Category Archives: School

The pain of UCAS personal statements


It’s 4,000 characters guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of the average 17 year-old.

Crafting a personal statement to accompany your UCAS university application is one of life’s early milestones, demanding that the young person is sufficiently familiar with their strengths, interests and career aspirations to jot them down in coherent sentences for the perusal of university admissions teams.

The trouble is that so many of them aren’t. When you think about it, it’s such a tender age to make such a momentous decision hence, Ethan, my 16 year-old, is wrestling with not only how to convince admissions that he is passionate about marine biology, but how to convince himself.

He is interested in marine biology, but also in sports science and just recently has taken more than a passing interest in neuroscience.

Arguably you could say that each involves studying the workings of the body – both human and animal – and the brain, so he has landed on this theme to tie his statement together. And is now turning his attention to hobbies, interests and achievements.

Fortunately his sporting abilities demonstrate the sort of dedication, determination and team work that universities – not to mention employers – are looking for. But, again, he is dubious when faced with friends who seem to have known from an early age that they want to be a doctor or a vet.

Where does that unshakeable belief come from? Have these young people felt a calling, or, more likely, been inspired to follow in their parents footsteps.

To all the other kids I say do as much research as you can to broaden your horizons by, for example, completing the My Strengths and About me questionnaires on and then checking out the ‘Meet the Industries’ section to see which industries employ people with which skills and qualifications, and which industries are growing.

That’s boring is likely to be the lament, but not nearly as boring as working for 40 years in a job you’re not cut out for.

Plumbing the depths

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It was a day we’d tried to banish from our minds all summer since Ethan sat his last Higher exam on May 18th, but the leaps and bounds down two flights of stairs the morning of SQA exam results day suggested that the news was good.

Ethan, 16, achieved 3As at Higher – English, Maths and Geography – and 2Bs in Biology and Chemistry, and all were delighted.

He worked hard at school in fifth year, but resisted the temptation that some of his peers succumbed to, to study to the exclusion of all else.

There is absolutely no doubt in the minds of kids at school in East Renfrewshire that fifth year is the most important year of your young life, setting you up for further or higher education, or not, as the case may be. And the pressure is immense.

However, as well as working towards a clutch of good Highers last year, Ethan also managed to train two nights a week and competed at the weekend in athletics competitions – he is top in Scotland for U17 high jump, with a personal best of 1.9m.

He sounds like an all-round bright, hard-working boy, I hear you say.

But it’s not enough to study Marine Biology at one of Scotland’s top universities.

Ethan has had a great love of the ocean since he was little, and has grown up to be a keen surfer and avid watcher of every documentary about the sea that’s ever been made!

So it was with some dismay that he learned that the grades he had – the same as the published minimum entry requirements for Marine Biology in his preferred institution – aren’t going to be good enough.

Further probing revealed that there are fewer and fewer places for Scots students at this institution, and that of the 115 Scots that got accepted to Marine Biology last year, 100 of them had 4As and a B, or better at Higher.

I was further intrigued to read an article in The Telegraph that said that the number of Scots missing out on a university place has doubled in the last decade.

The article said that, The SNP’s free tuition policy is only affordable because ministers impose a cap on the number of places allocated to Scottish and EU students. ‘Universities Scotland’ said the figures showed it is getting “harder and harder” for Scottish applicants to win a place thanks to “strict controls”.

Are we rapidly returning to the days where only very bright Scots (or very affluent Rest of UK and international young people) can attend university? It’s certainly something to think about.

Mindfulness and Holden Caulfield

How the technique – now being taught in schools – could’ve been the saving of J. D. Salinger’s tortured teenager


Selling approximately 65 million copies worldwide and a staple for teaching English, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ was revolutionary when it was first published in 1951.

It’s a tale of teenage angst, but sensationally at the time, told in the words of 17 year-old Holden Caulfield, with his frequent goddams, lousys and crummys!

It also, however, describes the protagonist’s deep depression triggered by the death of his younger brother, but also by his general inability to understand the adult world.

He’s in a no man’s land, described in his own words as a contradiction – six foot two, but sometimes acting about thirteen. There are lots of other hints at his struggle to mature – “In my mind, I’m probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw.”/”Sex is something I just don’t understand. I swear to God I don’t.” – with the overall impression that he’s heading for a fall.

A meeting with a former teacher confirms exactly that with Mr. Antolini delivering the memorable passage: “This fall I think you’re riding for – it’s a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The whole arrangement’s designed for men who, at some time or other, were looking for something their environment couldn’t supply them with. Or they thought their environment couldn’t supply them with. So they gave up looking.”

That loss of identity and purpose during the transition to adulthood is something my teenage sons have wrestled with at various stages, and still do.

Fortunately it hasn’t tipped into depression, but the concept of young people feeling aimless and unworthy is something teachers are now having to address lest an epidemic of self-harm continues unabated.

Cries for help are happening at an alarming rate, as teenagers grapple with the perennial questions of what will I do when I leave school and will anyone ever love me.

Holden’s teacher advises sticking in at school, “it’ll begin to give you an idea of what size mind you have”, but he could also have suggested mindfulness to overcome negative thinking.

So prevalent is the Buddhist practice nowadays, that some school guidance teachers are being trained to deliver mindfulness coaching to kids.

What would Holden have made of living in the now – neither thinking back to past events that he can’t change, nor worrying about the future?

I’m sure he would have found out much sooner that it’s good to talk! After complaining for 25 chapters that many of his schoolmates, most adults and quite a few girls were “phonies”, on the final page he says:

“I’m sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told (you) about. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

For angsty teenagers and anyone who lives life at a lick, Jon Kabat-Zinn says the seven attitudes that form the foundation of mindfulness are nonjudging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, nonstriving, acceptance and letting go.

He furthermore defines the practice as paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment nonjudgmentally.









Festive musings from the motherofall


The last day of 2015 is an important one for Ethan Fox Dear.

Born on 31st December 1999 (with a middle name inspired by 20th Century Fox!) he has reached the grand old age of 16 and celebrated in style.

He went to the local burger bar with five of his closest friends, resplendent in Selected Homme checked shirt, Ted Baker flying jacket and Tom Ford cologne!

Ethan is a teenager with hidden depths – even to his mum. He is a paradox of thoughtfulness and kindness coupled with steely determination and, at times, brutal honesty. Not for the faint hearted is his appraisal of why I should stop moaning about my lot.

His personality has been forged in rivalry with his brother, but also undercurrents of insecurity, a consequence of his lone wolf demeanour – he’s never been one to follow the pack – and his red hair.

It’s a sad indictment that in the 21st century people are still pilloried for the colour of their hair.

2016 will be an interesting year for Ethan. His prelims are in January and his Highers in May.

He’s very good at English (though quite why is a mystery, as he doesn’t seem to read much) and after a shaky start in Maths was recently described by his teacher as a natural mathematician. The other Highers he’s sitting – Biology, Chemistry and Geography – reflect his interest in the natural world.

He recently completed the My DNA questionnaire on with the overall conclusion that he is ‘a thinker, constructor, performer and chiller’.

The analysis went on the outline his core skills, potential areas of weakness and things he may want to work on including actively allowing and welcoming criticism and making a conscious effort to plan your time.

Good advice for adults of any age, let alone one aged 16.

Ethan is on a voyage of self-discovery and it’s absolutely fascinating to watch it unfold.