Following GCSEs, I did some A-levels, staying on in the same Essex secondary school. I know! You didn’t think they had schools in Essex, did you? Well, there was, and I think there still are. As it stood then, pre-Curriculum 2000, you signed up for a handful of two-year courses, the exams and whatever token gestures to coursework there might have been happening right near the end. If you found halfway through you didn’t like how things were going, well fuck you and fuck off. Go and get a job or something, which back then was borderline possible. One of my classes lost fifteen people between the first and second year, and two of them were teachers. Here’s how I did on the great A-level results day of ’97:
English Literature – A
Theatre Studies – A
General Studies – B
Art – N
Now, there’s a couple of oddities here. First of all, what – said people at the time (and are still saying today) – the fuck is General Studies? My school chose to make everyone enrol on it for the first year, it being an odd creature called an AS, taking half the time as an A-level, and worth half as much. Standing for ‘Advanced Subsidiary’ rather than the more elegant ‘Advanced’, AS-levels were a new creation. As is still the case, General Studies was taken into positive consideration by some universities but not others – the ‘others’ dominated by the most bourgeois and elite of these bourgeois and elite cabals.
Teachers with spare slots in their timetables got desperately asked, ‘Do you mind doing some General Studies?’, and then they went, ‘Yeah, s’pose. What are the hours?’ The next day, they were sat in front of a bunch of tinies who’d either chosen to do General Studies because their range of interests was so polymathically broad they couldn’t possibly round it down to anything so limitingly precise as History or English Language, or more likely there was nothing else they were really suitable for, and in the third hour of their torturous enrolment interview they got desperately asked, ‘Do you mind doing some General Studies?’, and then they went, ‘Yeah, s’pose. What are the hours?’
check your heteronormativism, dude
Somehow, us 17-year-olds discovered the school only ran General Studies because it gave them a good deal in terms of funding. We thought this was terribly awful of them, but as I’ve discovered since working in the industry, places which don’t take these kinds of financial non-opportunities are pretty much fucked for alternative sources of money. One monetary escape route which had wide popularity in the last decade was to sell off your playing fields to house High Street-destroying supermarkets and luxury flats for upwardly mobile dickbags.
We general studiers went to a few of the classes. I don’t remember what happened in them, the teacher I recall was nice enough, but one week they didn’t show up. We hung around for the lesson to do some doodles and talk about Warhammer, returning the next time to another unmanned room. Eventually we worked out we’d been abandoned, and didn’t do any more studier des generals (that’s French) until the end-of-year exam. There was a bunch of opinion-piece style essays to write, and some reading and comprehension questions. I’m not sure what grade I got for the AS.
At some point in my second year, rumours went round that if you wanted to convert your AS to a full strength General Studies A-level, you just had to say to the exams office, ‘Mate, can I do the A-level, please?’ and you were in. Further investigation revealed the school wasn’t even putting on the pretence of classes for the subject, so attendance wasn’t a problem. And even better, the exam was 100% composed of multiple choice questions. It was a pub quiz! And an A-level! Combined! And you didn’t even have to put a pound in to enter! We signed up on the spot.
Pretty much everyone I know got an A grade. I got a B. Among the A-graders was Y, recently moved over from Ukraine, who mockingly asked how he got a better mark than me, given that he was, in his own words, ‘a bloody Russian’. I had no answer, and my attention was more appallingly focused on the bizarre N grade I’d picked up for Art. But more on that next time.
One of the cuntest of cunt ideas from recent governments has been to push further the values of ‘free market competition’ into the education sector. This is bad enough of an ideological bumspoodge when dealing with regular consumer products, but slapping it on to schools and colleges has fucking really shit things up. I’m sure I’ll raise more general objections to laissez-faire economics when I get on to discussing the political philosophy unit many blog entries from now, but from a first-hand, directly lived experience perspective, one single area in which this has impacted on my working life is in the growing emphasis placed on appealing to prospective students during workplace marketing actions.
As a side note, ‘pupils’ has long gone as a preferred term, and ‘students’ often gets ditched in favour of ‘learners’, which I’ve always thought sounds a more spongy, passive phrase. Reports come in of senior managers at the more odiously run institutions referring to them as ‘clients’ or even ‘products’, which is at least unapologetic in its dehumanising, conveyor-belt attitude.
The last one I did, this parent comes over to me as I’m setting up the display, and says they’d come to the previous night and it may have been because it was late in the evening but they got the impression I didn’t really care about what I was doing and could I now sell the course to them with more enthusiasm? I didn’t remember this meeting they were talking about, but it certainly sounded like something I’d do. To appease their concerns, I leapt right in with an unbeatable 4/10 presentation, more than double the pizzazz the situation required.
There’s little to enjoy about standing in front of a table telling a succession of families exactly the same thing about what the course you’re teaching even means – ‘Is Philosophy like Psychology and Religious Studies?’ ‘No. It’s not. Fuck off.’ – and the only way to dilute this tedium is to enlist student helpers from the current herd. Their nominal role is to engage with parents and their young, showing a living outcome of the college’s efforts, but their true value is having someone to whisperingly swap shit-talking disparagements with about everyone who walks into the room and, on quiet evenings, those passing by the open door in the corridor beyond. Clearly you need the right kind of student for this, so be careful how you choose them. Never make the mistake of getting a helper who’s actually enthusiastic, because then there’s the real risk of making the course look like a good idea to a far wider audience than it actually benefits from.
The tension here is between the more corporate line of friendly, accessible promotion with an end goal of maximising student numbers and therefore funding, and a concern about getting the most appropriate people into the room in the first place. And it’s not as if these are truly oppositional values, as my decision to be more selective in this begrudging sales pitch comes from a recognition that a more welcoming demeanour does result in higher numbers, but that’s because a load of seats are then full up with people under the wrongful impression this is all going to be a fun and easy time. And I don’t personally have much against teaching students who have little chance of passing the course, but I’m made to care about it because I’m held accountable for the results at the end of the year.
So my ever-recycled course description across the evening always begins with points which have little mass appeal – i.e. the higher-than-normal entry requirements, the complete absence of coursework over timed examinations, the length of the essays, the complexity of the subject. If they’re still standing after that, there’s an ok chance they’re going to be alright. You’re welcome!
As the looming pressure of battling other institutions for future students increases, it’s declared open evenings aren’t enough. Don’t wait for the apples to fall – tear them from the tree. What we need to do is get schools to ship their kids over to us for a day to experience what we’re really like, and what we’re really like is much warmer and lovelier than those other places they’ve just been made to visit. Please come here. Please. You’ll never leave.
We do this for school students looking for post-compulsory places in the next academic year, but to make sure that branding root is stuck into them deep, we also do it for ones a year before that. As the competitive spirit bubbles ever higher thanks to the motivating factors of massive funding cuts, and the newly emerging predations of academy sixth forms and free schools, there’s sure to be a day when the T-minus-3-years crop gets targeted too. But why stop it there? Let’s get ahead of the game now and do some sponsored ante-natal classes.
There’ll be no colourful pens, no smiley face stickers, and definitely no tubs of lolly pops in my introductions. I can’t imagine the terrible consequences of doing a philosophy wordsearch, pin the tail on the post-structuralist or epistemological Jenga. I make a point of doing a lesson as close to the style and content of the actual course. And for every unsatisfied customer at this stage, I know that’s one fewer miserable face doing the A-level, feeling the experience was misrepresented, wishing they were anywhere else.
Obviously, it’s all still superfun and interesting. I’M NOT A MONSTER.