Independent Schools Magazine
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