Ready for University? 08.02.19

University isn’t for everyone, and the options available to Grammar School leavers are more varied than ever. Several boys in recent years have decided to avoid getting in debt by joining large companies’ school-leavers schemes whilst an increasing number are tempted by degree apprenticeships. However, about 95% of Loughburians continue into higher education, and we talk a great deal about university places being a benchmark for the school’s success: how many obtain places at their first choice institution; or how many attend a Sutton Trust Top 30 university. Readiness for university is, nevertheless, about much more than the A Level grades obtained. How should we, school and parents combined, ensure that our boys are ready for the independent living and study they will be thrust into?

In the last decade, the number of students dropping out of university has increased, and I worry that this is because school leavers are not sufficiently independent to cope with living on their own in college halls. A Channel Four programme I saw about a year ago quoted that 10% of students drop out of university before their second year. The LGS figure is much lower, but nevertheless it is always a surprise to Grammar School staff to hear about boys who have decided to leave the university that they worked so hard to get into. Often we hear about not enjoying the course, and a decision that perhaps university is not the right route. In a way, this is reassuring because boys have made an important positive decision about their futures. Studying for a further three years is not for everyone, but one cannot ignore the strength of the expectation to go to university among Sixth Formers, which sometimes means that boys find it difficult to appreciate that an employment-based route might be their better option.

What concerns me more is that some LGS alumni enjoy their courses but find independent living a burden. While it is lovely to see a number of our leavers on our sports touchlines supporting younger brothers at Quorn on a Saturday, I am surprised to learn about how many routinely come home for the weekend – this certainly wasn’t something that was done among my friendship group when I was a university student. I am sure that parents are delighted to see their sons, and to make sure that they have been fed properly. Regrettably, some come home with their laundry – a stereotype that I’d urge all parents to break! However, I ask myself whether this is healthy. Shouldn’t undergraduates be staying in their university accommodation over the weekend, cementing their social relationships and learning how to keep house? If not at university, then when will they have their culinary disasters? When will they learn that bathroom hygiene is their responsibility?

To prepare boys for university, we (both school and parents) need to ensure we’re not doing everything. I’ve written on several prior occasions of the need to step back and allow our sons to fail from time to time. We should not be the ‘helicopter parents’ hovering around their heads ready to resolve the slightest difficulty. We should reject the argument that, since a boy is preparing for A Levels, he should not be helping with the household chores. As with most things in life, there is a happy medium to be struck. We should resist the temptation to fight all of our sons’ battles. We should encourage them, even boys in the lower years of the school, to raise their problems directly with their form tutor rather than automatically stepping in. Of course, there will always be the time for parental intervention but can we keep this as a last resort?

Can we allow our sons to travel alone on public transport rather than taxiing them to the door whenever they need it? Obviously, the answer to this question depends on their level of personal responsibility: I sent one son across France on his own by train at the age of 14, whilst I’m not sure I’d trust the other to go on his own to the newsagent at the end of the road. However, I would suggest that we should have the reflex to ask ourselves the question as to whether we can give our sons a bit of space to be independent. It’s really a form of delegation: a skill many of us exercise daily in our professional lives. In our jobs, we know that delegating tasks to younger, less experienced team members is an essential part of helping them to develop. There’s no difference with our children. They will thrive with appropriate delegated responsibility. If we are reluctant to do so, we will, as a parent, become frazzled like the hero boss who insists on doing everything him-/herself.

We know that we must have the same approach in lessons. Teachers are trained not to answer boys’ questions directly, but to ask their own questions that get boys to think and to work out the answer for themselves. This is done precisely to ensure that, when boys are confronted by difficult intellectual problems, either in an examination, or in life, that they have the mental flexibility to think their way around a solution. This is why spoon-feeding is so counter-productive. If your son has under-performed in one of his mock examinations, it might be tempting to think that it’s the school’s responsibility to force-feed the missing knowledge into his mind through extra lessons and surgeries, However, even if we had the time to do so, he could not be guaranteed to retain it. Only by actively engaging with a task can the brain automatize a process. In other words, we learn most effectively by doing, rather than listening to others telling us how to do it.

Ultimately, I would argue that a young man, who is used to making his own decisions, and finding solutions to his own problems, whether academic or practical, is likely to be an undergraduate who thrives at university, rather than becoming one of the dropout statistics.