Category Archives: School

Thoughts from the (homework) frontline

Following a few tough homework assignments, I’ve got a couple of observations about Lyle and Ethan’s studies at this point.

Lyle is stepping up to the plate admirably in terms of independent study, organising himself – and others he’s been working with – to meet deadlines and absorb vast amounts of material, as he progresses through first year at uni studying Geography, Statistics and Sociology.

However, he asked me to cast my eye over a recent essay on the Anthropocene – an epoch in which humanity and the mass-producing, capitalist society we have created is viewed as the overruling factor in determining the nature of the Earth System and the ecosystems within (every day’s a school day!). And it struck me why essay writing is so prevalent in higher education. It forces you to absorb and understand information and then present it in a new and engaging way to show it has sunk in!

I realise that I use this technique all the time at work. I love to read up on things and then reorganise assorted documents, thoughts and observations into compelling news stories and features.

Ethan’s experience of fifth year in high school highlights just how challenging Scotland’s new Curriculum for Excellence syllabus is.

He’s juggling homework and studying for tests on an almost daily basis. Can you blame him, therefore, when he just throws in the towel at 11pm to go and watch TV.

He is currently outlining the introduction to a discursive essay for English and quite late on Sunday asked me to help him with a question for close reading.

I had to read it twice before I eventually understood what it was asking.

To me, the capacity of young minds to learn is just astonishing, but the pressure on young people to perform is equally mind-blowing.

It’s providing a challenge for teachers too, who find they are constantly having to crack the whip to get young people off on the right foot. A teacher friend recounts tales of anxiety, depression and self-harm among pupils as they juggle multiple demands on their time.

Higher education isn’t for everyone

It was with a sense of déjà vu that I attended Woodfarm High School’s careers evening last Thursday. With one notable exception – there were far more choices for pupils in the array of stands from colleges and universities to Construction Skills and Morgan Stanley, than when Lyle started out on this process four years ago.

I put this down to two things; the enormous effort that is being made to develop Scotland’s young workforce and the fact that the economy is a lot stronger than it was in 2011. It was lovely to see companies like Morgan Stanley and Scottish Enterprise actively courting young people for careers in financial services and economic development.

The longest economic downturn in UK history at last seems to be easing at least in terms of the way employers view young people. During the recession companies simply couldn’t afford to bring on newbies, preferring instead to take their pick from the many thousands of experienced people looking for jobs.

Faced with such a variety, 15 year-old Ethan gravitated to the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, St. Andrews and Stirling. His starting point being they all have great sports facilities, as he’s a talented athlete. In preparation for the evening, however, he’d been asked which subjects he was interested in to which he replied psychology, chemical engineering and marine biology. Wow! How do you narrow it down from there?

At one point in the evening, though, he drifted over to Skills Development Scotland’s stand and though I didn’t hear what was said know – from working there – that the advisers will be encouraging young people to look beyond higher education for a successful and fulfilling career.

East Renfrewshire schools have one of the highest participation rates in HE of any local authority in Scotland (67% of pupils went to university in 2014), but it’s a lesser-known fact that East Ren pupils also have a high drop out rate at uni.

East Renfrewshire is predominantly middle-class with parents who are very interested and active in their children’s education. The authority also employs techniques to “hot-house” kids to exam success such as Easter and Saturday school. (No complaints from this parent. Ethan studies far better in a group.)

However, intensive support at school combined with over anxious parents seems to be resulting in a perfect storm – young people who slavishly follow the road to university (often to study subjects their parents look upon as “safe”) and when they get there discover a) the subject they chose is not for them or b) independent study is a huge culture shock.

That’s why I admire the moves afoot to persuade young people that there are other routes to career success such as Modern Apprenticeships, college (which can be a springboard to uni) and progressing straight from school to jobs, which thankfully are much easier to find than four years ago.

I’ve been listening joyously of late to a friend describe the progress of her son who started studying graphic design at college last month. Loving the independence and the fact that he can spend all his time doing what he loves, Jack has turned a corner.







Charting a course to the ‘good (university) life’

University of Glasgow
University of Glasgow

“I miss maths, Mum.”

Music to the ears of any parent with a teenager about to make choices about what to study at university.

It’s been a long road to get 19 year-old Lyle to this point – only weeks from starting a BSc in Geography at the University of Glasgow. Not in terms of getting the grades he needed – he’s a bright boy who had a choice of offers. But landing on the subject he wanted to study.

Curiously he didn’t actually study Geography at Higher, but the seeds were sown during an epic four days when he crammed for the prelim for his Intermediate 2 – a half way house between Scotland’s Standard Grades and the new National 5 exams – in 2012.

Friends and colleagues will remember me fretting about how a boy with so many choices – a nice position to be in, admittedly – could narrow them down in a world where high graduate unemployment was still an issue (still is, to be honest, from recent surveys that show many graduates are not in graduate jobs).

We poured over university league tables, analysing not only each institution’s performance, but also the job prospects for each course (or at least I was!). Lyle has got both a very logical, analytical brain and a creative one, and as a drummer in a band he was leaning towards music.

With the latest youth unemployment figures ringing in my ears – this was 2013 – we somehow agreed that you could study subjects where the probability of earning a decent wage was much greater and who knows what might happen on the music front – look at the successful bands that were formed through serendipity at Glasgow School of Art.

We narrowed it down to Environmental Science at a couple of notable Scottish universities and everything was going swimmingly until the eleventh hour (accepting a place last summer) when Lyle took cold feet that this might not be what he wanted to do after all. With hindsight, whatever reservations I had about him making his way in the world were banished that day. He decided to take a year out, got a job and now has a bit of money behind him so that university debt isn’t constantly preying on his mind.

So here we are a few weeks off from the next exciting chapter in his life. And I say we because I’m just so curious about the whole process, which at Glasgow involves choosing two other “elective” subjects to accompany the main one – which brings me back to maths!

It’s a subject I was never any good at, so I tried to hide my enormous pride when, in considering his electives, Lyle decided that he really missed maths and that that would be one of them (all my research having previously shown that maths graduates are among the most sought after by employers).

As I write, the third subject could be sociology, or social and public policy, but that might change by tomorrow!

Whatever he decides, though, will be just fine because though we’ve had some heated discussions – “It’s my life!” – an awful lot of thought has gone into getting to this point and the end result is full of promise.