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How to prepare pupils for the upcoming exam reforms

As the government introduces yet another round of examination reforms, senior independent schools ask the key question, what is the purpose of education and how can their pupils excel best in an increasingly competitive world arena, while still enjoying the process of learning? School House asks heads of schools and directors of academia to assess the assessment process

New horizons

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J H Kazi, deputy headmaster (academic) of Charterhouse school, which along with Winchester, was the first school to introduce the Pre-U in 2008, explains how the academic scene has moved forward over the past 15 years.

Or those people who have been involved with UK education long enough to recognise a pre-millennial education system, you could be forgiven for thinking that we have just stepped back in time and returned to old fashioned A-levels – the sort that were sudden death. Linear courses that were terminally assessed and designed to sort the wheat from the chaff, translated as, ‘have a small number of pupils achieving the top grades’.

Indeed, there does appear to be something reassuringly ‘traditional’ about both the structure and the content of the new A-levels that have been taught in some subjects since September 2015. Similarly, there is a parallel shift occurring with the new GCSEs, albeit with revised grading that runs 9–1 instead of A*–U (perhaps another throwback to the pre-1975 O-level numerical grading, albeit inverted).

Especially within the UK’s independent sector, the reality is that the educational offering has significantly expanded since 2000, which is when ‘advanced levels’ emerged as having two contiguous components, with assessment at the end of each year in the form of AS and A2 examinations. So, what’s changed? Well quite a lot. A-levels and GCSEs are no longer the only qualifications that are common currency and over the last 15 years, we have seen schools embracing a broad range of new qualifications, as well as some schools who invent their own.

The sixth form is where there is the most evidence of change. Independent schools have never really embraced vocational qualifications, although quite a number do offer a GNVQ in public service through their combined cadet forces. The real growth in alternative qualifications has come from schools running dual curricula options with the International Baccalaureate diploma programme or supplementing their A-level offerings with Cambridge International Examinations’ International A-level and Pre-U courses, in addition to augmenting their GCSE courses with international GCSEs.

We all know that education is not just about examination-hall performance and that we seek to educate in the widest sense possible: it is little wonder that opportunities to credit pupils for their wider development and service to others should be sought through the GNVQ or the CAS element of the IB Diploma Programme, or even through schools’ own ‘diplomas’. Indeed, the philosophically-led IB diploma programme was particularly attractive to many schools because it was, for quite a while, the only sixth-form qualification that was not assessed in a modular fashion and allowed schools to avoid the inevitable disruption that came about as a result of AS levels disrupting the summer term of the lower sixth.

It wasn’t just an issue with the structure of the courses, but also the content. Many schools saw less and less material available to be taught on the A-level syllabus and an increasing obsession with meeting the examiner’s assessment objectives, which resulted in time spent on teaching examination technique rather than teaching the actual subject.

As a result, we have seen the rise of additional university entrance tests, whilst simultaneously hearing the concerns of university lecturers, many of whom have had to restructure their courses in order to fill knowledge gaps that have emerged as a result of the limited syllabus content at secondary level.

By contrast, the alternative sixth-form courses (IBDP, Pre-U and International A-level) have rather more substance to them and are, correspondingly, much more stimulating to teach.

It is little wonder that at GCSE, where there is not as much choice, many schools have created their own subject courses that they self-validate or schools have veered to the more traditional IGCSEs. The advantages of IGCSEs in terms of their content vary from subject to subject: none have controlled assessment, which allows teachers to get on with teaching rather than child-minding as pupils slavishly write up their coursework under examination hall conditions. Additionally, all have a diminished coursework component and a rather more robust range of coverage, making effective preparation for the sixth form.

One of the advantages of these alternative qualifications is the quality of the marking. The increased pressure under which the national examination boards found themselves with a growing school population (bearing in mind the rise in the compulsory age of school leavers) was not easy to handle. The international boards, drawing on a global field of markers, as well as having typically smaller cohorts, has meant that the quality of marking is much more accurate.

Whilst the shape of the new national qualifications at A-level and GCSE might have reverted to a more traditional form, the independent sector, in particular, has promoted a healthy range of alternatives. This will mean that the national boards will have to work very hard to compete effectively in an educational environment that has a broader and much more international perspective than was the case pre-2000.

So is it the case there is a ‘little bit of history repeating’? The only thing that is repeating seems to be the qualification, but the educational context has very much moved on.

Charterhouse offers IGCSEs and then the IB Diploma Programme and Pre-U courses in the sixth form

Exam reform

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Stuart Dalley, director of studies at Badminton School, Bristol, explains how the government is tackling grade inflation at GCSE level and is returning to the linear form of grading at A-levels.

Schools across Britain are currently faced with renewed turbulence as a wave of GCSE and A-level reforms get underway. The complexities of these reforms are such that pupils, staff, governors and parents will need to be fully up to speed with what the changes mean. In short, the government is looking to turn the clock back to the pre-curriculum 2000 days, when A-levels were based on a linear system with all exams at the end of two years of sixth-form study.

However, such is the difficulty of reform that these changes will be staggered over two years so that some subjects were reformed first for teaching in a linear fashion from September 2015, a further tranche in September 2016 and the last in place for teaching in September 2017. This will mean that for two years, schools across Britain will be faced with tough decisions on how they will cope with a ‘mixed currency’ of reformed and non-reformed A-levels.

Pupils, and their parents, will need to appreciate that in reformed subjects, only the exams sat at the end of the A2 year – and none from the lower sixth-year if sat – will count towards the final A-level grade. This will be done alongside unreformed subjects where it will still be possible to do exams at the end of the lower-sixth year, which could still count to towards the final grade. Schools will need to manage this system for at least two years as these staggered reforms take place

If this was not enough to cope with, new GCSEs will also be factored in. This started with maths and English in September 2015, followed by other GCSE subjects in September 2016. It has been argued that GCSEs require updating due to the fact that grade inflation has eroded the value of top grade GCSEs and that there is a need for new content, a different structure and better assessment if the country is to retain its educational standing in the world. Though it is difficult at this stage for schools to know the impact of these GCSE reforms, it is suggested that there will be a greater focus, where appropriate, on assessment mainly through exams and content which is deemed to be more demanding.

At the time of writing, the unofficial line from the exam boards is that whilst A-level content will remain at a similar level of difficulty (albeit with an arguably more difficult framework), new GCSE content will be noticeably more difficult. A new 9–1 grading system will also be used with 9 being the new top grade. Broadly speaking, 8 is considered to be the equivalent of the old A*, 7 an A grade and so on. In effect, 9 will be the new super grade, with only a small minority of pupils able to achieve this. However, some IGCSE subjects are proposing to stick with the A*-G system or to offer both an A*–G option and a 9–1 option.

The government sees all of this as a drive to improve standards in British education, to allow for the updating of the content of courses and to improve assessment methods. For those of us in the front line of these changes, it means a tricky few years ahead.

A sense of achievement

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Keith Budge, headmaster of Bedales Schools, explains why Bedales introduced their own Bedales Assessment Courses (BACs) to replace some non-core GCSEs.

The House of Commons’ Education select committee recently invited submissions on a question that I believe to be pivotal but rarely asked, what is the purpose of education? This comes against a backdrop of increasing concern about wellbeing amongst young people, with a growing awareness that the provision of schools in this regard is crucial.

Of particular concern to me is the suggestion made in a recent report from think tank Demos, Mind Over Matter, that as young people reach their final year of school, they are increasingly likely to report exam stress, believing that their school is interested only in results at the expense of their wider education. To its credit, the government is alert to this issue. However, I am concerned that the wellbeing of students tends to be seen as a discrete part of school life, separate from the issues of curriculum, learning orthodoxies and assessment.

John Badley founded Bedales as a humane response to the authoritarian regimes typical of late-Victorian public schools, and today we continue this work in seeking to challenge the influences and tendencies in society that threaten children’s development and welfare. Our overriding objective is, ‘to develop inquisitive thinkers with a love of learning who cherish independent thought’ and ‘to enable students’ talents to develop through doing and making’.

With this in mind, we became increasingly frustrated with GCSEs as dull, narrow and counter-intuitive to our purpose and, in 2006, launched Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs) to replace some non-core GCSEs. Designed by Bedales teachers, BACs give students a say over what books they study, mainly involves coursework as opposed to exams and focuses on the arts and humanities. They offer increased depth, more stimulating material, more active learning, less prescriptive syllabuses and a wider range of assessment methods. 

BACs are assessed internally and moderated externally, mainly by examiners with recent GCSE examining experience. Whilst they are graded according to our own assessment criteria, BACs follow the same GCSE grading convention. The levels indicated by these are at least as difficult to attain as the corresponding GCSE grades and, in many cases, more so.

We have been more than pleased with the results. Universities have been keen to accept BACs and Bedales is the first school to be recognised by UCAS as offering its own GCSE-alternative qualification. No less importantly, a research programme conducted in partnership with Harvard researchers confirms that BACs serve our educational aims very well indeed. The collaborative approach to learning that underpins them, characterised by students exercising significant decision-making power, results in effective learning. It enhances motivation, independence and inquisitiveness, with choice over study linked to a sense of ownership, competence and engagement.

2015 saw the sixth BAC cohort leave the school. Since 2013, it has been possible to choose options that do not include any GCSEs, but instead a combination of BACs and IGCSEs. We continue to innovate and, in 2016, will launch our new BAC in global awareness.

Less pleasing, is that the government’s overhaul of GCSE league tables means that some qualifications and combinations of qualifications, at Key Stage Four are not included. Consequently, some high-achieving schools have seen their results drop.

At Bedales, nearly all of our pupils now take IGCSE and BAC qualifications, and we have taken a hit in this regard – despite impressive results and the widespread enthusiasm for our approach. Like others, I believe that this has made the tables nonsensical and confusing for parents. No less worrying, is the message that it sends out about the value that is placed on alternative educational arrangements: the Department for Education’s statement that it has ‘stripped out qualifications that were of little value’ bears little scrutiny, and this must be revisited.

Ultimately, I feel conflicted – satisfied that at Bedales we jumped ship when we did, whilst sincerely wishing that we had never come to feel it necessary. I would much prefer that we felt able to participate in a shared education system that could work for all. I will express this view in my submission to the select committee, arguing in the strongest possible terms that schools must aim higher than simply preparing young people for the career-driven, stress-laden treadmill of a particular version of adult life. Giving young people the wherewithal to work out what it means for them to live well, whilst never forgetting that work is of course a hugely important part of this, seems to me to be a more suitable aim.

Creating an alternative curriculum

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As one of the first schools to adopt the IB, embrace internationalism and teach in a globally aware way, Sevenoaks has never shied away from curriculum innovation, and our increasing dissatisfaction with GCSEs has led to a lot of innovation recently.

The curriculum is important for Years Nine to 11. Exams, however, are not! At Sevenoaks, we have approached the discussion of how best to approach these vital years through our long and exhilarating experience of the IB Diploma Programme. As a result, we have created our own middle school curriculum through which students work towards our own UCAS-recognised examinations: Sevenoaks school certificates. These act as the foundation for the IB Diploma curriculum, and in today’s educational landscape, where most students remain at school until the age of 18, we find the process of, and the need to take exams in Year 11, less relevant and largely unnecessary.

However, in the spirit of preparing students for continued study and self-assessment, we believe there are two main positives to taking exams in Year 11: good exam results can be a boost to the beginning of Year 12 and the experience of doing the exams in Year 11 can be good practice for final exam taking in Year 13 and within higher education.

However, set these against the negatives – we believe the national curriculum of GCSEs to be limiting, meaningless and, in some cases, poorly assessed. They are artificial, cause stress and preparation for them takes up curricular time. Increasingly, the modes of assessment are antiquated and, within the context of an IB Diploma School, GCSEs and IGCSEs – originally intended as school leaving exams in an age when young people could leave school at 16 – they serve no university matriculation purpose whatsoever.

At Sevenoaks, we trialled an alternative curriculum initially with English literature. Our teachers wanted to be able to choose from a broad range of international texts, with the aim of preparing students for the depth and breadth of the English higher level and standard level courses they will study for the IB.

Next followed drama, music, history of art and history of music, all aimed at inciting pupils’ enthusiasm and appreciation of the subjects, but more focussed on appreciation and not performance. In parallel, the design department were working on two courses – robotics and visual communications, which reflects how fast this area of the curriculum has changed since the days of resistant materials a generation ago.

All of these courses are now externally moderated by senior teachers at other schools, and they all appear in the drop-down box on the UCAS form when our students apply to university. As a result, they pose no risk to university applications and, if anything, we have found they make a great talking point at university interviews.

The initiation of these courses has been aided by the fact that all of our middle-school courses are based around a common ethic, shared by all of the teachers at the school, and informed to a large extent by our experience with the IB – far more important for us than data tracking, league tables and percentage A* – C is the promotion of values to do with good learning, a global understanding and the development of core skills for life, not just the next stage of education.

We think that creativity, enquiry, knowledge, independent learning, critical thinking, problem solving and international awareness are the values of a good curriculum, which teaches pupils how to think. We also believe that interdisciplinarity is important, and a wide curriculum with explicit links between different topics is the best preparation for a workforce who will have to continue to learn and to retrain as they progress through their careers.

Our curriculum is built around a core of service, sport and creativity. It has taken time and investment to get to this point and it continues to benefit from review and improvements year on year. We have had to develop internal processes for security and consistency of approach, and other aspects usually handled by exam boards. This is difficult to achieve, but the benefits are huge – heads of department describe their pupils as unshackled and more engaged by the new courses, and parents and staff have also seen the benefit of this individual approach.

Freedom to construct these courses ourselves has meant that we can introduce exciting and distinctive elements designed to elicit strong levels of personal engagement from students. Music students compile a dossier of public performances, as well as personal compositions; drama students work towards devised group productions in addition to an individual research project, and our history of art course invites students to undertake an in-depth personal exploration of 50 works of art that have had an impact on the way we see the world.

In addition, each course places emphasis on the notion of learning independently. In part, this is through an element of individual choice. For example, not only can students select particular courses within a given faculty area but, within each course, they are invited to pursue certain areas in which they feel a particular interest. The English literature course asks students to nominate a period or genre on which to focus their independent online project, and in both drama and music, students can select practitioners or theories in which they are particularly interested, as well as choosing whether to follow an historical, technical or expressive individual journey.

Connecting our courses is another innovation: a core that all students study. These are courses that promote critical and creative thinking about real questions, about current affairs and ethical perspectives. These courses (‘Systems of Belief’, ‘Critical Perspectives’, and ‘Ten Ideas that Changed the World’) are unique to Sevenoaks, and prepare students for the IB ‘Theory of Knowledge’ syllabus. Our syllabus considers which ideas have had powerful, disruptive and formative effects on the contemporary world: right and wrong, the Enlightenment, the cosmos, God(s), freedom, multiculturalism and the internet. We encourage students to have opinions, to debate and to feel confident in their argument while understanding the perspective of others – all vital qualities of thought for whatever path they choose.

We are proud of our ambitious and challenging curriculum at Sevenoaks. We have built a balanced, broad education, with depth and an element of choice. We favour enrichment over acceleration. We don’t encourage either taking exams early or taking exams during spare time; subjects are not to be rushed through or ticked off, but explored and reflected upon. We believe our academic character to be unique. The education we provide teaches students to learn, to think, to debate and develop principles: inner qualities and resources they will take with them to university and into the wider world. We want to kindle learning that will outlive their exam results.

Exams in context

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Jenny Dwyer, headmistress of Sherborne Girls, puts exams in their place

School days used to be considered the happiest days of our life. I wonder whether students nowadays still feel this is the case. They are constantly examined and under so much pressure that educationalists like myself are concerned by the rising number of pupils with high stress levels and mental health issues. All of us work hard to ensure that pupils find the right balance between academic rigour and meaningful co-curricular options, as well as sufficient down-time.

A 21st-century boarding school should be about so much more than the final exam results. At Sherborne Girls we are proud of our outstanding examination record; we consistently raise the bar for our girls by one or two grades over their predicted results and we are delighted to see the girls progress to a raft of prestigious universities to study everything, from medicine to art.

This added value is achieved by combining excellent teaching with a focus on the individual and a commitment to delivering a broad and challenging curriculum that balances academic excellence with sport, the arts, leadership, enrichment and personal development so that our girls can develop into well-educated, confident and caring young women who are committed to making significant and positive contributions to the world.

But what does this holistic approach actually mean? We believe it lies in strong pastoral care and a robust tutor system. It matters to girls that the people with whom they work take a real interest in them as individuals and give them time and attention. They like to be encouraged to experiment with a wide range of activities in order to discover new passions and talents. What is particularly important for girls, is to build confidence by ensuring lessons are high challenge but low threat.

This individual approach is underlined by giving girls a choice of A-levels or IB at sixth form so that girls can follow specific courses in depth (A-levels) or maintain breadth in their education (IB) and hence choose the course that is right for them.

Academic and personal development are continued outside the classroom with girls being encouraged to immerse themselves in an extensive range of co-curricular activities, as well as academic enrichment, societies, lectures, educational trips and inspirational speaker programmes, which enableS them to broaden their perspectives and set their moral compasses, recognising the values that are important to them as individuals and as part of a community. It is also important that they have time to relax, have fun and reflect.

A boarding environment enables us to manage the pace of the day, so students have the chance to get the best out of what the school offers, like in-house dining, which facilitates a time-out during the day. We also use every element of school life as an opportunity to learn and develop transferable skills, like living together, accepting different views and cultures and learning to be persuasive, but also when to compromise.Being part of a wider community means that Sherborne girls can play a role in the town, visiting the elderly, volunteering at local schools, litter picking or performing to hospital patients. Whether at school or away, girls develop confidence by doing meaningful service for others.

Exam results are important but it is the life skills and values they garner that will make all the difference to how they cope in today’s modern, frenetic, continually evolving age. At Sherborne Girls, we draw on the attributes of the IB learner profile as a framework to support our approach to skills-based learning. The jobs that our girls will go on to do most likely don’t even exist yet, but if they are able to communicate, enquire, work as a team, be reflective and show resilience, I believe they already have an advantage.

To set or not to set

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Simon Smith, deputy head (academic) at Haileybury, considers a controversial subject and finds the reasons are compelling but inconclusive

In 2006 David Cameron said ‘I want to see setting in every single school. Parents know it works. Teachers know it works. We will keep up the pressure till it does,’ and, in September 2014, it very much seemed as if the new Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, was set to implement it. But then the idea that grouping pupils by ability as a panacea for all educational problems went quiet.

Instinctively, the idea of pupils of similar ability being taught at an appropriate level and pace has much to commend it. Certainly prospective parents regularly ask me whether we have setting at Haileybury and in which subjects. This is understandable; no parent could bear the thought of their child’s learning being damaged by another pupil’s inability to understand the material. Such a scenario, one imagines, would hamper a ‘brighter’ pupil’s progress and interest as the teacher was constantly distracted by ‘weaker’ pupils requiring lengthy, repeated explanations.

Similarly, a pupil who finds a subject difficult would surely be demotivated by a teacher setting off at rip-roaring pace encouraged by able and eager pupils, only to leave one or two behind feeling somewhat bewildered. Therefore, at Haileybury, we do set by ability in sciences, languages (classical and modern) and mathematics.

In the case of the latter, able pupils are pushed sufficiently to enable them to take their IGCSE early and to study additional mathematics in Year 11. In English, we have an extension set for the most able and most likely to study A-level English literature. The arguments for setting are convincing and might seem reassuring. However, there are a number of health warnings.

Firstly, setting requires regular assessments to check pupils are in the right class as the pupils develop and the nature of the work changes. Cross-grades (as we call them) are like a good MOT or health check. However, if the outcome is such that a pupil is to be moved down into a ‘more appropriate’ class, then what of the effect on that pupil’s confidence and future progress? Just as many parents are upset when this happens as they expect us to have setting in the school. Paradoxically, I have known successful pupils not want to move up a set as they like their current teacher, who is clearly having a positive impact.

Secondly, one has to question on what ability setting is based upon. A pupil who finds algebra very straightforward may struggle with geometry or statistics. A pupil who can write wonderful creative pieces may find analysing poetry rather more challenging, and the pupil with an ear for a language may still find it difficult to use a past participle with any degree of accuracy. Even within setting there will be pupils with differing abilities. Set sizes of one are probably not practical.

Thirdly, and herein lies the problem with Nicky Morgan’s ‘demand’ setting, it is, in many cases, impossible to apply. As pupils start to choose their options at 13 or 14+ they have to be, for timetable practicalities, in a class with those who chose the subject rather than aptitude. In the sixth form there is no setting for A-level, so why should it be applied lower down the school. If history cannot be set, should mathematics?

Finally, and most importantly, is there any actual evidence that it works? World-respected Professor John Hattie in his book Visible Learning, synthesised over 500,000 educational research studies and concluded that compared to effective feedback, teaching study skills and pupil-teacher relationships, ability grouping has very little impact on a pupil’s progress. So when David Cameron said ‘every teacher knows’, those who have read Hattie would know differently.

Where does this leave us? Is the setting solution a myth? Should every subject be taught as mixed ability? In my 20 years of teaching I would suggest that context is everything. Schools recruiting pupils with a wide range of abilities, interests and linguistic backgrounds would certainly benefit from some sort of grouping. In schools where pupils are of similar ability, this is less important, but motivation and interest is a characteristic not to be overlooked. How many top sets contain one or more pupils who are not necessarily the brightest but love the subject and work the hardest. How many lower sets contain pupils who simply ‘hate maths’ rather than being unable to understand the concept?

Such groupings may enable the teacher to devise appropriate lessons and materials but certainly without any hint of dumbing down. Every pupil responds to challenge and high expectation. Hattie may well have the solution. His works show that ability grouping within a class can make a difference, so at times, offering pupils the opportunity to complete a task with similarly able pupils can be beneficial. I have seen this work extremely effectively. In a mixed ability IB Spanish lesson, I observed a teacher who had brilliantly established different pairings for oral work – each was colour coded. One colour meant they worked with a friend, one colour meant they worked boy/girl, one colour meant they worked with someone of equal ability and another for working with someone of very different ability. The pupils moved effortlessly around the class when instructed and at no point was there any protest or disruption to the learning. This was effective teaching and learning.

Is setting a cure-all? Absolutely not. Might it help? Possibly, but the reality is that every parent and teacher also knows that the most successful ingredient in education is professional and passionate teaching, irrespective of the makeup of those sitting front of them.

Why the EPQ is here to stay

Since its launch in September 2008, the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) has proved to be enormously popular with schools across the country. Independent schools, in particular, have witnessed an explosion of interest. It was no surprise to read Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the ISC and former headmaster of Harrow, extolling its virtues in a Daily Telegraph article over the summer

For those who are unaware of just what an EPQ is, it can be thought of like a mini thesis. It presents pupils, usually in Year 12, with a chance to pursue a topic of study, which is totally of their own choosing and unconstrained by an exam syllabus. There are a number of factors that have led to its popularity in recent years.

In the first instance, there can be little doubt that the desire to secure places at a leading Russell Group university is the key factor that motivates pupils to pursue it as a course of study. A research report from the 1994 group of universities indicated that, ‘A large majority of departmental admissions tutors expect to recognise it as a positive attribute when selecting among applicants with similar levels of achievement (both high fliers and those at the borderline).’ With fierce competition amongst schools for places at the best universities, the EPQ is becoming one way in which pupils can stand out from the crowd.

The EPQ also allows pupils to do something totally different and outside of the mainstream of their in-class subject choices. It gives pupils an opportunity to explore fields of study not open to them in the usual A-level subject choices. For pupils wishing to pursue degree courses in fields such as medicine, engineering and architecture, an EPQ gives them the chance to prove their enthusiasm and interest in these subjects. Even EPQs connected to a mainstream subject open up a wealth of choice to a pupil, who is able to explore the subject beyond the confines of a fixed exam syllabus. Some pupils choose not to write an EPQ report but instead, make something, compose or perform a piece of music or produce a piece of art.

With exam reform at both GCSE and A-level now in motion and schools under continued pressure, not only to maintain and improve exam results, but also to equip their pupils with that little extra something when it comes to university applications, we should not expect to see interest in the EPQ wane anytime soon. On the contrary, it may come to be a key part of the sixth-form pupil’s academic and personal profile.