Summer Holidays – The H&F Tutor’s guide

We remember our summer holidays from when we were children with contentment. They were glorious summers, full of sunshine, adventures, and effervescence. But as parents it can lose this magic. Juggling work and family, planning two whole months for the children, makes it an organisational nightmare. The Technicolor Constable-esque scene has gone, replaced by a work that, when one has a moment to step back from the canvass, vaguely represents something by Munch.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! Parents can spend a significant amount of time fretting that their children are having an exciting holiday, when the children are quite happy having a break. It is easy to forget that this is the reason for holidays. However, like anything, this should be in moderation.

Last summer the Times Educational Supplement published an article that looked at 1,000 primary and secondary head teachers, asking them about the effect of the summer holidays. A resounding 77% of primary school teachers and 60% of secondary school teachers were concerned about ‘learning loss’. Many of these schools implement programmes to limit the damage. St. Peter’s Catholic School in Bournemouth, the article writes, gave Year 11 students a two week project to complete in the holidays to help accelerate their learning from week one of term. Certainly a tutor could help here, as not all schools provide this support.

The academic side is very important, and should be maintained. But what about the ‘glorious summer’?

When writing this blog, an article in the Telegraph stuck in my mind. It spoke to head teachers of many (major) independent schools, asking them the simple question of what they recommend their pupils do in the summer holidays.

Here are some of their answers:

The National Trust’s “50 things to do before you are 11¾” list is great for any age, but I also recommend children read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. 
Paul James, Cherwell School, Oxford

Visit Shakespeare’s birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon and watch Henry IV part one or two in the main theatre, or Webster’s The White Devil in the Swan. 
Richard Harman, Uppingham School, Rutland

Read Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, perhaps the funniest thing ever written. The Epic of American Civilisation, the murals by Jose Clemente Orozco in Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, are very much worth a visit if in the US.
Sarah Thomas, Bryanston School, Dorset 

Learn to cook a dish from scratch, listen to a piece of music by Thomas Newman and answer a clue from the Telegraph’s cryptic crossword.
John Brett, Old Buckenham Hall, Suffolk

So what do these answers demonstrate? If one reads them all, a distinct correlation can be drawn between the answers. They suggest that children should use the holidays for activities outside the house, engage with topics and new material, and open up wider learning through experiences.

The wonderful thing about these suggestions is that they still embody the ‘glorious summer’ we remember from our childhoods. This is because its based around new experiences and opening our eyes to the world.

So in the spirit of this, Hampstead and Frognal tutors would like to suggest our own summer bucket list for your children.

Experience

Visit Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s home for his later years. A national Trust property, it’s been wonderfully conserved. Make sure to walk the grounds, take a look at his paintings, and visit the wall he built himself. http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chartwell/visitor-information/

Engagement

The BBC Proms is the largest music festival in the world. With three concerts a day it is a fantastic evening out, as well as a brilliant way to open up a new experience for your child. The season runs from July to September.

Activity

Musée d’Orsay.

Paris is incredibly easy to get to with the help of the Eurostar. Within the same time it takes to get to Birmingham from London, you can be eating a croissant by the banks of the Loire. Most importantly though, it’s an easy way to experience a different culture for a weekend, and visit some of the world’s finest art. Our recommendation would be the Musée d’Orsay. Just over the river from the Louvre in an old train station, it holds some of the world’s finest art. Make sure to see Léon Belly’s Pèlerins allant à la Mecque (Pilgrims going to Mecca).

Finally, look out for Hampstead and Frognal Tutors Summer Reading list, published shortly, which includes books for both Children and Parents.

by Jonathan Coates

@coates_jonathan

@hampsteadtutors

Should your child be learning to code?

Coding is the buzzword of the 21st century. Many of the famous business names since 2000 have gained their reputation from creating tech sites, people like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), or Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia).

It’s at the heart of some of the most creative businesses around, stretching from Silicon Valley USA to Silicon Roundabout in London. Most recently Edinburgh has seen huge growth after an influx of new start-ups took off, including Skyscanner. Many of these companies pay eye-watering salaries that rival finance jobs.

The salaries may change over time. But one thing is for certain. The internet is not going away.

Is it worth spending the time on?

For people who haven’t grown up with technology in the same way our children have, the prospect of coding can seem quite daunting. It’s often referred to as a new ‘language’, and beneath that, there are a variety of different ‘dialects’ that can be learnt – from HTML through to Ruby on Rails. This all increases the mystique and confusion surrounding the whole thing.

When your child already has a packed schedule with school, extra tuition, music lessons and ex-curricular activities, learning all of this might appear like the straw that will break the camel’s back.

However coding shouldn’t be overestimated – it may not add too much strain to your child.

Coding is actually initially very easy to learn. Although it does work like a ‘language’, it isn’t like your child is being dropped in the deep end of an Arabic class. In particular, children, who are such fast learners, take to it like a duck to water. Many schools are being given the Raspberry Pi, designed to help children learn about computing.

Why learn?

Understandably, there is quite a debate over whether it is worth it, and there are some strong arguments against children learning to code.

First of all, it is a skill that needs to be kept up to date. It’s not like a sport where you can learn at School, and then come back to playing it in later life. The knowledge can quickly go out of date as the technology changes, so it is important to maintain a constant level of engagement.

Secondly, it is possible to learn to code at any stage of life – unlike like languages in which we benefit by it being ingrained at an early age. It is not essential that your child develop this skill at school.

Thirdly, there is also the danger (as discussed in this persuasive Guardian article) that suggesting children should code is tantamount to predicting the future, and compares it to the demand for Japanese in Schools in the 1980s. It’s very easy to spend a lot of your child’s time on something that could be obsolete by the time they would come to use it.

However, this view fundamentally ignores a key element of child development and education – the process of learning. It overlooks it in a purely results focussed view.

In the same way that people advocate learning a musical instrument as a good way to teach the need to stick at something difficult, learning discipline and organisation, coding can serve the same function. If a child is not so keen on music, it could provide a positive alternative. We may yet see the rise of ‘coding practice’.

There is also a hugely beneficial side to designing websites and platforms. Where some homework can appear unfulfilling because of the nature of the exercises, the best way to learn to code is create something tangible, like a website. The content can be anything that your child is interested in. Where they learn is by going through the process of hard work, getting over setbacks, and finally creating something exciting. The best part is that they will have something to show for it at the end.

I’m interested – how do I get them started?

If this sounds like something that you might be interested for your child then there are a number of options. Some schools run after school clubs, and www.coderdojo.com provides a great space for children to learn within groups. You can also start at home on www.codeacademy.com. This is a fun starter that is very easy to understand, and can be done with your child. Any more than this, it may be worth thinking about getting a tutor.

By Jonathan Coates

@coates_jonathan

‘I took my tutor on holiday!’ – the phrase you’ll hear next September and why it’s making their children better.

Have you ever taken out a tutor with you on holiday?

If you already have – well done! If you haven’t, you are missing a trick for a very simple way to rapidly improve your child’s education.

For some it may seem like a strange idea, but it’s actually very common. Over the last few years more and more articles have appeared in national newspapers highlighting this growing trend. The reason for such rapid growth: it makes the difference.

Smart Learning

The key reason for having a tutor with you on holiday is quite simple: it’s about maximising the opportunities you are already giving your children.

Travelling and going abroad is one of the most fascinating experiences a human can have. To see other places is eye opening and exciting. It’s also one of the best ways for children to learn. Another culture, a new way of life, is the perfect intellectual breeding ground. 

Where could a tutor help?

Where a tutor can help is to harness the experiences for effective learning. A tutor can help a child apply what they have learnt in school, and use the exciting environment & experiences to provide the spark to get a child truly into subjects – which will engender a guaranteed improvement in results.

Languages

Languages are the really obvious benefit from going on holiday. Whether it’s picking up some more French walking around markets in Cannes, to getting the hang of spoken Arabic in Morocco, visiting countries provides an easy access into a new language. Seeing the thrill on a child’s face when they successfully have a conversation with a local, the realisation that they have cracked part of a language is truly unique.

This is where a tutor can be extremely effective. A tutor in this situation can teach your child language lessons in the morning. Then, using what they’ve learnt, your child can go out and practice in the real world in the afternoon. This repetition and practice ensures that the knowledge will stick.

Unlike in schools where languages can often seem like a translation exercise, when abroad it makes sense to the child as a way to open up a different culture. The lessons don’t even need to take place indoors – they can be out and about on the streets. This is the ultimate learning tool – and would make for a great holiday. What better benefit on having a holiday than to have acquired the basics of a new language for life, and also being able to tell their friends about it.

History

History is an area that could have a profound influence on your child. It’s overlooked by some parents as it doesn’t appear to directly improve a child’s life (in a way that languages do). However, there are parents all over the country that have seen its potential, and are getting their children into schools and universities.

Where history plays a unique role is in its ability to educate on a wider cultural scale – which can cover everything from art to economics, supporting a myriad of subjects. This broad knowledge helps develop a well-rounded child – which is highly valued.

There is no better time to develop this than when on holiday. Getting a tutor that is familiar with the country or area that you are visiting will help your children expand their historical and cultural awareness. A good tutor will focus on the areas that your child is interested in, developing their knowledge, and providing that inspirational spark that will produce results back at school.

But crucially, where historical knowledge can make a huge difference is in a very short moment that can define the rest of their life – the school or University interview. The historical knowledge acquired on holiday could set your child apart from all the others. It could be the knowledge that convinces an establishment of a desire to learn, and convey that they are an interesting, intelligent person.

Summer is the key time to get ahead for the next year, and for life – and the way to do it is with the help of a tutor on your holiday.

Top tip:

Don’t want to take the tutor with you? Book them to spend some time with your children the week before. Although not quite as effective, it could still help them whilst you’re abroad.

By Jonathan Coates @coates_jonathan

‘An 8 second attention span’: how to help children focus for longer.

Having a shorter attention span than a goldfish is a good media story – but it doesn’t have to apply to our children.

This week I was inspired to write about ‘focus’ because of a rather eccentric article that appeared in The Telegraph. It suggested that the human attention span has reduced so much that a goldfish can now focus for longer. Almost to prove this point, they amusingly posted a picture of a man on a boat looking at his smart phone, missing the whale emerging from the water next to him.

The claim that attention span has reduced to 8 seconds is dangerously close to Ben Goldacre intervention territory. But for parents, focus can be a serious issue. How many times have school reports come back with ‘needs to focus’ or ‘concentration needs to improve’ written on at least one line.

In this age of digital distractions, it’s no wonder that children struggle to concentrate. We as adults certainly do – how many times have we accidently caught ourselves on Facebook when we should have been writing a difficult email, or used Twitter as a way to put off doing the washing up?

For any child with an active imagination the world is a minefield of potential disturbances. The problem is that this is often misinterpreted. In America the instances of diagnoses of ADHD have risen 5% each year since 2011 – in Kentucky alone, 19% of children have been diagnosed with the disorder. Many of these children are being ‘treated’ with drugs.

In most cultures ADHD cases occur in about 5% of a population. But in the USA it is higher mainly due to the fact that the American Psychiatric Association classes fidgeting, a reluctance to do homework, and frequently losing schoolbooks as ADHD.

ADHD is a very real and difficult problem for those who have it – and effective learning measures can be put in place to help those children who struggle with it. But although it may not be as extreme as ADHD, focussing can still be an issue.

Many methods can help your child focus, but as everyone learns, acts, and reacts differently, the strategies will be different for each child. As a tutoring agency we are particularly focussed on this.

But underpinning these strategies are strong methodologies. A few of the key ones are below. Understanding these methodologies can parents to improve their child’s attention & focus, by building effective strategies.

  1. Learning not performance.

 A study by the Institute of Education showed that if children were encouraged to focus on performance in tests then their performance dropped. When the children were pushed to achieve certain scores, they abandoned strategic thinking, persisted with failing strategies, alongside developing a feeling of helplessness. But when children were presented with learning orientated attitudes, their results improved, along with their general behaviour.

A child will feel the pressure of a test or exams, so where a parent can help is by encouraging them to focus on particular learning, and keep their mind engaged. This way focus will improve, as it is not distracted by unnecessary stress.

  1. Practice

It’s been suggested that practice is the key to improving focus. In the same way that one wouldn’t try to run a marathon straight off, expecting a child to focus on revision for 8 hours straight is not going to happen. Building up the lengths of time is a guaranteed way to see results. It’s like a muscle – use improves performance. As a parent, you can use this understanding to help them put effective strategies in place.

  1. Engagement

Often the reason for a lack of focus is because of boredom. This can be for a variety of reasons, including the child being particularly intelligent and disenchanted by the pace, or the topic being presented in a way that just doesn’t interest them. The teachers that we remember from our school days are the ones that engaged us with their subject the best. So working out how a child can be better engaged with a subject or even topic will really improve focus. Learning doesn’t have to be ‘serious’ – if the child is engaged and learning, that’s the result that we should be aiming for.

By Jonathan Coates @coates_jonathan

5 Revision tips to help your child succeed in exam season

The pen and paper is forcibly pushed away across the desk. An exasperated face descends into welcoming hands. It could well be the yearly tax return. But this is not adult anguish, but child confusion. The next outburst is quite predictable – ‘I just don’t get it!’

Exam season is upon us, and parents everywhere are seeing their children struggle with revision.

Revision is really hard to do. It has the pressure of a looming deadline, the requirement to try and remember what seems like an insurmountable stack of information, and the fear having to write it all out in an exam in precisely timed chunks. For younger children it is especially difficult – avoiding distraction, and even understanding why this torture has to be undergone produces the possibility for a constant battleground with parents.

How to revise is a very individual process, based on learning style and various other factors. Some children work well with flash cards, others with reciting the text, and others by putting up paper on every available wall. Although these techniques can be perfected (especially with the help of a tutor), trying to write an all encompassing ‘guide’ in a blog would be at best, useless, and at worst misleading.

However, there are some broad elements of revision that can be adjusted to optimise your child’s revision and learning capacity. I’m confident that parents are already doing many of the points below. However, if the quality of these points can be improved then it could make all the difference.

5 revision tips to help your child succeed in exam season.

  1. Revision Space

A child needs a set space, which is free from distractions in which to revise. The continuity will help concentration. If possible, it should be somewhere that is calm, and doesn’t have any distractions nearby (such as computers, or siblings!) Kitchen tables and open spaces are fine as long as there is calm in the room whilst the child is working.

  1. Revision Timetable

Put together a revision timetable in advance with your child. Again, continuity is the key – copying the timings of school day is a not a bad approach. Make sure that there is a copy of the timetable somewhere public (kitchen etc) that can be ticked off – giving a sense of achievement. This is very important to stop the overwhelming feeling! The timetable must be rigidly stuck to – no last minute excuses from children (or parents!) This is why drawing it up together is important.

  1. Sleep

This is possibly the most important aspect of good revision. Research from Harvard has found that consolidated sleep for a whole night is optimal for memory. In addition, lack of sleep hugely affects attention and concentration. A slightly sleepy 13 year old has been shown to have cognitive function of a child two years younger. One of the key things to avoid is the use of backlit electronic devices before bed. Research has recently shown that using devices an hour before bed suppresses melatonin by 22%. Melatonin controls the body clock – so affecting it can really hurt sleep patterns. Avoiding it may just help improve your child’s sleep.

4. Food

Food is fuel. Ensuring your child is taking on the right type of food is very important. Sugar has been shown to hugely affect memory and concentration, so try to avoid non-natural sugars. A classic example is on cereal in the morning. A good mixed diet will help your child. But remember – something fun once in a while, such as chips can be a good reward.

  1. Take breaks & Exercise!

Taking formal time out from revision is crucial. Regular breaks help relieve monotony by having a scenic and mental change, which allows your child to return to the revision task with renewed vigour. They also allow the brain time to process the information. Try doing some ‘brain gym’ exercises in between revision topics. Getting out of the house and doing some exercise during the day can be really beneficial. The activity can range from the easy to the energetic – from taking a walk, to playing tennis, or going for a swim. It’ll allow you to have some time with your child that isn’t as ‘revision schedule enforcer’, and give them some space to take their mind off the revision and exams each day. It’s also a great stress reliever (for both of you!)

Ensuring that these points are being adhered to can really help your child’s revision. However, how to apply them is down to you!

 

How to apply this information now:

  1. Share and comment on this post. By sharing you can gain other insights by parents on how they improve their child’s revision session Hearing other people’s experience can really help your confidence and give you tried and tested techniques.
  2. Contact Hampstead & Frognal Tutors. We are happy to talk through any information about your child’s academic development, without any pressure. We believe in helping children grow, and want to help you achieve that with your child.

By Jonathan Coates @coates_jonathan

Are there really 3 ways to learn?

2013-02-06-LeftBrainRightBrain21

Most parents have probably heard of the theory of ‘learning styles’. Put simply, the idea goes that different children take on information in fundamentally different ways. For instance, when I was at school, I remember an educational consultant coming in and subjecting us to a variety of tests, at the end of which we were designated as either ‘visual’, ‘auditory’ or ‘kinesthetic’ learners. The visual students responded to books and pictures, the auditory to verbal interaction, the kinaesthetic to more practical, hands-on activities.

 

It’s certainly a popular model, and one that has proved enduring in education for many years now. For one thing, it advocates a more tailored approach to learning, and proposes a more egalitarian view in which struggling students are being underserved by a teacher who isn’t responsive to their particular style.

 

There’s little convincing evidence, though, to support the theory. And in many cases, it’s hard to see how it can even be applied. Not all learning can be auditory, for instance. You could hear all kinds of moving descriptions of an isosceles triangle but at some point you’re going to need to see one.

 

It’s just too reductive to put all students into one of three boxes. As with astrology, there is a powerful confirmation bias at play. If you’re told you’re a kinaesthetic learner then you’re likely to start thinking of all the times you enjoyed a lesson which involved getting up and moving around. Just as if you’re told Leos are ‘too generous for their own good’, you’ll suddenly recall of all your wonderful acts of generosity and, thus, be inclined to believe it.

Zodiac

Plus, the tests, like those personality tests that are so popular online, are completely skewed. Students might, for example, report that they learn better kinaesthetically, but that’s not necessarily true. They may just enjoy it more without taking anything on board!

 

The fact is students are endlessly varied and idiosyncratic. No one student learns everything in one way. One of the advantages of tutoring is being able to constantly respond and adapt to the student and their needs. A tutor can switch effortlessly between approaches in order to best convey the information and instil it in the learner.

 

Learning styles may be a myth, but in some ways they are a helpful signpost towards a more empathetic style of teaching and learning. Though the world can’t be divided into three, it at least represents a recognition that learning isn’t one-size-fits-all.

Image

Do private schools give children a head start in life?

James Blunt

Recently, the British public was treated to the dubious spectacle of shadow culture minister Chris Bryant and superstar balladeer James Blunt trading verbal blows.

In a nutshell, Bryant name-checked Blunt (along with Eton-educated actor Eddie Redmayne) in remarks he made about the arts being dominated by those from posh schools.

Blunt fired back with some questionable swearing, whilst accusing Bryant of ‘classism’, and retorted that no one at his boarding school encouraged him to go into the music business.

Nonetheless, privately educated people are disproportionately represented in many areas of British life, be it music and acting as in the cases of Blunt and Redmayne, or politics, with 36% of the cabinet having attended private school (compared with just 7% of the population).

Even if, as Blunt says, he was given no specific encouragement to pursue music, is there something about a private school education that means your child is more likely to pen the next ‘You’re Beautiful’ (or, perhaps more pertinently, lead the government of the United Kingdom)?

Aside from the commonly cited benefits of academic competitiveness and lower class sizes, there are a number of ‘soft’ factors that could contribute to the success of children from private schools.

For instance, many private schools place great emphasis on their history. Children who attend lessons in venerable old buildings, watched over benevolently by portraits of former head teachers are subtly encouraged to think of themselves as belonging to a tradition. Not only does this confer a sense of ‘specialness’, but it also exposes students to the language and iconography of power early in life. A child who has attended an old private school is likely to feel more attuned to the ceremony and pomp of Oxbridge than one who has attended a modern comprehensive.

The same could be said of the speech patterns children pick up in private school. Received Pronunciation remains ubiquitous on our screens and airwaves, and, unfair though it may be, surveys continue to show that posh accents are regarded as more intelligent, honest and charming by the public. So our ingrained preconceptions means we’re more likely believe being told ‘You’re Beautiful’ by James Blunt than, say, Alan Sugar.

Young Blunt and Redmayne undoubtedly benefitted from after school activities too. Many private schools offer all sorts of clubs and societies, offering students valuable opportunities for personal growth and exploration. An Eton boy like Redmayne could see as many as thirty plays per year performed by his peers – that kind of cultural capital is priceless.

Then there’s the culture of expectation. Many private schools regularly achieve rafts of outstanding grades, and it’s far less remarkable for students to apply for places at Oxbridge. In an atmosphere where this kind of success is expected, children tend to rise to meet those expectations. Perhaps James Blunt inherited a drive to rise to the top of the charts from this kind of competitive environment.

Of course, it’s often argued that this can turn private schools into hot houses, where children are put under immense pressure to achieve top grades, at the expense of their individuality.

Critics also point to the lack of diversity in many private schools as compared to their state counterparts. Learning respect and emotional intelligence when dealing with people from all backgrounds is a vital life skill that is perhaps more readily achieved in the state sector than the more homogenous private demographic.

Furthermore, the success of Blunts and Redmaynes may be attributable not to anything special about their schooling but simply their parents’ connections. Parents from more privileged socio-economic groups tend to have the financial and cultural capital that gives their children an advantage, and the luxury of time, when it comes to pursuing their calling.

The fact remains that private schooling is typically part of a more complex picture. The likelihood is that if you can afford to send your child to a private school, you can afford to help them in many other ways too – many of them hard to quantify. Blunt may not like to admit it, but a private education remains the most reliable marker of a head start in life.

The issues of ‘Progressive Education’

Everything is subject to trends, even education. A recent book by Robert Peal, Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools, examines one such trend, and claims that this trend has, almost single-handedly, ruined education for generations of British students.

The trend in question is called ‘progressive education’. The word ‘trend’ may, in fact, be a bit of a misnomer, as progressive education began to flourish in the 1960s and 1970s, and has remained somewhat prominent. Without knowing it, many students and parents will have come into contact with at least some aspects of the progressive theory of education. Progressive education is formulated around the idea that children are better learners when they are given the freedom to experiment, explore, and discover things for themselves. This view holds that teachers are most effective when they avoid a didactic method, wherein they stand in front of a class presenting knowledge to students to commit to memory. Rather, teachers should be more like facilitators, setting the stage for students to learn on their own.

Peal claims that the lackadaisical approach to building bodies of knowledge espoused by this teaching ideology, as well as a permissive approach to behaviour in schools, has led to increasingly poor outcomes for students, a persistent ‘dumbing-down’ of the curriculum, increasingly bad discipline, and high turnover rates for teachers, to name but a few.

JV, a primary teacher in Brent, notes that things have changed quite a bit in the past few years, “ Every school I’ve ever taught in has recommended a blend of child-centred and more formal teaching, but I know from some of the older teachers that I’ve worked with that this is a new-ish development. But I do think that the progressive approach might be clinging on a bit more when it comes to discipline, and maybe even expectations.”

The merits, or not, of progressive education will not be discussed here. As with most things, implementing education policies and practices that tread the middle path between progressive education and more traditional ideas, taking elements from each, seems the best way to serve students, and Peal makes this argument as well. However, Peal’s book inspires some interesting questions in regards to private tuition.

The pervasiveness of progressive ideas in education may also help to explain why tutors can be such an effective tool in increasing a student’s ability levels. While the one-on-one atmosphere most certainly helps, the true driver behind success may very well lie in the fact that many tutors use more traditional, didactic teaching styles with their pupils.

Private tutors don’t have access to resources or funds for complex, interactive lessons, nor are these types of activities particularly useful without an entire class to work with. Rather, tutors focus on imparting the key information and knowledge that unlocks subjects for students, helping their students remember and apply that knowledge, and deploy that knowledge across a range of skill sets. Additionally, time constraints mean that tutors must teach in the way that is going to achieve the greatest impact in the shortest time, regardless of whether that method is necessarily the most fun.

For instance, at Hampstead and Frognal, our tutors who work with students preparing for the 7+ use phonics to increase literacy, rather than the whole-word teaching style recommended by advocates of progressive education. While phonics is often perceived as tedious and boring, students progress much more quickly when this style of instruction is used.

Indeed, Peal points to a shocking statistic that our tutors are too familiar with. Nearly 20% of students in British schools are classified as having Special Educational Needs. This figure stands well above the numbers for any other OECD nation. For our tutors, discussions of children being ‘dyslexic or borderline dyslexic’ are quite common. When tutoring is undertaken, and progress is made, it becomes clear that Peal’s analysis holds quite a bit of weight; the majority of the students classified as having Special Educational Needs, don’t, in fact, have Special Educational Needs. Rather, they are being failed by the educational practices of their teachers and schools.

The same may be said of students who are diagnosed, somewhat casually, as having ADHD. When students, from the time they enter schooling, are never required to focus on a teacher or lesson for an extended period, because lessons are designed, always, to be child-centred, interactive, groupwork-based, or discursive, they never develop the skills necessary to sit still, maintain attention, or follow instructions closely.

In a one-on-one setting, where tutors are better able to exercise discipline over an individual pupil, the problems with attention tend to fade. This is, of course, due in no small part to the more personalised attention. However, if a student can focus in a one-on-one environment, it throws into question any ADHD labels, and leads to a questioning of the classroom environment instead.

In reality, the best way to instruct students is by using a combination of teaching styles, a variety of lesson structures, and a range to techniques. In recent years, it appears as though more schools have been moving away from a strictly progressive teaching and administration style, and towards something a more around the middle ground. This benefits students immensely, and underlines what makes private tuition successful; the ability of the tutor to complement what the pupil experiences in the classroom.

IT in Schools

Education ministers and policy-drivers often go to great lengths to emphasise that education should do nothing if not prepare students for the world that awaits them when they leave school and enter the world of work. And a noble aim this is. While most would agree that education for its own sake is an enriching and rewarding way to spend your time, few would contest that education should also reflect the ‘real world’. It is in this spirit that subjects such as ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) have been steadily introduced to the curriculum.

ICT (including computing, or computer science) would appear to be a perfect choice for those looking to provide themselves with a skill that holds some currency on the job market. More and more jobs require more than a basic grounding in computer programmes, and technology start-ups and businesses form a vibrant part of the economy. Furthermore, IT has come to form the backbone of many more established industries, including, notably, finance.

Despite this, only 10% of students sitting their GCSEs in 2013 chose ICT as a subject. While this number is a huge increase (of 38%) from 2012, this explosion is from a frightfully low base. What explains the low uptake?

The answer may lie in the fact that technology moves incredibly quickly, making it hard for the exam boards that develop curricula to keep up. Even those designed in conjunction with tech giants (such as AQA’s collaboration with Microsoft) run the risk of giving students a thorough grounding in technologies that may be too narrow, or may soon be obsolete.
Ronan, an IT professional with 12 years’ experience working in the industry, points out that a crucial problem is that there are simply too many different technologies, coding languages, and frameworks in use. Moving from one IT job to another, even within a company, may require entirely different sets of skills, a breadth that is hard to condense into an exam-based curriculum. This is not just a challenge faced by schools, universities are just as prone to creating computer science degrees that are effectively worthless.

Exam boards have set about addressing this problem by focusing on the fundamentals, such as how computers interpret and use data, but, at GCSE level, many courses still feature too much of the ‘how to use Powerpoint’ material, leaving students bored senseless. Newer course materials feature some introductions to coding, and problem-solving using advanced technologies, but this doesn’t solve the obsolescence problem.

To further compound this issue, there is a distinct scarcity of highly-qualified computer science teachers at GCSE and A-Level. This is largely due to the fact that those with the relevant knowledge are working in the field, rather than teaching. Of those who have entered the teaching profession, many graduated with their degrees in computer science too long ago, making the information and technologies that they studied out-of-date.

What we are left with is a seemingly impossible task: to create a curriculum that provides a strong foundation in the key technologies, whilst simultaneously providing the skills for an ever-changing field; a curriculum that anticipates a changing jobs landscape without being too in hock to trends; a programme that helps students develop skills to a reasonable degree of proficiency, whilst acknowledging that focusing on one or two sets of skills or technologies ignores the sheer volume of other systems in operation.

The answer to this dilemma may very well be to treat ICT qualifications almost like a vocational course. IT resources and materials are available in large quantities online, and are often free to use. The relative abundance of ‘self-help’ materials encourages students who are passionate about computer science to strike out on their own and develop skills they find interesting or relevant. Additionally, job placements are very often the best way to develop IT skills.

Ronan confirms that entering the workforce with any amount of real-world experience is more valuable than any qualification or degree. ‘You may start out doing menial tasks, like migrating data or fixing minor bugs, but eventually you move on to bigger or more complicated tasks, and grow your skill set from there.’

Working with companies to create internship-type placements for GCSE or A-Level students could be a promising way to create an environment in which fundamentals (however those are defined) are learned in the classroom, and the ‘nitty-gritty’ of coding, systems, and frameworks is learned in real-world situations, thus also encouraging students to learn crucial job-market skills and teaching them to adapt to new challenges, think on their feet, and study independently.

Exam boards are right to review skills such as creating documents and spreadsheets and using databases, but their focus needs to be beyond this; on programming for mobile technologies, web-based technologies and programming, and coding languages and frameworks. Only with an emphasis in these areas will British students emerge with a qualification that would ever mean something to an employer. Many examiners are moving decidedly in the right direction, but encouraging practical skill development in the workplace would better serve students.

Gove is Gone

It’s official. Michael Gove, in all of his divisive glory, is no longer the Education Secretary, and will be setting up camp instead in the Chief Whip’s office. Teachers across the country tripped over themselves in the rush to cheer his demise, but what does Michael Gove’s removal, and his replacement with Nicky Morgan, mean for education in the UK?

The decidedly unexciting answer is: probably not much.

Nicky Morgan, first elected to Parliament as Member for Loughborough in 2010, has moved to the education brief from a stint as a Treasury Minister. She will also hold the Women and Equality portfolio—something which is already raising eyebrows considering her votes against same-sex marriage and her points of view on abortion access. Apart from serving, for a time, as a school governor, little seems to qualify Mrs. Morgan for her role at the helm of the Department for Education, and her voting record suggests that she agrees with the vast majority of her predecessor’s reforms.

Many may laud the raising of a woman to such a high position, as opposed to the ‘pale, male, and stale’, but Mrs. Morgan’s privately educated background would appear not to be a vast departure from the Tory stereotype. Michael Gove’s personal story, and his personal experiences of education, may have been more of an asset to him in his Education role than Mrs. Morgan’s may prove.

More importantly, perhaps, is the timing of Mrs. Morgan’s appointment. With this reshuffle coming as close as it does to the next general election, it is unlikely that she is expected to implement anything real or new, and, assuming that she wanted to, there would be very little time in which to do it. For the time being, she is likely to remain a place-holder of sorts, and to be one of the many recently promoted female MPs intended to make the Conservative cabinet more representative of the party as a whole.

Though many of Mr. Gove’s reforms were controversial, and he singularly failed to get teachers and other academic professionals on-side, the broad sweep of his reforms was generally in the right direction. Moves to increase accountability, create a more rigorous curriculum, and free schools, teachers, and parents to create dynamic and independent learning environments have followed the patterns set elsewhere in the world that have achieved strong results for students.

That is not to say, of course, that every reform, or reform proposal, was on target. Nor did his abrasive approach win many friends. However, his time as Education Secretary forced schools, teachers, parents, and society at large, to think seriously about what is most important about education and different ways to achieve it.
If we are to take anything from Mr. Gove’s replacement, it is that the Government seems willing to acknowledge that the furious pace of his reforms needs a cooling-down period, and reforms need time to settle in. While teething problems with policies are worked through, it may be helpful to have a face in the Department for Education without such a strongly established agenda.