“ Address: Lichfield Road / Bloxwich / Walsall / West Midlands / England „
I left my old school half way through sixth form to go to this school, supposedly a super school of the government academy genre. Well I have to say on my visit I was mightily impressed. The large glass entranceway, electronic white boards in every room, TVs that have professional school broadcasts on, suits for the sixth form and architecture that put my old 60s style school to shame. I eagerly awaited my acceptance and was made to feel it was very exclusive due to the limited number of places. Finally I was accepted and I was very excited for my start in September. The aim of the programme was to take a school that was failing and falling apart and turn it into a super school. They did this and the technology was outstanding. There was a music technology suite, CAD CAM suite, closed circuit television, independent learning centres. The whole thing was just an amazement to us at first.
Unfortunately this school is purely based upon appearances and what lies beneath it is an obscure work ethic that demotivates and suppresses. I cannot even begin to describe the unhappiness across the board of the sixth form. I realise young people of this age are generally moaners but this was something else. Having been in grammar school I enjoyed working hard and never disliked my previous grammar school as the others who had moved with me. Yet here we felt that freedom of opinion was restricted and they were basically just looking to drag the E and D grade students up to a C. Consequently the other students already at C or B level received little help to get up to an A. Due to it being quite a rough school before, the rogues within the school were focused upon and we often felt neglected. Bad behaviour from younger students was extremely regular to the point that when I was a 19 year old sixth former a year 8 girl tipped water over me at dinner because she liked my also 19 year old boyfriend. This was unknown to me as in my previous school sixth formers always had respect yet here the students were uncontrollable. This is probably why the work ethic that was imposed was like it was. But to us it was alien after being brought up in a teaching environment where we were trusted, respected as individuals, and encouraged to think across a wider spectrum beyond the obvious.
The school day was bizarrely set up. We would arrive in the morning and go straight to our morning lesson, which would be three hours long with a morning break where we would go to the restaurant for breakfast (and be unable to go outside except for toilet breaks). We would then proceed to our tutor groups, which consisted of students from every year group. This really did not work due the fact there were the shy first and second years and then the mouthy GCSE groups who completely dominated the class and then the sixth formers who sat on one table and were assigned a child that may have been having problems as a "buddy". This was not an option. We would then listen to the daily broadcast, which we were often forced to participate in. It often had a quote and a mantra for the day that was sometimes barely understandable to me never mind to younger years. Then we would be released back to continue with another three hour lesson during which there would be lunch (although sometimes we went into lunch so late that it was only half an hour before home time when we had finished!). The idea of these three hour lessons was to prevent the feeling of "just getting started" and having to stop. However due to the length of the lessons we covered much less due to the feeling of having plenty of time. For us it was difficult to concentrate for that length of time so I dread to think of younger students, although I believe they sometimes had this split up.
Another issue was that there were cameras EVERYWHERE and monitored at all times. I not only thought that this was a gigantic waste of expenditure but also that it gave the impression that all staff and students could not be trusted. I knew a woman who turned down a job there due to this fact that it was like being in George Orwell's 1984 with all the broadcasts and recordings. The IT technicians and supervising teachers in the Independent Learning Centres could also tap into your computer at any time so you could be working and then all of a sudden there is someone else controlling your mouse looking at what you are doing. Great if someone is messing around but not so great if you are trying to get something done and the regulator suddenly clicks on something accidentally and shouts across "Sorry!". This was one of the main problems that the entire student body got punished for the behaviour of the unruly children. There was no trust, just the assumption that everyone is the same. ICT was also a compulsory subject at A level, which I objected to as I would have preferred something more academic. It was also the AVCE so it was heavily coursework based and very time consuming. I would have preferred the option of the AGCE which is exam based or the option of taking another language, which to me would have been more useful. I was already proficient in ICT from GCSE and general home use, as are most youngsters these days so I felt it was a grand waste of time. I had also had to drop a subject that I had already studied at AS level to accommodate this ICT.
One of the pluses of the school was the food though. The food was actually decent and not overly expensive as it was funded quite heavily. You could even have a full English breakfast in the morning and the cakes were gorgeous! Lunch was probably my favourite part of the day!
The teaching for sixth form varied. I had two very good English teachers who really tried to make the lessons interesting and varied and also provided the more advanced students with extra activities whilst the others caught up. I also had another teacher who we all dreaded because his lessons were so monotonous and I actually got asked not to come to class because I objected to concentrating on one exam question for two weeks, which would have been 9 hours. I explained to the teacher aside that I thought it was too long because it was close to the exam time and as the question was on the February paper it was unlikely to be repeated on the June paper and there were weaker areas I felt unsure of. I was then told that I was creating a "negative energy" in the group and that obviously my grades will not suffer by not coming to class so if I prefer private study then that is what I should do. I did do private study and came out with a top A grade. I went to my other teachers for help when I needed it. Other teachers there could not even be bothered as they were as demotivated as the students. Unfortunately the school is run by an elite who really put pressure on everyone, lower members of staff included. This left a rather sour taste in the mouth and the teaching system was so structured that there was little difference from one class to another. If I was a teacher there I would have felt very stifled. It was obvious to us that they felt as fed up as us in the majority of cases.
One of the things that annoyed me most was the way I was spoken to by some members of staff. By the time I left sixth form I was nearing 20 and some of my teachers were only 22 or 23. They liked to take the young teachers on for the regular classes and I often felt that I should not have been spoken to like a child when there were staff members only a couple of years older. The younger ones weren't the ones doing the talking down though but I object to being shouted down when I am answering a question or being told my answer is wrong in a subject such as English where this is no right or wrong answer if you provide a structured explanation with evidence to back up your theory. My exam paper came back as a D and the previously mentioned teacher said it was because my ideas were totally abstract. Another teacher then read it and said that yes, she thinks outside the box but this is definitely an original theory that deserves better. It got sent back and it came back with 100% for an interesting and fresh approach. Thank god that there were some teachers there who promoted individual thinking otherwise I would have been written off as "flying a kite" instead of copying the entire York Notes into my essays.
No students including sixth formers were allowed to leave school premises and the cameras were watching you. You were basically confined to a classroom in free periods called ILC. The good thing about this was you had access to computers so you could get a lot of work done but it was incredibly claustrophobic. Sixth formers also had to wear suits to school with a name badge on at all times. Outside the classroom you always had to keep your jacket on and if you were caught without a name badge you were charged £1, which went to charity. A lot of money went to charity over those two years. But we used to sweat like pigs in summer! In Winter it was freezing though, with the typical breeze blocks everywhere. There was supposed to be air conditioning and heating but we used to joke that we could never feel it and secretly they were pumping us with chemicals through the ventilators to turn us into academy robots.
So were there any good points other than the food? There was definitely a sense of unity amongst the sixth form because we felt that it was us struggling against the system. I think the system is probably good for unruly children but at the age of sixth form just before going to university I believe it is important to give a little independence and trust in preparation for university where you are not going to have someone calling you if you don't turn up and watching you on camera all day and keeping you on campus. They were supposed to be preparing us for the business world but I personally felt the only aspect of that was a constant pressure to conform. I am sure that the underprivileged children in the area (it is located in a poorer area of Walsall) would have benefitted greatly from this environment, providing them with technology and food that they may not have access to at home as well as discipline and basic standards to achieve. For anyone who already has self discipline and guidance and can think for themselves you should avoid this place like the plague. It will either make you numb, as happened to some individuals or will make you rebel like I did. Eventually I got so fed up I attended only two lessons a week because I was asked not to attend two of my subjects.
For drama students there was a good theatre production team and anyone could join in. The productions were quite professional for school standard due to the impressive technology. As were awards evenings. Yet even though I got the best results in my year group I never received one award. Awards were for the naughty children or the people that tried hard but to no avail. I felt that excellence was never really rewarded yet given willy-nilly to the naughty children to make them better. As I said this place was all about appearances - the dress, the lighting technology in the theatre, taking the underdog and turning them around, the impressive glass architecture. Underneath that it was basically a school for disciplining the naughty children and going through the motions of the education system. I think the only thing I got out of this experience was that it taught me to stand up for myself. Before I would never have dared speak back to a teacher and although I was never rude, I was not going to be treated like a naughty child when I wasn't nor was I going to have my opinions stifled. I don't regret rebelling against it and I think that it made me a much stronger person although it did little for me education wise that I couldn't have done myself with a few text books at home. The exception to this was those two young English teachers who really encouraged our atypical thinking and gave us material and guidance to really reach beyond what the school curriculum was offering. Also one of my geography teachers was an excellent teacher but unfortunately had a stinking attitude towards both students and staff. I also worry about a school so heavily dependent on technology because if the system goes down I really don't know what would happen and secondly I feel that children may be missing out on learning about aspects of life that don't require technology. I don't know what half of them would do if they had to give a presentation without PowerPoint. Due the heavy usage of it at this school, I found public speaking without it an absoloute nightmare and a skill I had to learn very quickly at university.
Overall they were probably the longest two years of my life and I was very glad on that final day to walk out the door and never return.