Friday 3 July 2015

"My future in the system was talked about and planned" - musings on university open days

I enjoy finding suitable titles for my blog posts from song lyrics. This one comes from a 1973 song "Free Electric Band" by Albert Hammond, an under-rated English singer-songwriter best known as the writer of "When I need you", a UK No1 for Leo Sayer in 1977, and "The Air that I breathe", a UK No2 for The Hollies in 1974.
Albert Hammond, although English, moved to America, and some of his songs reflect that. "Free Electric Band" is a (rather late) manifesto of hippy-trippy dropout values in conflict with what used to be called "the system". It describes the writer's rebellious rejection of his parents' American middle-class values, and of their plans for a prosperous, conventional future.
This song came into my head yesterday when I spent a day in Oxford, as I always do at this time of the year, with  a small group of Sixth Form students from my school. At a university Open Day, especially at places like Oxford, young peoples' "future in the system" is indeed being "talked about and planned" Sometimes, I suspect, without their full cooperation.

I am very proud of the fact that, as a Higher Education Advisor, I have always made a point of taking a group of high-achieving students to the Open Day at my former university. I enjoy taking them to see my own college, showing them where I was lucky enough to live and study for three years, and hopefully inspiring and encouraging them to try applying if they are good enough.
When I first started doing this, over twenty years ago, Open Days were very different. On the way down to Oxford, one would see many school minibuses on the motorway, each carrying a dozen or so Sixth Formers, driven by relaxed-looking teachers enjoying a day away from the classroom at the end of term. Once in Oxford, groups were shepherded around by those teachers in much the way that I still do. They took their groups to a college Open Day, left them to meet tutors and current undergraduates, and went off to wander round Oxford for a couple of hours in the sunshine. That is precisely what I did yesterday, and do every year.
Sadly, the nature of the Open Day, and of those who attend it, has changed out of all recognition in recent years. Instead of groups of Sixth Formers enjoying the chance to chat informally with a teacher as they walk amidst the dreaming spires, the city is now crammed with embarrassed and mildly resentful-looking teenagers each with one, and often two, over-bearing parents looking for all the world like those who accompany their primary aged children to the now ubiquitous school open days. 
It's like what you see at any touristy cultural hotspot in summer: middle-class parents attempting to interest a slightly bored teenager in a cathedral/museum/stately home/visitor centre, with the said teenager actually wishing that s/he was lying on a beach listening to music on their headphones whilst catching up with Facebook, or riding a roller coaster at a theme park.
But at a university open day, it's worse than that. The childrens' future in the system is indeed being talked about and planned, and I have a terrible feeling that in many cases, the parents' desire to secure Oxbridge entry for their child is rather stronger than the child's desire to be there. I feel so sorry for the university tutors who are desperate to engage with these undoubtedly fine and capable young people and encourage them to ask the questions that they want to ask. Instead, they find themselves having to fend off questions from over-enthusiastic, vicarious parents. Fortunately, colleges and Departments have the sense to exclude parents from the subject sessions with tutors, and in some cases they put on a separate talk for parents.
Of course it's not quite as bad as I am painting it. It is perfectly reasonable for parents to take a teenager to an Open Day, and see for themselves what university life and work is all about, especially when there is a £30000 - £50000 price tag attached. However, I really do mourn the decline  of the school-led visit. Back in the 1970's, I applied to Oxford for a lot of reasons, but strongest among them was that I had a really good and inspirational French teacher at my (free, state) grammar school who was an Oxford graduate. He was clearly very clever, but also very funny, and he used to regale us with stories of his university days. I wanted to be like him, and was lucky enough to be able to fulfil that ambition. I know several of my friends from those days who applied to university for the same sort of reason.
Sadly, Oxbridge graduates don't seem to go into teaching as much as they used to. Small wonder, when they can command massive salaries in the world of business or commerce. With fewer Oxbridge educated teachers to inspire them, it is increasingly left to parents to push bright teenagers towards the glittering prize of a place at the top universities. Add to that the fact that school trips are now so hard to organise in terms of bureaucracy (did I remember to do a risk assessment before taking four seventeen year olds out on a punt yesterday?) that teachers understandably pass the task of open day visits over to only-too-keen parents. But what happened to the idea of sending a seventeen-year old off on the train, alone or with some friends, to a university visit. Surely that small step towards independence is a good thing?
I know, we can't rewind the clock. Times have changed. Universities, even Oxford, have to sell themselves, and that includes to anxious parents. They do a damn good job too - the Oxford Open Day is a masterpiece of logistical organisation and teamwork across a very devolved institution. But maybe, just maybe, parents should learn to take a step back. Take your kids to the Open Day by all means, but why not drive your son/daughter and a couple of mates, drop them off somewhere, go and do a bit of shopping, sightseeing or chilling, and arrange to meet up with the kids a few hours later for a good meal and a de-brief. That's exactly what I did yesterday, but as a teacher.

I bet, indeed I know, that university tutors would prefer it that way too.

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