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Preparing for university in a pandemic

By Michael Randall, Deputy Head, Downside School

The appearance of Covid-19 and the subsequent global pandemic can be characterised as a ‘Black Swan’ event. The Black Swan theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and describes an event that is completely unexpected, has a significant impact, and is often inappropriately rationalised after the fact and with the benefit of hindsight.

As humans, we have an innate desire to find a simple solution to a problem. This propensity tends to lead us to make decisions based on our prior experiences, scientific knowledge and accepted norms. If it is easy to measure and easy to categorise then we like it. However, in a Black Swan event there is no prior experience from which to draw and as such any

decisions arrived upon are blinded by these psychological biases. As such we struggle to rationalise what has happened and how to address it. Taleb concludes that, in order for us to deal with Black Swan events, we must build robustness against negative events whilst still focussing on positive events.

The cancellation of final examinations was totally unexpected, the first time this has ever happened, and it has left a significant gap in the established accepted norms for students. In a system set up to value an examination grade alone as a measure of your education and ability, it is no wonder that our pupils have been struggling to rationalise the situation.

However, at Downside we do not measure the education of a child solely by their examination grades. Downside prides itself in the fact that pupils feel accepted and valued unconditionally. This means they can grow and develop in confidence to achieve their best and to support others to do the same. The excellent examination outcomes they achieve are in addition to this philosophy, however we consider that the journey is as important as the destination.

Rather than trying to keep with the accepted norm and making our pupils take examinations mimicking the normal exam series, at Downside we gave our Upper Sixth Form pupils a different option. They had the opportunity to personally assess their progress using written assessments and, to try something new, were offered a ‘Viva Voce’ (spoken assessment) with their teacher. We ran a personalised programme of support lessons with these pupils to help them prepare for these assessments and to give them an opportunity to demonstrate how much they have developed over their time at the School.

They also continued to be an integral part of their House communities, committing to supporting House activities and, by doing so, they have kept in touch with their friends in the School community and the positives therein.

We called on the wider Downside community for their support and the result was the ‘Beyond Downside Programme’. The programme included daily keynote speakers and sessions to support future career paths with titles such as ‘Challenges and Opportunities: as the ‘old order’ collapses, how do young people embrace that and replace a sense of loss and bewilderment with optimism and excitement?’ and ‘Technology is changing the future of work. The rise of robots…’ This programme is helping our pupils develop robustness needed to deal with these unprecedented times.

How life will be at university is still largely unknown; only time will tell. However, Downside pupils have the ability to cope with whatever is thrown at them because they are the product of a Downside education. By supporting our students now to prepare for life beyond Sixth Form is vital and will give them the tools to have the strength to fulfil their ambitions.