Professional Development: UCAS & Higher Education Reflections

Teaching is a profession where, often, what you do outside of your classroom role is potentially more powerful and impactful than the lessons you teach in your subject. For many teachers, too, it’s one of the cherished parts of the job – the thing that makes it feel vocational, perhaps even the reason you got in to teaching in the first place. Often, they are the highlights of a term, but can also be the thing that puts you under the most pressure: they are the bits of your role that have to be squeezed around the fixed lessons and commitments, and can sometimes be the things you are least trained for.

For me, this is encapsulated in the autumn term by the work that goes in to preparing students for university applications. While this sounds reasonable, and is often a job delegated to form tutors and perhaps Sixth Form leaders, it’s actually a really complex mixture of many of the following components:

  • Helping students to organise and support visits, open days, and research programmes. 
  • Helping students to identify course choices, and research and understand the components of what they might want to study. 
  • Helping students to identify where they might want to study. Supporting ambition, tempering over-ambition, helping them get to the right level for them. 
  • Navigating the difficult discussions and decisions where students cannot make up their minds, and need guidance on the relative merits of deferred entry, or applying a year later, sandwich degrees, gap years, have too broad a choice approach, or cannot quite reconcile all of these things with expectations.
  • Supporting and managing the process of predicted grades, and how they are issued, debated and evidenced if appropriate for your school environment. 
  • Supporting students to complete the physical application form, and understanding all of the small components that can be tripping them up. For example, fee codes, or qualifications to solve and how all of that needs to be exact and perfect!
  • Supporting students to write personal statements, particularly when they are so diverse and may include difficult narratives. 
  • Supporting tutors and teachers to write meaningful and suitable subject and student references, which are tailored to a complex choice that might not have been made yet.
  • Supporting tutors to write effective and meaningful references which combine the subject references to give the best story of the candidate. 
  • Being able to manage the process of pre interview assessments for early applicants, including the myriad preparations for different testing requirements across subjects at Oxford and Cambridge, or Art Foundation courses with portfolios and requirements. 
  • Supporting students to prepare for interviews, including arranging practice interviews and trying to get subject support and specialists in place. 
  • Supporting Heads of Department in helping these students, especially in subjects where the staff might not have the relevant Oxbridge experience themselves to conduct and prepare mock interviews. 
  • Being able to give consistently good and fair advice which doesn’t rely on your own perceptions, bias or interpretation. 
  • Navigating potentially difficult or tense conversations with parents and students where there is uncertainty or conflict over those things. 
  • Navigating the support and coaching of colleagues for whom this is a new experience, whether they are form tutors, subject teachers, or Heads of Department. 

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and I’m sure that there are plenty of things that I have forgotten. Many of these things are a joy and a privilege to do, and I have been very lucky to work with some excellent people in these roles. 

What I find interesting, though, when I reflect on it, is that I have never really had anything vaguely approaching training on almost any of it. A previous Head of Sixth Form has helped coach on how to write some references, a few years ago, but I don’t think that I have ever seen many courses, INSET or options to get better at it. 

That is quite worrying, I think. This massively important component of Sixth Form teaching, and perhaps a major aspiration for students and schools, seems to be precariously balanced on a limited knowledge and experience base. Now, undoubtedly, there are excellent people out there, and I hope that my own practice in this has been informed by my work, research and thinking, and I’d hope that the outcomes I help to generate are right for my students. 

But when we pay lots of attention to the building blocks, and not so much attention to the gaps in between, there are risks. I’d like to see much more advice and support given, on a wider basis, to UCAS advisers and schools, and I think there is a big role for bigger organisations to play in doing this. Many universities quite rightly focus on outreach and supporting students, and I think there is a gap in provision of training. Perhaps the MATs and wider trusts have a more joined up approach to this, but I cannot comment on that, as I’ve not got much experience with it!

So if you have been involved in UCAS and university support this term, I salute you. Yours is a vital part of student ambition and aspiration, and it may not be glamorous but it’s critical. I hope you have enjoyed it, and I hope it has been valuable to you. And, in some distant unknowable time, or results day, whichever is sooner, I hope it all pays off exactly how you and your students deserve it to!

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