The Long Game
I first came up with this idea a year or so ago, when a client called to ask me about how he could help his daughters, now 10 and 13, play the ‘long game’ when it comes to Oxbridge entry and career success.
‘How terribly pushy these London parents are!’ I hear you sigh. ‘Let children be children!’
Certainly, the father in question is ambitious for his girls. However, he is also is not one for applying a lot of pressure: I see each of them for an hour per week, I don’t set homework, and neither of the girls have been pushed towards highly competitive entrance exams, nor are they worked excessively hard at home. The reason this client thought up ‘the long game’ was precisely because he wants to avoid stress and drama later on in their school career; he wants them to grow, in their own time, into interesting, capable humans, ready to take on adulthood and academic challenges without anxiety. And he wants education to be exciting.
“If everyone is having tuition,” he said, “Let’s use it really wisely. I don’t want you to go over what the girls are doing at school - the teaching they receive at school is good enough to get them through the syllabus. What I want you to do, gradually, over the next 5-10 years, is open up their minds, teach them how to think, so that if they do wish to apply to Oxbridge, or medical school, or some other top institution, they already have all the skills in place.”
This led me to ponder, what are the key abilities that you need to get into a top university? Can they be introduced from a young age?
I made a list:
Analytical skills: the ability to break things down, unpick problems, notice patterns
Argumentative skills: the ability to put across a persuasive point
Presentation skills: the ability to express yourself in an interview and handle nerves
Interpretive skills: the ability to find meaning in words, stories, images and data
Curiosity: an interest in the wider world - in people, in society, in ideas
Passion: genuine love of a subject, which goes well beyond classroom learning
Creativity and individuality: being a bit different - and knowing your own mind
In the few months that have passed since that initial conversation with the girls’ father, I have tried to devise lessons that will promote these skills in an age-appropriate way. I have taken in abstract paintings, poems, newspaper articles, ethical dilemmas and political speeches to show my pupils, and have encouraged them to analyse, interpret and argue their point of view - then argue the opposite point of view, just for good measure. With my older pupil, I have got a lot out of mileage from the Eton King Scholarship general papers (available online). They are monstrously difficult for any twelve year old, but are also wonderfully weird and seriously challenging when it comes to logic, critical thinking and ‘outside-the-box’ ideas… no wonder so many Etonians end up running the country.
Most of this work is done orally; it’s not about right and wrong and it’s not about grades. It’s about the girls having someone to stretch their thinking, once a week, in a fun and unusual way. And we have all sorts of ideas for the future. The older student is interested in architecture and engineering, so we will work on her design ideas, and she might even start a blog about buildings. The younger student loves performance and the arts, and she’s getting very interested in public speaking, reviewing and debating.
If you’re using a tutor, it may be a good idea to think beyond the syllabus. Think beyond end-of-term tests, and look towards the ‘long game’. Think of the skills that a really good mentor could inspire in your children, and how these might help them later on. Ultimately, it’s not about getting into Oxbridge; it’s about remembering - in this world of endless public examinations and assessment objectives - that an enquiring mind, a good imagination, and a passionate determination to make things happen are the qualities that really set you up for success.