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How to support your child as they transition from school to college

It’s that time of year again, the seasons are changing, the weather is getting colder, and social media is flooded with pictures of children returning to school. Whether it’s a sweet-faced 4 year old, grinning in a still-too-big uniform, accompanied by a heart-felt cry of ‘where does the time go’, or a brand new Year 7, bravely sporting a tie and blazer for the first time, it’s undeniable, change is in the air.

Whilst older teenagers tend to be a little more photo-shy, (unless they’re in control of the camera and it’s for Instagram) so appear less in these posts, in many ways, those moving from Year 11 to 12 are facing the biggest changes of all. Unlike the shift from primary to secondary, which follows the same format for everyone, 16 year olds entering Further Education have a great deal of choice about what and how they study…and depending on what they pick, the experience may be very different to that of their peers.

Whether your child has chosen to stay at school for A Levels, or move onto college for a BTEC or an apprenticeship, they’ll receive a huge amount of support to help them adjust to their new course and environment, however parents often find that the information they have about their child’s education at this phase is a little more confusing, particularly if they’ve chosen a different pathway that of their friends.

Of course some teenagers will happily update you about their every move, but if, like many people, your questions are sometimes greeted with  briefer answers than you’d like, we’ve put together some answers to the most commonly asked questions about the differences between school and college…

What is the workload like?

The average college student in the UK has between 15-18 hours of taught time at college a week. For A Levels, this will be split between 3-4 subjects. For BTEC it will be divided between a range of different sessions that explore different aspects of their chosen subject, and for apprenticeships, it will be divided into set work-placement and college sessions. No matter what the course, this time will include regular tutorials, usually a group session which can include material on study skills, employability and well-being, as well as one-to-one sessions to track their individual progress. Every course is different, but most students will find themselves with regular deadlines to meet, and at least 1-2 hours a day of work to do outside of sessions.

Will they still have a form tutor?

Yes. Each student is allocated a tutor and will be part of a tutorial group. The name given to this may vary between institutions, it is usually something along the lines of ‘Personal’, ‘Academic’ or ‘Progress Tutor’. Whilst many students may not have a morning and afternoon registration, they will be registered in every session.

The tutor’s role is support each student as they progress, checking up on their performance and well-being regularly. If a student is taking multiple subjects, their tutor will work with each of their subject teachers. They are often the member of staff that knows your child best, and will be responsible for writing employment and UCAS references.

Are they in lessons all day every day? If they’re not in lessons, what should they be doing?

No they will not be in lessons all day.  Many students are particularly excited about having ‘free’ periods for the first time. Most colleges do not have taught sessions on a Wednesday afternoon, but otherwise each student’s free periods will vary each year, depending on their course.

Working out how to use them us usually a process of trial and error. Further Education allows students to focus on a smaller range of subjects, but the workload certainly isn’t any smaller. Some students choose to use their free periods to do any homework, essays, assignments or research tasks as this means that they have little-to-no work to do in the evenings. Others devote them primarily to social activities, preferring to work in the evenings. To an extent, students can choose whichever approach suits them best, however a combination of study and catching up with friends in free periods usually works well. They may also find that they share some free periods with friends, but are alone for others, which usually helps to shape their approach.

It may be unrealistic to expect students to devote all their new found freedom to study, but completing some work in the day can free up time outside college, and help them to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Most students usually find their rhythm after a couple of months.

Will there still be parents evening/school reports?

One of the most significant differences between school and college is that because the students are over-16 and there by choice, the college’s relationship is primarily with them. As a result, most Further Education institutions do not provide reports or online performance/attendance tracking for parents. That said, parent/caregiver support is still essential.

Students are provided with regular feedback about their progress through their tutors. You are welcome to contact your child’s tutor, and they will contact you as and when necessary, once they have agreed it with the student. Students will be asked to use an online ‘dashboard’ which records their progress, and can share this information with you if they wish to.  The majority of sixth forms and colleges hold regular parents evenings, so let your child know if you wish to attend and they can book places for you.

How can I help them to achieve their potential?

Just like anyone entering a new environment, some students take to college study like ducks to water, whilst others take a little while to adjust. For most students, making friends and establishing a new routine are the priorities, so reminding them that these things take time, and to give each new experience as chance before deciding whether they like it or not can be really beneficial.

As with all academic study, time-management is key, but rather than insisting on an immediate and definite approach to managing their free study time, it can be useful to suggest trying a few different approaches e.g. try using Wednesday afternoon for study and then selecting two evenings a week. If evening study doesn’t work too well, try switching to more hours in the day. Allow your child to experiment and adjust, and they should find a pattern that works.

It can be easy to focus just on work, but it can be equally useful to help your child to take breaks. With a significant workload, and an increased amount of digital delivery for the foreseeable future, time away from study (and particularly screens) is more important than ever. Sitting in front of a computer for hours every evening isn’t healthy or effective, and introducing some physical and practical activities to their day can help with a student’s efficiency as well as improving their well-being.

Above all, remember that this is a period of adjustment for you and your child. It can take time for both of you to get used to their new independence, as well as their changing schedule.

Wherever possible, treat things as a team effort, discussing thoughts, concerns and feelings with your child, and talking to their new college together. Whilst they might seem miles away from that Year 7, stood on the doorstep, wondering if they’ll ever grow into their blazer, a student starting college is just as in need of support, and offering a reassuring ear, as well as standing back and letting them learn by trying are just as invaluable as showing them how to tie their tie on the first day.

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