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Ranking and branding teenagers

A decade ago, when I was still a school girl sporting a fetching uniform of pleated brown skirt and matching brown sweater, teachers had the idea of secretly streaming me and my classmates for maths and science.

Their strategy was to tell us students which classes we were in, but not where we ranked on the school’s own Mensa scale, or what set we were in.

Only we did know, of course, because it took 100 canny girls about three minutes to work out who was sharing lessons with the school’s brainboxes and who would be working through simultaneous equations at a more, er, sedate pace.

Streaming might make sense for maths. But now schools are going a step further – splitting kids up into advice groups: one for those applying to a Russell Group university, another for those who aren’t.
“You’re good enough for us to spend a bit more resources on – it could be good for our league table position. But you? Not so much,” is how nervous 16-year-old students will read such a move.

University league tables – like the Guardian’s, which was published this week –  are useful. They give academics a bit of useful rivalry, whilst helping wannabe-freshers work out subject specialisms.

But it’s both old-fashioned and inappropriate for schools to rank and brand teenagers according to where they’re applying. Inappropriate, because doing so makes students far more anxious, during a school year when bulging arch-lever files of work and looming exams are already doing sterling work on stress-production. And old-fashioned because it ignores the increasingly career-focused stance teenagers are taking when applying to uni. An aspiring student of, say, hospitality or criminology should be given helpful advice about getting into the best university in the country for their course as a wannabe-medic applicant- regardless of how someone’s stat-crunching means their favoured institutions are ranked.

If you’re a teacher looking for ways to break up a huge group of sixth formers into smaller groups for undergraduate applications advice, do it by subject – that way, the pushier, more academic students may inspire others, and the collective pool of uni knowledge will be larger too. Help your students grill universities about what they’ll be offered: for a degree costing up to £9000 a year, most sixth-formers will be keen to know how many other people will be in their tutorials, and what accommodation, technology, and extra-curricular options will be available. Today’s applicants, raised on a diet of unlimited access to Google, want to know everything they can about the next three years of their life, and teachers should help them to do so – not restrict their choices via implicit labelling.

Lucy Tobin is author of A Guide to Uni Life (Trotman, £9.99) and senior news feature writer at the Evening Standard: and Twitter: @lucytobin

Posted by Lucy Tobin on Tue, 31 Jan 2017

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Lucy is a writer and journalist who has a regular column in the Evening Standard, where she also edits the personal finance section. She additionally writes for the Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times, Sunday Times and the Daily Mail. Lucy has published five books, including a 'Guide to Uni Life'.

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