We are just about to bid farewell to the Upper Sixth year group. Hopefully, the students will spend the next few days in further independent revision before showing their best academic form in the exam room in a couple of weeks. The Fifth Year and the Lower Sixth are also about to depart on exam leave, the latter for a temporary absence, meaning that an eerie quiet is descending upon the school.
The Fourth Years are already doing exams; ‘Exam in progress’ signs have appeared in unlikely places and the remaining pupils must find new routes from lesson to lesson and often new room to new room in an eccentric and continuously changing orienteering course.
Teachers feel slightly bereft having spent the last few weeks building up to a crescendo of past-paper marking, extra tutorials and revision sessions. Rather like an orchestra falling silent after the final chords of an enormous romantic symphony, they now pause for a moment of reflection and recovery after a performance that has drained the emotional energy as well as the physical reserves.
I am always amazed at the changes that have occurred in the Upper Sixth over 2 short years, the personality development that has occurred in transforming uncertain 16 year olds into distinctive near adults. Of course the students grow and change before the Sixth Form and will continue to mature through their university years but the change seems most striking through this period.
Prospective Sixth Form parents frequently ask me what role the school plays in this transformation and what difference attending Stockport Grammar School would make to the character, skills and life-chances of their offspring. A pragmatist might merely point to the popularity of the Sixth Form and leave it at that. However, the question deserves an answer even if it is difficult to disentangle the effects of environment upon development: clearly no student can attend SGS and take some other option for these two years, preventing a direct comparison of outcomes.
Inevitably I talk initially about fine exam results, preparation for university level study and the academic value added by the school but I quickly move on to the ‘values added’. All good school Sixth Forms provide a myriad of opportunities for honing social abilities and learning to develop and manage real (rather than virtual) relationships with a host of other students of different character and interests as well as with younger pupils and with teachers. Community living prevents anonymous interactions and inevitably promotes some degree of honesty, kindness and commitment to others and many life-long friendships are forged within the Sixth Form years. Our next building project will see a roof built over the current Sixth Form quad to create a fantastic social area to allow L6 and U6 students to mix freely. The existing Sixth Form spaces will be redeveloped to provide excellent study facilities. Both projects should be completed next year.
Formal community service helps many students to become less self-centred and more aware of the lives, needs and concerns of others. At SGS we have a number of community service projects; partnerships with primary schools and care homes are of particular mutual benefit and have broadened horizons for all of the students involved.
Charitable fund-raising is a strength of the school and I was delighted to see the effect on the pupils of a recent assembly by the leader of Educaid, a charity working to raise educational standards in Sierra Leone. The long term and personal nature of the relationship between SGS and Educaid will certainly shape the attitudes and views of many pupils towards empathising with the difficulties of others on a life-long basis.
House events allow Sixth Formers to develop leadership skills: public speaking, arranging sports teams filled with often disorganised younger pupils and sustaining energy and enthusiasm towards the end of a long term all demand determination and resilience. Extra-curricular activities tend to develop team work skills: loyalty to others and a desire to play for the team rather than for individual glorification are important life-lessons. Whole school responsibilities allow Sixth Formers to learn to influence their peers and to meet and help visitors to the school with confidence and empathy.
The classroom dynamic in Sixth Form lessons is subtly different from the rest of the school: teaching small groups of students who have genuinely chosen the subject of study alters the relationship between student and teacher in a way that encourages greater expression of individuality and open discussion. A level study demands a much higher level of independence of the student and meeting this challenge entails taking a larger share of the responsibility for learning. By the time they reach the second half of the Upper Sixth year, the students have offers of university places riding on achieving particular A level grades and this brutally clear scenario induces maturity in even the most reluctant workers.
The school won’t be quiet for long: the next batch of taster days is coming up soon. In September a new group of students enter the Lower Sixth and I look forward to watching them develop.