Freedom to fail

A-level student Sophie Monks Kaufman reflects on what her college has taught her that her grammar school couldn't
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The Independent Online

I have spent the past year and a half taking my A-levels at a further education college, having done my GCSEs at a selective grammar school in north London. Adjusting to such a different educational environment has been difficult, but I am glad to have made the change.

I have spent the past year and a half taking my A-levels at a further education college, having done my GCSEs at a selective grammar school in north London. Adjusting to such a different educational environment has been difficult, but I am glad to have made the change.

At the grammar school, Latymer, in Edmonton, there were always teachers on hand who knew me as an individual, and so knew my strengths and weaknesses. In retrospect I realise how very attentive they were; what that meant at the time was that I was able to indulge my laziness because I knew there would be a trillion warning signs before anything approaching a consequence occurred. At Latymer, it is possible to do badly, but only if you staunchly rebel against the wave after wave of teacherly attention that comes your way.

The biggest shock for me when I arrived at my further education college - Westminster Kingsway, in Holborn, central London - was how I dropped in the importance stakes. At school I had been used to receiving attention, whether I had worked for it or not. At Kingsway, it wasn't that the college staff were negligent, it was just that I wasn't their responsibility. I was responsible for myself. My workload was far smaller. This freedom, to succeed or fail, well and truly flummoxed me. I wanted someone to tell me what to do. If I didn't do what was expected of me at college, the teachers were disappointed, but never with the melodrama of a Latymer teacher wronged. At Latymer, teachers took it personally if you underachieved in their subjects; at Kingsway, they left it to you to take it personally.

The lack of pastoral care was something of a shock, but there are sufficient tools - in terms of teaching and resources - for anyone who decides they want to do well. I have a friend who has excelled at the college in a manner that she never has before - for the simple reason that she applied herself and worked hard. Last year, there was a 35-year-old man who had achieved success in his career but had returned to education. I have never met anyone with such genuine enthusiasm for the subject. He was dyslexic, but put me to shame with the number of books he ploughed through. He talked and learnt about history because it was interesting to him, not because it was a necessary requirement for future success.

The standard of teaching is variable at college, but then that is true everywhere. Because it is not a particularly structured or cohesive environment, and because a lot of the students don't know how much of a teacher's time or expertise they have a right to expect, it is largely down to the teacher how much time they put into their students. There are certain teachers I can't think of without a warm feeling of gratitude, but there are others who have given me next to nothing. Handing work in to one teacher is like putting it into a black hole.

The other profound difference I experienced was the lack of institutional identity. Your education at Kingsway seems to occur independently of the institution. I do not feel that the college has imprinted itself on me in the way that a school does. There are no assemblies or ceremonies and college events occur as something separate to, rather than as a facet of, Kingsway. There is a code of conduct, but it is there to discourage extremes such as racism or violence, rather than to indoctrinate specific behaviours. There is no one encouraging you to uphold the prestige of the institution. Sometimes this is liberating: you don't get detention or lines for running in the corridor, or wearing an anarchic tie. But sometimes it is alienating: you can walk through the corridors with the same anonymity with which you walk down the street.

Coming from a learning environment where the majority of people were from a middle-class background, the social experience was something new to me. The friends I have made at the college have arrived here via very different routes. One of my friends sought asylum here from Kosovo. He is doing his A-levels at the same age as everyone else, despite having arrived in England with no knowledge of the language. I have another friend who came from Zimbabwe to do A-levels in London because they were discontinued in his country. It is impossible to draw a profile of the typical student, because there is no typical Kingsway student.

Initially, I regretted coming to the college. I felt I had been conditioned to function best in a more hands-on environment. I still think that is true, but I no longer regret coming here. It is much more of a challenge to distinguish yourself in an environment like this, but your eyes are opened to things of wider significance than your own personal achievement. The most beneficial thing about this college is the real insight I have gained into the fact that people are not composites of their educational achievement. Despite affected modesty, before coming here I thought that there was something special about my intellect and ability; my results at my previous school validated this. But here, through my own struggles and through speaking to people with an intelligence and motivation unreflected in their grades, I am no longer so complacent. Further education colleges are godsends for those looking for an avenue to continue their education, but they are also of worth to people like me. Kingsway is not the model of an educational establishment, but it does teach a lesson that is sometimes neglected in more prominent schools: the importance of taking responsibility for yourself.