Monday 10 July 2017

What Happens to Our Students After They Leave Us?

As teachers, we work so hard to prepare our students for their exams and we put in a lot of time and effort to make sure they get into a good university. On results day, we heave a collective sigh of relief when all of our students are safely onto a course (sometimes easily, sometimes after going through clearing) and we wave them goodbye and wish them well. We can then sit back feeling satisfied and think "my work here is done."

But what happens to our little baby swans after they have flown the nest?

I don't want to talk about my own ex-students here, because I'd like to respect their privacy, so instead I'll talk about the worrying statistics I've read recently about university drop-out rates among students that are from a similar background to my students, i.e. ethnic minority and/or with a poor socio-economic background.

A recent article in the Telegraph says that the dropout rate for disadvantaged pupils has increased.  Around 9% of students from deprived backgrounds do not continue to the second year of university. Universities are encouraged (basically forced) to recruit more economically deprived and ethnic minority students in an effort to widen participation, and many universities do this by lowering the grade requirements for students living in a deprived area. However, encouraging these students to join the university is completely pointless if the universities are not going to make any effort to support these students once they have joined. 

Universities, especially the traditional ones, like to talk about higher education as being very much about independent learning and no "spoon-feeding". However, there is a difference between "not spoon-feeding" and simply leaving someone to starve. My A Level students were very well-supported throughout sixth form. My colleagues and I invested a lot of time and effort into ensuring they got the best grades and developed the skills they would need at university. I don't think I spoon-fed them. I think I gave them the support they deserve. My students needed more support than white middle class students would need, so I gave it to them. People who call that spoon-feeding need to check their privilege. I call it levelling the playing field. 

But I can't support my students once they have left school and are studying miles away in an old building made of red bricks. When they find they don't fit in because most students are white and went to private schools and can afford to waste money on entertainment and fast food and alcohol and nights out, I can't do anything to help them. And most students have parents who can support them financially if something goes wrong, and who don't have to get a part-time job to support themselves, and who don't have to live with their parents and commute to lectures everyday because their family still needs them to help look after younger siblings and help around the house. Are universities helping my students the way I would? 

The worst thing is, the universities that are the worst for supporting people like my students are generally the most prestigious and highly-ranked universities! There are some universities that have excellent provision for ethnic minority students. For example, at Aston University 57% of new students are from ethnic minorities. Aston is rated as the second best university in the UK for teaching, and ethnic minority students are much more successful there than at other universities. Coventry university is similar in that it also has Gold Standard teaching according to the recently set up Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and greater than average ethnic diversity. The TEF judging panel has said that Coventry has "consistently outstanding student support services to all students, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds, that support retention and progression".  However, if I encourage my students to apply to these two very good but not really prestigious universities which are on their doorstep, am I simply perpetutating the problem? Am I encouraging brown students to go to local brown universities and leave the fancy white universities for the white kids? If I do that, will the problem ever go away?

What I need to think about now is what I can do as a 16+ form tutor and A Level teacher to ensure my students are successful at university, and not just worry about getting them there in the first place. And I don't think it's just about getting them to learn "independent learning" skills, because I honestly think my year 13s who left a year ago were really good independent learners by the time they left (although they were awful at the start of year 12). I think it all comes down to that very trendy word "resilience". Learning how to deal with failure, or possible failure, experiencing struggle, and feeling the fear and doing it anyway. I think Duke of Edinburgh is very good for this. But seeing as I am directionally challenged and hyperventilate at the thought of 24 hours without wifi or 4G reception, I'll leave that to someone else. AS exams used to be a good way to help students experience failure and recover from it, but my school will no longer be doing those. I am going to think long and hard about this. If you have any ideas, please let me know!

Sorry this blog post is even more rambling and unstructured than usual. As you can probably tell, I'm still trying to process all of my thoughts about this topic. Maybe I'll come back and edit it once I've figured some more things out and done some more research. You know what, I'm probably over-reacting massively to this and it really isn't much of a problem. In fact, here's a quote from one of my ex-students: "I love being the only brown person at uni. White people love me!" 

Emma x x x 

PS Another interesting article I couldn't quite fit into this blog: 
It’s delusional to think tuition fees are fair. Poorer students are being penalised (The Guardian)

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