Guest Learner at St Catherine’s, Cambridge

Today we headed to Cambridge for our first school visit in England.  We arrive at Parkside Academy, which is a federation academy meaning they run more than one school.  In this case there are two secondary colleges and a Sixth Form college.  They are also about to have another school join their federation.  Federations begin when a successful school takes over the running of a less successful school.  At Parkside their reason for doing this is a feeling of obligation to help out the failing school and also the economies of scale which come with having two schools. This concerns me deeply when the government are no longer responsible for a school but this obligation falls to neighbouring schools.  If governments are no longer responsible for ensuring good quality education for everyone it sends a message that they don’t believe education should be a priority. Don’t get me wrong, Parkside appear to be doing a great job, but governments shouldn’t rely on this as a means to ‘fixing’ failing schools.

A short walk from the main campus of Parkside is their 6th form college (Years 12 & 13 or similar to VCE).  It offers the International Baccalaureate, an internationally renowned programme which encourages students to ask questions, develop their own identity, respect and communicate with others and learn how to learn. I am interested in how a programme like this fits into the rigid English inspection system. Ofsted, the office which carries out regular inspections on schools in England, is often presumed  to be looking for good test results or value added education. Here the focus is on creative learners who learn more than just facts and they believe this fits with the expectation of Ofsted.  It is interesting that some schools see Ofsted in relation to test results, where others look to the more holistic elements of education.

Our afternoon visit is one I have been looking forward to.  A look inside the hallowed halls of Cambridge University.  It really is like another world, not because of the fancy paintings on the walls or the beautifully manicured lawns but because of how few people get the opportunity to be part of the inner workings of Cambridge.  With only 400 students at St Catherine’s, from approximately 9000 undergraduates at the 31 colleges, you can see to get a University of Cambridge degree is a rather privileged affair.

Some of the features of the college include shortened terms where they attend for 3 x 8 week blocks.  It is expected throughout this time to be completely dedicated to college life and schooling.  Trips home for the weekend are discouraged during term time and you are expected to take part in the healthy competition between colleges.  A feature of the Cambridge system is the 1:1 mentor [programme where students spend an hour a week with their mentor teacher receiving guidance.

PicMonkey Collage

But we weren’t actually there to learn about St Catherine’s but rather to attend a seminar on career policy by St Catherine’s Professor, Tony Watts. He spoke of his study into the development of careers guidance in 14 countries and concluded that no one does it very well.  Across the world there is a lack of education based around identity formation, occupational identify, industry connections, funding and curriculum focus.  He looks to Germany as a model most with their dual system, strong career advice, relationships with unions and the respected ideal of vocational learning.

As I leave St Catherine’s, making sure not to stand on the grass (it is only allowed by fellows and frowned upon by commoners!) I realise on the inside, St Catherine’s has many similarities to any university as they look to answer questions and learn what they can.