Metamorphoses: Transitioning from Year 13

Part of the #IsolationCollaboration and #TeamTransition series, also posted here, and linked to my Lockdown Diary for Schools Week

For any student, the Sixth Form is a time of significant metamorphosis. They start as “Year 11s in suits” – somehow slightly older, but less comfortable in their new personae. They have finished their GCSEs, a ritualistic summer of trial, of freedom and festivals (usually!), and then of nerves and the tremulous opening of an envelope. And now, they are here.

Embarking on a new world. Less than six months after being in the rigorous disciplined world of Year 11 – where the narrowing of their focus down to exam revision, practice, and permission to do everything was their bubble – we start asking them big questions. Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? Who do you want to be?

And the Sixth Form is a time where they – by and large – try to find that out. There are stages and moments of growth in fits and starts: starting to explore their futures, starting, perhaps, to think about universities. The first forays to Open Days. Starting to think about choices, careers, reading, extensions, work experience… slowly, they transform to young adults before your eyes. Hesitantly, they start to talk about their identities separate to their parents, where they might live, what it might be like to have to cook for yourself, or go for catered halls! They begin to do personal statements, narrow down subject choices, start to become focused on their chosen pathway, and keen to do well.

Then, it starts to get serious. At some point, almost every Year 13 student will get “The Fear” – a crashing realisation that this is all important to them now, and no one else. That their places, their aspirations, all of the things they have done over the last year, now means they have to go and earn it.

And revision begins. Sometimes, it’s frantic flashcards, sometimes beautiful notes uploaded to Instagram, or hours of study groups cramming. It’s earnest conversations with teachers – clarifying, consolidating, checking – making sure they have taken as much as they can, absorbed as much of your thoughts and wisdom…

The exams. You’re equals now, you and them. Fighting alongside each other: aiming for the best result against a nameless, faceless “examiner”. You’re not their teacher now, you’re their coach, their cheerleader, their moral and emotional support. You stand with them, as they enter the exam halls. You whisper good luck, you wait nervously while they finish – your little babies, all growing up. You laugh nervously with them, when they talk about what questions they’ve done.

“That’s good”, you say. “That’s good. You’ve done well. I’m proud of you. Go and rest, now”.

They are adults now. They have grown in this trial. You’ve faced it together, you come out the other side… you have endured, and forged a bond that is unlike any other in the school. 

And it’s felt. At the end of term celebrations, at the Sixth Form Ball that you absolutely, 100% refuse to call a prom, because that’s an Americanism – but you secretly love anyway. Dressed to the nines – inevitably with questionable interpretations of what ‘black tie’ means, they return. 

Conspiratorially, they test the water of this new, murky adulthood – this state of no longer being a student.

“Do I still call you sir?”

“Can I buy you a drink” – or, for the cheekier ones – “Will you buy me a drink, sir?”

It’s a test. Who’ll use your first name first, because “they aren’t your student any more”? Who’ll offer to hug you, or ask shyly whether you’d mind being in a selfie with them.

And you meet them again. On results day, to celebrate joyfully. To shake their hand, to wish them well, to send them off in to the world that they have chosen – young adults, now, somehow confident without you. 

The Brave New World – How Can We Cope? 

Of course, this isn’t the summer that we expected. Many of these rituals of change and metamorphosis have been ripped away, and the students have been left bereft. It’s not what I expected – I thought they’d have joy – but I realised later that while they weren’t exactly looking forward to the trial by exam, perhaps they appreciated the chance to earn their passage to the next steps of adulthood. As a Sixth Form tutor, and a UCAS co-ordinator, what have I found has helped in these moments?  

1. Get in touch with them, and continue to talk to them

Some schools are continuing to offer some “enrichment” classes to Year 11 and Year 13 to keep them motivated, engaged and thinking. Some schools are doing ‘Pre-A Level classes’ for their Year 11s, while others are offering wider projects and opportunities for the Year 13s heading off to university. This is brilliant – it reminds the students that you’re there, gives you opportunities to talk in a more adult and scholarly way, and potentially go off the curriculum track that you were on, and explore interesting things for the joy of learning them. For those of you who have online learning portals and “live” functionality, consider hosting discussions and chats with your Year 13s. They know you well, they miss you, too – and they appreciate seeing familiar faces. My students have met my cats, now, via video chats…

Many will have been inspired by the words and ideas of Ben Newmark (Lots of Little Chats and “Dear Year 11”) to write to their students directly. Whether it’s by email, or even sending “postcards home” – students have really appreciated the personal kindness shown to them by teachers, and the sense of “this isn’t fair, this isn’t what we wanted for you either” just reinforces that shared adult status that is so crucial to this transition time. Try and connect with them as people, if you can. 

2. Support them and continue to develop those relationships with the decisions and components that you can.

Many schools will continue to want to support students with key decision making. Universities and the wider issues about UCAS applications, offers, changes – these are all potentially bewildering and scary for the Year 13 students and their parents. Where possible, can you offer support? Seminars, even discussions with the Head of Year, tutor team – what can you do to reassure them, help them, and point them in the right directions.

Some students will – inevitably – have a wobble and want to make huge decisions about their proposed plans. A Gap Year travel agenda no longer seems that attractive, and who can blame them? Students who were deferring entry might want to shift it up to 2020; others who were planning to enter post-results may now want to submit entries for 2020, based on the lack of exams and the lack of gap year opportunities. All of these would have been helpful conversations to have – how can you do that in the current environment? If your school has a live function, what can you do for these students to embrace these complexities, and support them reaching out to universities to ask big questions?

For students on different pathways – Art Foundations, apprenticeships, going in to careers – there are going to be just as many questions, and important conversations to be had. How can you help them – as you would normally?

3. What can you do to develop some of the key events and major components that they might have missed?

Many of the “big rituals” of the summer have gone for Year 13s – and sadly, I’m not just talking about the exodus to festivals around the UK. The shirt-signing of the last day, the collection and discussion of the Year Book and photographs, or the highlight of the Sixth Form Ball. 

Are there any components of that you can replicate? Can you put together a video from their teachers? Can you get the group together, online, somehow? Hold a virtual assembly, pub quiz? Can you make plans to hold a Ball at a period in the future? Are there any components of these rituals that you can do, replicate or hold to? As Ben Newmark said – these things are important to the students, therefore they could be important to you.

For us all, this is a time of transition and metamorphosis, too. Sixth Form hasn’t changed – just the context and the trials that we have to go through.

You’re equals now, you and them. Fighting alongside each other: aiming for the best result against a nameless, faceless enemy – whether it’s coronavirus, or the baffling world of online technology. You’re not their teacher now, you’re a coach, and a source of moral and emotional support. You still want to stand with them, whether we can come back to the world we knew, or not. You’ll hear from them, with emails, perhaps, or fleeting discussions. 

“That’s good”, you say. “That’s good. You’ve done well. I’m proud of you”.

They are adults now. They have grown in this trial. You’ve faced it together, you come out the other side… you have endured, and forged a bond that is unlike any other in the school. 

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