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Preparing students for life beyond the Sixth Form

With A Levels cancelled, how can we support and give rational thought to the educational and mental health of our students as they approach university life. Michael Randall, Deputy Head of Downside School, shares his thoughts


The appearance of Covid-19 and the subsequent global pandemic can be characterised as a ‘Black Swan’ event. The Black Swan theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and describes an event that is completely unexpected, has a significant impact, and is often inappropriately rationalised after the fact and with the benefit of hindsight.

As humans, we have an innate desire to find a simple solution to a problem. This propensity tends to lead us to make decisions based on our prior experiences, scientific knowledge and accepted norms. If it is easy to measure and easy to categorise then we like it.  However, in a Black Swan event there is no prior experience from which to draw and as such any decisions arrived upon are blinded by these psychological biases. As such we struggle to rationalise what has happened and how to address it. Taleb concludes that, in order for us to deal with Black Swan events, we must build robustness against negative events whilst still focussing on positive events.

The cancellation of final examinations was totally unexpected, the first time this has ever happened, and it has left a significant gap in the established accepted norms for students. In a system set up to value an examination grade alone as a measure of your education and ability, it is no wonder that pupils are struggling to rationalise the situation.

…in order for us to deal with Black Swan events, we must build robustness against negative events whilst still focussing on positive events.

Rather than measure the education of a child solely by their examination grades we should ensure that young people feel accepted and valued unconditionally. This means they can grow and develop in confidence to achieve their best and to support others to do the same. The excellent examination outcomes we hope they achieve will be in addition to this philosophy; the journey is as important as the destination.

Rather than trying to keep with the accepted norm and making pupils take examinations mimicking the normal exam series, schools could give pupils the opportunity to personally assess their progress using written and spoken assessments with teachers. Just as important as academia at the present time is keeping pupils involved in other aspects of school life such as co-curriculum activities. By doing so, students will continue to feel supported by and connected with their school community and their friends, helping them to develop robustness needed to deal with these unprecedented times.

How life will be at university is still largely unknown; only time will tell. However, by supporting our students now to prepare for life beyond Sixth Form is vital and will give them the tools to have the strength to fulfil their ambitions.

 ‘…the journey is as important as the destination.’

If you are looking for a new school why not book a Virtual Visit to Downside? Have a personal conversation with the Head Master and then enjoy a virtual tour of the School with the Head of Admissions and a current pupil, and find out for yourself why Downside could be the right school for you and your family.

admissions@downside.co.uk / 01761 235103



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