Welcome to Woodhouse College.
This is a College of extraordinary people who do extraordinary things. Students who come from all over north London – from over 180 schools – and form a vibrant community. Every year we have students who go on to medical school, to top universities like Oxford and Cambridge, to colleges in the USA, students who get into specialist institutes of excellence for their area (like the Corthauld for art history or Bournmouth Arts uni for animation and film). We have students who come back to us every year, who want to ‘give back’, who mentor and support our current students. Welcome to the extended Woodhouse family. We hope you will be very happy here and that you will pursue your ambitions with confidence and success.
Firstly, many congratulations on your GCSE results. I know that they are good, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. You had a job to do in passing those exams, in managing that revision and that workload, and you did it. So well done.
There is good news and bad news about GCSEs. First the good news. GCSEs are important, and your results will still matter and count in the future. They will be the first thing that universities look at when you apply there, and future employers will look at them too. They matter here too: we use them (as do many schools and colleges) as a baseline for your A level progress. Your GCSE results are used to calculate Minimum Achievement grades (MAGs) for each subject. Yours might be, say, a B in a particular subject. This means that you should be aiming at least for a B in every homework, in every test, in every assessment. If you are not hitting at least a B, we will think something is going wrong, and so should you.
So GCSEs are important, but there is bad news too. I am sorry to be blunt, and I apologise if this upsets you, but the truth is that GCSEs are relatively easy. I am not saying they didn’t require hard work: to manage your time, revising for 8 or 9 or 10 subjects is a big job, a difficult job. But the content is easy in comparison with A levels and degrees. Easy in that much of GCSE is about memory, about knowledge and recall and application, but less of the higher order thinking of analysis and evaluation. And that’s why some of you got away without working that hard in your GCSEs, you were able to coast and then do good revision at the end and that was enough.
But that won’t work at A level. People find that hard to believe, and there will be some new students who don’t believe me, who think that it worked at GCSE (coasting through on the minimum and then revising hard) and so they’re going to do the same at A level. “It worked for me, why change a winning formula?” But it doesn’t work at A level.
Let me spell it out for you: there are two main types of A level students – those who work hard throughout the year, and those who underachieve.
But actually, in a way, that’s good news. The secret of success at A level is not about intelligence, it’s about hard work and attitude. Every single student at Woodhouse has the capacity to get straight A grades. It doesn’t matter if your friend or the person next to you picks up things quicker or can explain things more clearly or gets better marks; you can get an A grade in every subject. But it will take real hard work and commitment. Not good revision at the end, not brains and ability: hard work and commitment all the way through, and right from the start.
Never give up. Don’t understand something? Then spend time puzzling it out, read about it, ask someone, try it again the same way or a different way, sleep on it, keep at it. Never give up.
If you’re not thinking hard, then you’re not learning. Real learning is when you’re having to think hard. So writing out notes, highlighting or underling, these do not count as worthwhile learning activities and mostly are a waste of your time, unless they are simply a preparation for something else. Again – there will be some who don’t believe that: your success at GCSE was built on the ability to highlight things beautifully in an array of different colours. But at A level, that’s not enough, and it won’t get you to the high grades. You have to get out of your comfort zone and into your challenge zone, concentrating on what you find hard and difficult.
So make sure every homework is as good as it can be – if it takes hours and hours and hours, then that’s what it takes, and that’s what it needs. Make sure you use your time out of class well, your study periods; get to know the library; use the learning zones. Don’t spend too much time hanging out in the social area.
It was interesting and inspiring watching the Olympics this summer. I heard an interview with some athletes talking about their training regime, the hours and hours they put in, trying to improve their performance. They can spend weeks and months working on tiny technical adjustments, trying to get it right, failing and failing until they get it right. In fact, they spend most of their time failing, and learning from their failures, and not giving up, and trying it again and again, and sometimes trying it in different ways. I think we have a lot to learn from them. Of course, they are professional athletes. That’s their job. But then you are professional students; and this is your job.
I want to say a few words about your personal experience of College. Most students settle in easily here, and within a few weeks you will be regarding it as your college, which of course it is. We are very proud that when students leave here after two years, they leave with gushings of love and affection for each other and for staff and the college.
But there will be some of you who find it harder to settle in. There are some students who are naturally shy or come from a smaller environment and are less confident about making friends. I want to ask that you, that we, all of us undertake to look after everyone in the community, to be open and friendly to everyone. I was at a festival a couple of weeks ago – don’t worry, it wasn’t one that you go to, wasn’t Reading – is was a small folk festival in Oxfordshire, just the one stage, about 20,000 people. And the thing is: everyone was so friendly, just chatting to everyone else like easily and warmly. That’s what it needs to be like here: if you see someone standing on their own, go and talk to them. We look after each other here.
And as you go through your time here, there will be times when you are upset, unhappy or worried about things. You can talk with your teacher or your tutor – they should usually be the first persons you might think about talking with. But there is also your senior tutor (a bit like a head of year – you will meet them at the next assembly) and the head of the department. You will see me walking about, and I am always happy to talk to students and hear from you – I teach maths as well as being college principal ( I will be teaching some of you), and students in the learning zones often ask me for a bit of maths help.
Just a word on the college curriculum. Most subjects now are linear and on new syllabuses. That means that your A level grade after two years comes only from the exams at the end of year 13. There are still AS exams at the end of Year 12, and they are important because universities see those results. But they don’t count towards your final A level grade. However, there are a few subjects (maths, politics, …) which are still modular, and the AS grades in those subjects count as 50% of the final A level grade. This is a bit complicated but we will return to it in the future. Most of you are doing four subjects and almost all will drop to three next year. Some will decide to drop to three during the course of this year, and that’s okay – in many schools, students are only studying three subjects now and there’s no disadvantage. If you decide after a few days that you have made a terrible mistake with one of your subjects, we will give you the opportunity to apply to switch subjects, and your tutor will tell you more.
We have a few rules and expectations – not as many perhaps as your old school, because we are an adult environment, but these are some of them:
- There are places to work (library, learning zones): please respect these as quiet working spaces.
- Attend all your lessons and be on time
- Do all your work on time and as well as you can
- No smoking anywhere onsite
Perhaps more important than college rules are our values. We are a liberal college with liberal values. That means we welcome all students, no matter their race, religion, gender or sexuality. We believe in the right of people to be who they are and express themselves as they are, and we won’t pigeon hole you in boxes or demand you conform to convenient labels. And we demand the same of you: that you respect your fellow students and staff for who they are. They may be the same religion as you but see it and express it differently; they may be non-binary in their gender identity; and you might have to get used to that, but that’s a responsibility on you and not on them. You will find that we have far more in common that unites us as a community than that which divides us.
Finally, make sure you know what’s going on. Get your college emails on your phone – your tutor will explain how. Check out the college bulletin that comes out twice a week, follow us on twitter and like our facebook page.
Things get serious next Monday when lessons start. So spend the weekend buying stationery, and getting some sleep, because we want you to get the new year off to a good start. It’s the end of a long summer. Some of you are barely recovered from wild times, festivals, late nights and so on. Need to look after yourself! It can be very tiring starting somewhere new, meeting new people, getting to grips with A level work: you need to listen to that old parents’ refrain – get enough sleep, eat breakfast, exercise, look after yourself.
So just to finish: this is a great college. Students here achieve their ambitions and dreams, and they do that through hard work and commitment. Everyone here works hard and no one has to cover it up or pretend about it. But this is also a social place, a place of opportunities – many of our students do sport, they volunteer, they take part. There are a huge number of trips and clubs and activities. Through engaging with all this, students are able to grow and develop new skills and to become more confident in who they are and who they want to be. Our aim is that these should be the best, the most fulfilling two years of your lives.