22 March 2021

The Monday Briefing: I will

The Monday Briefing: I will

In amongst the seemingly relentless Lateral Flow Testing and apparently omnipresent student agitation regarding Teacher Assessed Grades, respite has been provided through conducting several interviews with alumni recently as part of the College’s ‘Azoomni’ series. Something which simply would not have happened were it not prompted by the technological familiarity towards video calls encouraged by the pandemic, it has been a privilege to reconnect with recent students who have started to forge their own careers. Universally, they have enthusiastically praised the College for its assistance in embedding characteristics of aspiration and a commitment to their studies. I know that several staff have found enjoyment in watching episodes featuring those they have worked with go on to fulfil their potential, and I hope that they illuminate the way forward for current students too. Alumni are a vital part of any school or college community as they show what can be achieved to those currently in their studies in the same circumstances, making the message of the potential for achieving success more tangible than that delivered by staff alone.

One particular conversation I enjoyed during the series stands out in having captured the essence of the College above all others. When asked for the reasons for her success at the College, Haya, who attained grades of A*AA in 2016 and is now two years away from achieving her medical degree, responded that in her opinion, only two things are required to be successful: the self-motivation to fulfil your goals and an encouraging environment to stimulate development. These factors are exclusively very important but can also form a potent interconnected relationship. So many students only begin to realise their true potential when they find a place in which they feel comfortable enough to express themselves. Likewise, a number of learners need to sharpen their skills under appropriate tuition and in the right surroundings so that hard work really does start to pay off.

I read a post by Amjad Ali, the influential SEN specialist and founder of Try This Teaching, on LinkedIn the other day. In an attempt to identify the one key attribute of successful people, he picked out commitment, and I’d agree that this is vital for personal development towards goals. At some point, those most dedicated individuals will find a way to triumph - the ‘never give in’ mentality wearing down setbacks and misfortune encountered along the way. However, as Haya pointed out, equally pivotal is a nurturing environment - without this, even the most dedicated individual can reach a point of disillusionment. Everyone needs to feel valued on a personal level, that their voice matters, and that effort and achievement is both recognised and praised, otherwise they could very quickly go from ‘I will’ people to ‘I can’t’ people, or even worse, ‘I can but I won’t’ people.

A great deal of the work of the College pertains to seeking the reversal of this motivational decline in many of our students. 

‘I can’t’

This academic year, in particular, we’ve had some incredible success with students previously termed as ‘school refusers’. I read an article recently by Fran Morgan, the founder of Square Peg, which seeks to effect change for children with attendance difficulties. Written in Schools Week in 2019, the article offers a first hand insight into the issues which some students can face where they just don’t feel they fit in. School avoidance or refusal is, in itself, not a useful term. It implies that the student in question has a choice regarding their attendance, and, because most of these cases are linked to high anxiety levels, the young people in question often don’t - their ‘fight or flight’ responses kick in before they can rationally attune themselves to the idea of in-class learning. The imposed lockdown has certainly exacerbated this issue. There is no doubt that large schools with rules and regulations are not conducive to success and happiness for all children. Their problem is usually not behavioural - they just need to feel that they matter, and are important, and this can be difficult in a large institution. The small College community enables this, in a non-threatening and non-judgemental surrounding, and the flexibility within the disciplinary policy at the College is key in convincing students that education can work for them.

‘I can but I won’t’

Our Intensive programme for GCSE and A Level provides the opportunity for those students who have underperformed to remedy their respective situations. When they arrive at Ealing, their confidence has often taken several knocks. They sometimes feel that a disappointing grade defines them academically, or that teachers who previously may not have had the time to work closely enough with them did not help them enough. Though certainly not restricted to students retaking courses, sometimes they can even demonstrate a hostile attitude towards education itself, questioning its fairness, and spending a disproportionate amount of time seeking the vindication of the excuses they make for not reaching the standards they may have, at some point, aspired to. This is often chiefly encountered with boys who carry out the self-fulfilling prophecy that it is less humiliating to put in minimal effort and fail than to try one’s best and possibly not succeed. This attitude tends to dictate their whole performance: homework late, rushed or not even attempted; lack of revision before assessments; not asking or answering questions in lessons for fear of coming across as trying their best. In response to this, the ‘full court press’ as I like to call it, is often employed. Working closely with parents, a relentless monitoring of students encourages further scrutiny, leaving them with fewer and fewer excuses, until there are none. We can’t profess to having a 100% success record in turning these students around, but an impact is most certainly made.

‘I will’

Without doubt, the most rewarding and fulfilling part of my job is in seeing the complete reversal of the aforementioned motivational decline: to build confidence through an investment in robust relationships between staff and students; to show that work does indeed pay and to see a realisation that consistently high standards of effort will trump one-off ability; to instill a sense of passion for learning and and a sense of belonging to the College for doing so.

I recall very fondly a discussion with a parent who told me soon after A Level results day that her daughter had managed to get a place for her desired course at the university of her choice a few years back having attained disappointing results and so having missed out on all of her offers twelve months previously. 

‘When we sat down with you at the interview, she felt like giving up. But you gave her belief. You told her that she could still get to where she wanted to get to if she gave it her best effort. You told her that you’d help her and you did. I’ll always be grateful for that.’ 

In deeply satisfying conversations like this, one must temper the praise for the College - yes, we provide the right environment, but the lasting personal change comes from within, and it comes most strikingly when students start to tell themselves: ‘I will’.

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