…or at least that’s what it felt like to me when I visited a large 11-16 comprehensive school over the border in Hampshire last week as part of our recruitment campaign for BWS Sixth Form 2020. I always like going to visit other institutions, and this experience was no exception as the school concerned was different from BWS in so many ways. On the surface there were similarities, as the boys and girls were well turned out, very smart in their blazers and ties and very polite and welcoming throughout. The staff were great too – making sure that lost souls like me who meandered around the site were directed on the right path to the Sports Hall, and then fed and watered through quite a lengthy session. But then the differences hit home as I set up my stand and arranged prospectuses and paraphernalia over the BWS display cloth. There were no other schools at all at the HE and Careers event. Instead, mixed in with the apprenticeship providers, employers and public service stands were at least 5 colleges with thick, glossy publicity booklets full of a myriad of courses for youngsters to consider once the age 16 milestone has been passed. I had sort of anticipated that contrast to Wiltshire, but the reality of the world of FE only really hits home when you are in the thick of it; it hit home last week for me forcibly.
The good thing (for BWS) is that being present in such an environment makes us very, very different. There was a widening of eyes when I pointed out that our sixth form was one-tenth the size of the other providers, and there was an intake of breath when they then asked about GCSE and A level results; some even thought that they had misheard and had to ask again to check. Some, both students and parents, thought that BWS must be fee-paying and again couldn’t quite process the fact that there was no termly billing. Year 11 boys and girls took prospectuses, Year 9 students took leaflets for future consideration and parents went away clearly wondering how they had not heard of BWS before. All in all a fascinating experience for everyone I think, and certainly the first of an annual fixture from now on.
Now I am entirely realistic, and I tried hard to engender a sense of hard-nosed realism into all those conversations with boys, girls, mums and dads. BWS is not for everyone; the grade requirements are steep for some at 48 points from the best 8 GCSEs, and grade 7s required for a significant number of subjects. That will make the school inaccessible to some, an inevitable consequence of differentiation by outcome, but we all have to be sure that the pace, pressure and learning is at an appropriate level for boys and girls who choose to study in The Close. It’s not just a question of merely coping, we want the students to feel comfortable so their self-esteem and confidence grow and they have the time to get stuck into all of the other parts of sixth form life too. That’s life. But equally, there is the question of aspiration there too. For those who feel that the grade requirement may be within reach, there is an added incentive to work hard and do as well as they can so that they have BWS as an option if they wish to apply. It’s very easy to blend into a big year group, to swim with the tide and if that happens then aspiration can be one of the first casualties. I really do hope that a significant number of those boys and girls who took a copy of our lovely new prospectus home think seriously about giving a BWS application a go, and that their performance at GCSE is boosted as a direct consequence. In some ways the leaflets for the Year 9s were even more important, as for them BWS is now on the radar and they have more time to focus on working for what matters most – a chance at a World Class Education, but in an entirely different world.