THE TRANSITION FROM SECONDARY TO HIGHER EDUCATION -WHY DO WE PROVIDE SUCH LITTLE SUPPORT TO YOUNG PEOPLE ?

 

The transition from primary to secondary school is known to be worrying for many pupils. They have to adapt to a more challenging school setting with different academic structures and expectations. They have to interact with new teachers and peers leaving behind what is known, secure  and routine . A significant minority of pupils experience a range of difficulties in adjusting to secondary school ,evidenced by a drop in performance, unreliable attendance, behaviour problems and increased anxiety.

But its often forgotten that the  social and academic challenges for pupils are just as real in the transition from secondary school to college and Higher Education. Young people are moving from one familiar learning environment to another very different one, requiring a different set of skills.  For example: self-belief, self-reflection, resilience,  critical thinking, independent learning  and,  crucially, management of expectations.

Many, particularly from the most disadvantaged cohort, are ill prepared for it.

A recent Roundtable this month,  hosted by Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of University of Buckingham , chaired  by Mary Curnock Cook,  looked  at the issues affecting students   in this transition. Sir Anthony  said that in his over 20 years of running secondary schools it had become very clear to him that there was a signal lack of connectivity and understanding between the secondary and Higher Education sectors. Schools don’t think that what happens in Universities has much to do with them, and vice versa.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  Research for his booklet for the Social Market Foundation ’Solving the Conundrum: Teaching and learning at British universities’ revealed very low levels of knowledge and interest from HEIs in what is actually happening in schools. Dr Harriet Jones, of UEA,  has developed a particular interest in students transition from sixth forms/colleges to Universities, developing  Pre-University courses for students  which are used in over 300 schools to help prepare  students  for this transition.

Dr Jones said there was an obvious   chronic mismatch between what students expected from university study and what they actually experienced.  Surveys have shown that students, before they go to university, really don’t think  much about the academic challenges and transition that they face and what skills they may require to cope with their course work at university – instead, they think almost entirely about the social transition.  You have to understand young people’s perceptions and expectations to have a deeper understanding of the nature of the challenges they face in transition.  For example, a survey referenced by Dr Jones ,  found that 80% of those young people surveyed thought that all their university work would get personal feedback from a tutor and a similar percentage thought that a tutor would look at the first draft of their work.  So, differing expectations are a consistent and widespread problem.  Other Surveys, including the NSS, make it abundantly clear that young people believe that Universities are not delivering what they expected they would deliver.  This disjunction between their expectations and what they actually experience, needs to be addressed pro-actively.  A better and deeper shared understanding between students and universities has to be developed. .  They need to be informed – ie, this is what will happen in your first year and this is how you can  prepare for it. . Sixth formers are not being told what university is like and how it differs from the school learning environment.  In schools they are programmed to be taught by teachers to pass the test and exams.  The system is assessment driven.  That is what they are used to and prepared for.  At University it’s a  different learning environment. More of a partnership model where individuals need  agency and self-efficacy,   working with their tutors to develop as learners, needing  more  self-motivation  and initiative  and without the disciplined structure afforded by a school environment.

So, if there is a different approach to teaching and learning why don’t we better prepare young people for it?  And who should take responsibility? The answer is probably both schools and universities.

There are worries that a lack of funding in schools, colleges and sixth forms  is serving to narrow the curriculum offer,  further making it  even less likely that pupils will have the skills they need when they arrive in higher education. So there is surely scope  for universities to  step up to the plate on this and perhaps dedicate  some of their outreach funds to address this challenge.

Through Pre-University study courses and support in the first year at University there are a range of interventions that can help. But we first have to acknowledge that a problem exists. The Brilliant Club  has been doing some interesting work in this area. In seeking  to increase the number of pupils from under-represented backgrounds (those on Pupil Premium etc) progressing to highly-selective universities , it mobilises the PhD community to share its academic expertise with state schools through its Scholars Programme and Researchers in Schools,  running academic enrichment programmes. Students do apparently get a real sense of what will be required of them from people who have been through the process who act as mentors.

Dr Jones suggested that good sixth form preparation for HE, might include, for example

  • 3 A Levels
  • An Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)
  • Core Maths
  • Pre-University skills course

 

Much  more clearly needs to be done . To be fair some universities are already on  the case, but  the time has come for a more structured systematic  and coherent approach.  It  needs more  leadership from  the sector,   resources and  political backing,   to gain real momentum .

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POSITIVE THINKING IS GOOD FOR US-OR MAYBE NOT ?

According to a Danish psychologist the art of positive thinking is turning us all into depressive psychotics. Professor Svend Brinkmann is the author of Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze’ He suggests that navel gazing and all that positive thinking should stop and life coaches, nice as they may  be, should be sacked.
We should instead focus as much on negative thinking. Appearing on the BBC  Today programme,  on 20 February,  with Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham,  he said “There are negative things in our world and in order to understand them we have to speak concretely about them and not cloud them in positive thoughts or sugar- coating’ He added that there appears to be a new duty of happiness,-we are not allowed to be unhappy, and are constantly required to think positive thoughts because when we are unhappy “we are inefficient as human resources” –but Brinkmann has a problem with this view . We shouldnt change our emotions into positive ones as this distorts our view of reality and puts more pressure on ourselves. .He reminded us  what Nietzsche wrote, in (The Twilight of the Idols), “Mankind does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that.” (Actually now, as it happens, they also strive for happiness in Bhutan, where Gross Domestic Happiness is the overarching political goal!) Nietzsche had in his sights the English utilitarian thinkers.(Bentham etc)-Mind you, I am still struggling to identify anything that Hitlers favourite philosopher Nietzsche got right .
People constantly fail in the quest for self-improvement. Its an ideology around personal choice says Brinkmann and this needs to be resisted.
Sir Anthony, responding, agreed that some approaches to positive thinking serve to infantilise the issue and places us in the realm of La la land. But this has nothing to do with positive psychology or its robust evidence base. The appeal of positive psychology its about building capacity and building on our strengths, so we can better cope with and manage adversity.
Sir Anthony rather likes the analogy of a waterfall to illustrate our current approach. As things stand we wait till some fall over the edge of the waterfall ,and its only when they hit the bottom that we take action. Then everyone rushes in to help. Much better surely to prevent people going over the edge in the first place, which is where positive psychology comes in. He subscribes to the approach “ If you want to feel good, do good”
The University of Buckingham has a long tradition of looking after students, he said, preventing them falling over the edge of the waterfall but its positive programme also, importantly, supports staff.
Brinkmann said his main concern is not positive psychology, as a scientific enterprise but the way its researched, and how this is filtered down and interpreted by its practitioners . When pushed for an example of where things are going wrong due to positive psychology he said that  in employee reviews (in Denmark) for example often you are only allowed to talk about your successes and what’s positive in your life but that is what serves to  in effect infantilise people.
Seldon pointed out that the positive psychology approach when applied at  Wellington College where he was the Master for 8 years, students saw a transformation in their A level results- indeed it was one of the most improved schools in the country . Forget  La La land “Mindfulness embraces the real’ he said . With regard to evidence he mentioned specifically Penn State University and the work of Professors Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth as providing solid evidence as to positive psychology’s impact. Brinkmann claimed though that research on the impact of positive psychology has had very mixed results.