We’ve reached that point in the year when, in supermarkets everywhere, sun cream and strawberries are replaced by note books and lunchboxes, and every banner shouts “Back to School!”
I’ve seen plenty of parents doggedly trying to get children to make up their minds about which design of folder they’d like and many more emphasising the need for “sensible” shoes for school.
Lots of pupils like to start the new school year with a nice new pencil case and contents, and I fully sympathise with them. Like most teachers, I have an obsession with new stationery. I love the crisp, untouched notebooks, and the array of different pens and pencils. So this is the time of year that you will find me queuing at the till with groceries and the odd new stationery ready for the start of a new term.
Of course it’s more than just the opportunity to buy new stationery that makes this month such a special one for me. For teachers, September has the special meaning that for other people is reserved only for January. September marks the start of a new academic year, full of enthusiasm and optimism and endless possibilities for the year ahead.
Many of you may have seen the quote that is written on the front of The Gateway building at West Suffolk College. It’s the famous quote from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu - ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ To some this may seem self-evident and therefore ostentatious but Lao Tzu was trying to make a particular point. The first step on a new journey is always the hardest and every single person who starts a course at college is on a journey, whether they are going to be with us for a few years on the path to university or on a short course to gain that essential qualification in order to progress in their career.
This week more than 5000 new students started on their journey by stepping through the doors of West Suffolk College. These first steps are full of excitement, nerves, worries, wonder and energy all bundled up and ready to be unleashed on our wonderful team of staff.
Everyone’s journey is unique. For example, some students come along to an Open Event in November with absolute certainty of where they want to go. Students like Matthew from Soham who knew at the age of 16 that he wanted to be an engineer. After gaining 10 high GCSEs he enrolled on the Level 3 Extended Diploma in Engineering to specialise in his chosen subject. He is now about to start on the next leg of his journey to study Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Loughborough University.
Other students coming to college may be a little unsure of exactly where their journey will take them. They may need a bit more support, time or guidance to realise their potential.
Mark from Long Melford experienced just that. Mark started on the Fast Forward course, designed for students with barriers to learning. He progressed onto the Level 2 Diploma in Business and achieved a Distinction Star, the highest grade possible. He then went on to the Level 3 Extended Diploma in Business, achieving more distinctions, as well as the AAT Level 3, OCR Diploma in Business and the IFS Level 3 Certificate in Financial Capability. His hard work and inspirational dedication paid dividends; he earned a staggering 510 UCAS points and is starting at UEA later this month to study Accountancy and Management.
Or there is Erhan from Bury St Edmunds, who came to college on the Level 3 Extended Diploma in Sport and Exercise, unsure of exactly where he wanted to go. But after volunteering at his old middle school on a placement as part of his course, he was inspired to become a PE teacher. Realising that to get to university he would need to gain his GCSE English, which he didn’t get while at school, this year he resat his exam and managed to achieve an A*. Erhan is now off the University of Chichester to study Physical Education.
This year over half of students on a Level 3 Extended Diploma, the alternative to A-levels, gained the equivalent to A* and A and over 98% of students are progressing on. Just like Matthew, Mark, and Erhan they are off to top universities including Bristol, Edinburgh, Durham and Lancaster to study subjects such as Law, Archaeology, English literature, Engineering, Sciences, Politics, Sports, Accounting and many more.
Whatever their journey, their time at college will give them not just the qualifications they need, but the inspiration, confidence, and industry experience to prepare them for the next stage.
What could be more rewarding than seeing hundreds of young people taking that first step on the journey of a lifetime? Their excitement is tangible and infectious.
As for me, I see all the new faces walking through the doors and I feel like a proud dad, and as an added bonus I have fully stocked up my stationery cupboard. Let the new academic year begin!
-- Nikos Savvas is principal at West Suffolk College