Well, it only seems like yesterday that we were angsting over schools for The Boy and packing him off in his purple blazer and cap to his first day at Big School and now, hardly a moment later, we are looking at Sixth Forms. I really don't know where the last 10 years have gone.
We are so lucky to have a choice of two very different schools for Sixth Form. Both are rated as outstanding, one a grammar, one the comprehensive he currently attends, a school that I am passionate about. The Boy is considering medicine and feels that he would stand a better chance of getting into medical school from a grammar rather than the local comp. A sad reflection on the private/grammar/state divide in the UK but unfortunately quite likely true.
The Boys Grammar is very highly ranked in the league tables, very academic and well resourced, offers 30 different academic A levels and would, I know, push The Boy hard, which he needs. He's a typical teenage boy, struggling to find the balance between schoolwork and his addiction to his social life but who manages to get top marks by doing very little and I want him to be the best that he can be, not the best that he can be bothered to be. Boys from the Grammar go on to the Russell Group universities. It's made very clear in the prospectus that those are the only universities they rate and consider suitable for their Old Wordsworthians. And they wear suits in the Sixth Form, which, surprisingly, The Boy is very keen on. The headmaster was impressive and I left his address feeling that this was probably the right place for The Boy, there was a strong sense of tradition which I love (I'm from Tunbridge Wells for God's sake, it's in the water!) and it reminded me very much of my old Grammar school which I loved and which did it's best for me. I loved the idea of the Mentoring system there, where a member of staff mentors them all the way through Sixth Form but.... I wasn't sure about some of the teachers.
The Boy wants to do Chemistry so we made our way to the lab to meet the Head of Department. The room was packed as you'd expect from a) a boy's school and b) a school with an excellent record in the sciences. I then listened to him bang on for 10 minutes about how hard it was, how his A* students struggled with it and how you shouldn't do it unless you were really, really clever. Within minutes the room had practically emptied. He wasn't welcoming or particularly interested in The Boy or his friend and made no attempt to discuss the syllabus or, indeed, anything else with us. We later discovered that more students take Chemistry than any other A level and clearly he was doing his best to try and cull the numbers a bit for next year. The Boy said he didn't think he would do Chemistry after all.
We went to Physics where they said it was expected that you would do Maths A level as well, which he doesn't want to do but Biology went better. We spoke to a current student who raved about it and we left feeling a bit more positive. In French we explained that he had spent half of his school life in France. She asked if he could write French. I reiterated that he had been in the French public school system, not an international school as she has clearly assumed. Meanwhile the boy chatted happily with the French assistant who was from Normandy. The language department is excellent with over 30 boys studying French plus the option to study Spanish, Russian and Mandarin. There is a comprehensive programme of trips and exchanges as well.
The Boy left the Grammar feeling very good about it and determined to apply, although he had changed his plan to do Chemistry, Biology, Physics and French to Biology, Geology, English Language and French. It would mean a longer school day, a more complicated journey to school and leaving his very close group of friends, although four of them were also applying.
Then last week we went to the Open Evening for the Sixth Form at his current school. People who read my old French blog will know that one of the reasons we moved back from France was because of my reservations about the school system there. From the moment we walked into the school we knew we had made the right decision. Everything about it felt right. So I really wanted them to step up to the plate for the Sixth Form.
As it turned out, they didn't. The head of Sixth Form was a bit uninspiring and the brief talk by one of the head students saying that he managed to hold down a part time job and still go out partying was not what I really wanted The Boy to hear. The Head didn't make an appearance which was, I thought, a big mistake.The next disappointment was to find that both Chemistry and French were in the same pool which meant that he would not be able to do both. On the positive side it was standing room only in the hall so clearly a lot of people rate the Sixth Form but I left to meet the subject teachers with a sinking feeling that this school that I love so much was going to let us down. That would, though, make our decision much easier.
First stop was the French department where they get excellent results, though they only have a very small number taking the subject. On the one hand this is good but on the other it can be quite difficult getting inspiration from such a small group. There was no French assistant and only a day trip to Paris rather than a week long exchange but then The Boy lived in France for 5 years so really there's not much he doesn't know about French culture and family life. We talked about the clash with Chemistry and were advised to speak to the head of French for advice.
Next stop was Geography. The Boy has the most amazing Geography teacher. He's very unteacher-like and I'm fairly sure that in our last Parent Teacher meeting he used the 'f' word but it was so quick and so unexpected that The Husband and I were never quite sure if we'd heard him right. But what he lacks in the Queen's English he makes up for in passion for his subject - not to mention the blind adoration of his students. To watch him in full flow during his presentation on A Level geography was magnificent. I wanted to sign up for it! He knows that The Boy is thinking of another Sixth Form but had already said that even if he left he was welcome to come on the field trip to Iceland next year. We went to speak to him after his presentation and I jokingly asked him if he wanted to have The Boy in his class. His reply stunned me (proud mummy moment coming up......) He said, in front of the other parents and students, 'if he leaves it will be a tragedy for this school'. I looked at him blankly while The Boy went scarlet and studied his shoes. 'I mean it', he continued 'he will be a huge, huge loss. He's student leader material, he's got an amazing brain, he gets his head round complex issues easily, if there's a difficult question I know his hand will be up first. Really, we don't want to lose him'. 'Um, it's not definite he's going to leave yet', I said meekly.
On then to Chemistry where we were greeted by a young, enthusiastic teacher who clearly loved her subject. Yes, it was hard, she told him but she didn't try to put him off. She asked what grade he was predicted and said that he'd be fine as long as he was prepared to put in the work. The Biology teacher was the same.
On our way out, we were told that the Head of French was looking for us. We tracked her down in the French room. She told us that as The Boy already spoke French he and another girl (also educated in France and who's choice of Philosophy A level also clashed with French) could 'self learn' for the A level. As he would only be taking three other timetabled A levels he would have 10 free periods a week so the five of these that would normally be devoted to his fourth A level would be spent with the other girl in the library working independently or in the classroom where the French staff would put on extra lessons for them to go over the A level topics and help develop their essay writing. The Girl, who is currently doing her AS in French (in year 9) could join them to complete her A2 as once she starts her GCSE options next year she may not be able to continue having French with the Sixth Form as she does now. 'So he can still do chemistry?' I asked. Yes he could. So once again, the school has gone out of it's way to accommodate my bilingual children.
In recent years they have started to address the problems of getting comprehensive students into top universities and now have a staff member who works just with the top students on applications for the Oxbridge and the best of the rest. They've introduced Critical Thinking as this is now a requirement by many of them as well as interview techniques and how to write a shit-hot Personal Statement.
But this, of course, has left us in a quandry. The Boy originally was definite about wanting to go to the Grammar school but now he has extra big love for his geography teacher and is feeling more confident about doing chemistry. He's torn and so are we. On the one hand we have tradition, a school that will ease his passage into a good university, in the top 40 state schools in the country and a very academic outlook. On the other we have a school that is not so academic, in the top 200 but that is bending over backwards to facililitate him and clearly rates him as a student. What to do?