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

‘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

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.

Are Private Schools Worth It?

The UK’s private schools are the envy of the world. Well-established names like Eton, Harrow, Westminster, and St. Paul’s command respect from all corners of globe. Indeed, regardless of where they stand in the league tables, it seems that private schools are in greater demand than ever before. Ostensibly, the high demand stems from the belief that private schools provide a higher quality education for children than do state schools…but is this, in fact, the case?

Private education provides a number of benefits. With smaller class sizes and greater resources, teachers and staff are able to give students more personalised attention. While teachers may not necessarily be better qualified than their state-sector counterparts, they have the benefit, in most cases, of less unruly classrooms. However, what you are principally paying for with your tuition fees is something quite removed from these things.

Private education allows parents to choose their child’s cohort of peers.

Choosing to pay for education, above and beyond what you already pay for with your taxes, is a declaration of the value you place on education. Any private school, much less the elite set, comes with a significant price tag. While there are some families for whom such money is no object, for the majority of families who consider privately educating their children, that is not the case, and budgetary considerations of some degree are necessary. A willingness to potentially sacrifice other things for the sake of a child’s education demonstrates the importance of education to a family.

Families with this mind-set are more likely to support their child’s education in any number of ways, including helping with homework, monitoring progress, emphasising independent study and learning, and encouraging diverse extra-curricular activities. When placing your child in private education, you are placing them in a classroom with children who come from similar environments with like approaches to educational excellence. Families that send their children to private schools are generally more affluent than average, with all of the societal advantages that affords, and all of the assumptions about parental educational level that go with it.

It is this uniformity of ability and mind-set that makes private classrooms more manageable for teachers, not the ability of the teachers. The teachers themselves are not necessarily any better than those found in states schools, nor are they necessarily more experienced. Indeed, they may be less qualified than state-sector teachers. While the curricula offered in a private school may be more in-depth or more diverse, this is more a by-product of the conducive atmosphere created by children intent on learning than anything else
All of this begs the question: with competition for independent school places increasingly intense, is it really necessary to place your child in one at all? Should it be a priority?
The answer: probably not, from a strictly educational perspective. If you are the type of parent who would consider private schooling in the first place, the environment in your home is likely to be one that encourages your child to take education seriously, and to put in due effort. A child in a state school could receive the same personalised attention and breadth of subjects with the support of a personal tutor. Private tutoring can also be a much more economical way of providing your child with these benefits.

From a ‘value-added’ perspective, there is a strong argument for considering that private schools add very little, but rather provide a platform for children to achieve what they likely would have achieved anyway, regardless of school environment. There is evidence from America to suggest that, were you to send your child to a school with more affluent peers, they would perform better whether or not the school was private. If you control for background factors such as family income, or parental education level, results in the United States suggest that students at private schools perform no better than their state-schooled peers.*

Similar conclusions could be easily applied to the British case. Though nearly all of the best private schools are academically selective, they are choosing from a cohort of applicants that can afford the fees in the first place, insinuating very important things about the resources those parents have to further their child’s education outside of school, and the education levels of those parents.

Parents, of course, choose private schools for a variety of reasons beyond academics, and private schools exist that cater to desires ranging from religiously-affiliated education to education focused on Special Educational Needs (SEN). The majority, however, are trading on the impression that they are able to provide children with a better quality education than that which they would receive in a state school. Particularly in London, where schools are generally of a high quality, and consistently improving, this may not be the case.

Extra support for students in state schools, in the form of private tuition, after-school homework clubs, study centres, or extra-curricular activities like sports or music, can achieve a ‘private school effect’ by providing the specialised, individual attention that a child needs while broadening horizons into subjects that may be beyond the standard state curriculum.

* http://www.amazon.com/The-Public-School-Advantage-Outperform/dp/022608891X

Teachers’ Pay

Few would argue that teachers are some of the hardest-worked civil servants. The days are challenging, demanding, unpredictable, and long. Expectations and benchmarks change constantly. There is constant scrutiny from the government and from parents. And, while it is hugely rewarding, some would argue that it is not particularly well paid.

It is well documented that teachers don’t choose the profession for the high earning potential. Teachers teach, to name but a few, because they want to change the world, empower students, work with individuals, rather than computers, or to experience the joy of sharing knowledge. Teachers provide a vital public, and personal, service upon which the foundations of our society are laid. But they are not necessarily well remunerated for this mammoth undertaking.

In inner London, where teaching posts are most difficult (for any number of reasons) and thus (relatively) handsomely rewarded, a teacher can earn up to £36,000 a year, with starting salaries of around £27,000. Considering the average graduate starting salary in London hovers around £22,000, this wouldn’t seem to be a bad deal for teachers. However, considering the extra training that teachers must undertake, as well as the importance of the role, £27,000 might begin to look a bit miserly.

When a longer career is taken into account, the disparities truly begin to arise. Without moving into a leadership position, the £36,000-a-year ceiling that teachers hit, despite experience, and without considering performance, seems low, even at the top end of the pay scale. Other graduates with commensurate levels of experience within their chosen industry can generally expect to earn more. When a recently published study, which suggests that primary school teachers work, on average, a 60-hour week, is taken into account, it would seem that many teachers in the state sector could expect to earn the equivalent of around £15 per hour, something that would be inappropriate for graduates in other fields or professions.

The low hourly rate may explain why many teachers, with all kinds of experience, are taking on privately tutored clients, for whom they can get paid upwards of £30 pounds an hour.

Performance-based pay, which is slowly being introduced in independent schools, free schools, and academies, is making some inroads into ensuring that those who do best by students are compensated in a manner which acknowledges their success. However, these moves are encountering fierce opposition from those who claim that variable pay would damage the esprit des corps amongst teachers within a school, or potentially create a perverse incentive for struggling teachers to resort to cheating to improve their students’ results. (This is despite evidence that suggests that systems wherein teachers are rewarded for strong performance, such as in Finland, have consistently strong academic performance in core subjects.)

There are, of course, other benefits to being a teacher other than salary, and public sector pension arrangements have, until recently, been relatively generous. This has led many to contend that though teachers may not be very well compensated during their working life, they are well looked-after once they retire. These pension arrangements, however, are changing, leading to less generous provisions on the back of tight budgets and inflated government debt.

In line with other government directives on the pay and remuneration of civil servants, teachers are seeing their salaries stagnate, their pensions grow more miserly, and their retirement age inch forward. Other government policies would seem to be affecting teacher pay in a less direct manner.

For instance, how are government policies like free schools affecting teacher pay? If the effects are anything like those seen in the United States, it may not be what you’d expect.

In the United States, teachers in private schools and charter schools (similar to free schools) do not necessarily earn more than their public sector counterparts. The improved teaching conditions in private and charter schools lead to teachers who are willing to accept lower salaries in exchange for what is perceived as an easier task. Likewise, the ‘better’ environments in these schools mean that the school need not necessarily hire teachers with years of experience managing an unruly classroom. They can choose to hire less experienced, or less qualified, teachers, with a corresponding increase in the supply of potential staff. As anyone with even a passing familiarity with economics will tell you, increased supply of labour leads to lower wages.

There is some suggestion that the experience here in the UK is similar. Shane Rae, a blogger on the Local Schools Network, detailed his experience of working in 3 British independent schools:
“I can say with authority that one of the things that parents of privately educated children will be aghast to find out is that generally teachers in the private sector are paid considerably LESS than their state counterparts. Many of the really talented, spirited teachers that I worked with either moved to another school for better pay or repatriated to the state sector for better pay. Indeed, when I left the private school where I was a Head of Department, I was making barely half of an identically skilled and experienced counterpart in the state sector.”

Free schools, with powers to set teacher pay as they see fit, are likely to be following a similar pattern, drafting in enthusiastic, but perhaps unqualified, young teachers, any paying them less than they would even get in a standard state school. The problem of low pay is not restricted to the state sector, prompting us to remind ourselves what exactly it is that our teachers, whether qualified or no, do.

In truth, low teacher pay seems to be in keeping with attitudes towards similar problems. When recent government proposals to increase the child-to-adult ratio for nurseries were announced, it was, in part, a response to the oft-heard complaint that childcare is too expensive, which makes being a working mother cost prohibitive. It seems as though we are placing pricing, and thus salary, expectations and limits on those who work with our children based on the salaries of those who are doing job that are much less demanding, and in fact, much less important. For, is there anything more important that the safety and education of our children?

It seems as though the teacher pay issue is not simply going to be solved by tacking higher salary numbers onto teaching positions. The problem is closely intertwined with the value that we place on education as a society. When we begin to value the work that our teachers do more than we value the work of oil companies, investment banks, or pharmaceutical giants, we will be able to have an honest and meaningful conversation about what a teacher deserves. At present, it seems as though we as a society are saying the right things, but not following up those words with purposeful action.

Exam Evolution

Over the past year, there has been a lot of upheaval surrounding the GCSE and A-Level exams, and the system has come under immense pressure from the government regarding everything from teaching standards to grade-inflation and the rigour of the material being taught. As a result, politicians are mooting a number of changes to the GCSE and A-Level systems.

The most consistent criticism of the system targets grade-inflation and the rigour of the material. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, along with a number of education experts, has claimed that the diversity of exam boards and the wide range of curricula have led to a ‘race to the bottom’. Exam boards, keen to recruit schools and students, and schools, focused on achieving the best results possible, create and choose easier and easier examinations in dubiously relevant subjects.

This led, over the years, to increasing numbers of students achieving the top grades. While there is, of course, nothing wrong with having many students achieving the top grades, the way to do it, ministers claimed, was NOT through making the material or the tests easier.

Recent adjustments have corrected this to some extent. After decades of rising exam marks, the number of those receiving A*-C grades has slipped in the past couple of years. Moving the grade boundaries, making examinations more difficult, closer oversight of coursework marking, and tougher penalties for spelling and grammar errors have been, at least partially, credited with this trend.

In a related problem, subjects that should have been considered crucial within a student’s education were being pushed aside in favour of less academic qualifications. Though Media Studies and Physical Education had a role to play within a child’s education and development, they should not be considered as important as, or of equal weight to, maths, science, reading, and language subjects.

These problems had created a situation, claimed Michael Gove, in which students left school without the core maths or English skills that they needed to thrive in an increasingly globalised economy, leading him to call for a number of revisions to key education policies.

First, in 2010, the ‘English Baccalaureate’ was introduced. Though not a qualification in-and-of-itself, it would be recognition that a student had achieved at least a ‘C’ grade across a number of ‘core’ subjects, such as English, Maths, Science, History, and Languages. The government claimed that this approach would push students into choosing those subjects which carry the most weight when entering higher education, and would discourage students from taking too many ‘vocational’ qualifications that could limit their opportunities later.

The approach does seem to have had an impact. Statistics from August 2013 point to a resurgence in the number of foreign language exams taken, and students seem to be gravitating towards more difficult subjects. The ‘E-Bacc’ approach follows a template widely seen through the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme, which emphasises a well-rounded, rigorous curriculum built on a web of interconnected subjects and skills.

Education Secretary Gove has also proposed eliminating the coursework and module-based elements of the courses in most subjects, and focusing instead on a single, year-end examination that would serve as the final mark. These proposals came under fire from some educators, who claim, like Brian Lightman, the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, that simply making the exam harder will not raise standards. In addition, it is claimed that discontinuing the coursework and continuous-assessment components of GCSE marks will disadvantage some students, including those with special educational needs.
In fact, the government wants to remove the current system of tiering within examinations altogether. The Education Secretary claims that ‘higher’ and ‘foundation’ tiers promote a culture of low expectations by providing those students who are perceived as being low-achievers with an easy way out. OFQUAL, the exams regulator, has challenged these plans, claiming that such changes could undermine the universality of the examinations.
Indeed, removing tiered examinations alone will not achieve the desired rise in standards. This change must be accompanied, in order to be successful, with changes to the curriculum and higher standards of teaching and resources if the government is to be sure that all students could attain the same qualifications.

So, how are students likely to be affected by these changes?

The new policies that focus on achieving a higher level of difficulty in the examinations themselves, either through tighter controls on exam boards and material or higher grade thresholds and marking standards are likely to have a positive impact in the long run. Requiring students and schools to work harder, master more difficult material, and apply their skills and knowledge more effectively and competitively will ultimately raise standards and mean that exam results are worth more as a student moves forward in their education.

The English Baccalaureate is another largely positive development. Encouraging students to undertake more rigorous examinations in core subjects is a great way to assure that students are taking the key subjects that will help build a strong foundation for their futures. Subjects like English, maths, the sciences, history, and languages not only keep a wider range of opportunities open to all students throughout their education, but also provide them with the hard and soft skills that the modern jobs market requires.

However, ideas about the implementation of streaming are a little bit more dubious. Research has indicated that streaming is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, streaming acknowledges that not every student has the same aspirations and abilities, and that education should be tailored to ensuring that every student gets what they want and need out of their education with a view to their future. On the other hand, the later students are streamed, the more successful, in an academic sense, they tend to be. Whether this phenomenon is a result of the fact that students respond strongly to the expectations set for them, that schools and teachers are more motivated in their work with those students who are perceived as being more successful, or any of the other myriad reasons that abound, delaying streaming until after GCSE level and forcing teachers and students to rise to the challenge could be a sensible approach to raising standards.

Getting your kids ready for the new academic year

                   It may feel as though the summer holidays have only just begun, but the new school year is just around the corner! Summer is the perfect time for kids to relax, enjoy sports and other activities, and to explore new hobbies and interests. But summer is also a time when an educational phenomenon occurs: the dreaded ‘summer slump’.

Teachers, schools, and parents are well-acquainted with this phenomenon. After weeks of watching television, playing computer and video games, going away to camps, and the like, students’ lose educational momentum.

While summer should certainly be reserved as a time when kids can forget about their studies for a short time, there are ways that students and parents can counter the ‘summer slump’ without cutting into the time for relaxation and fun. If you’ve found that your child has lost ground over the summer months, here are some recommendations on how to avoid the same problem in the future.

 

7+

There are some easy steps that can be taken to help prepare students for the crucial 7+ year.

In English, the 7+ focuses on basic comprehension and story-writing skills, as well as some verbal reasoning. The best way to prepare for these types of challenges is simple: reading! Encouraging children to read for a set time every day (starting with low targets for new, or struggling, readers, and increasing based on fluency) will not only expose them to new ideas and vocabulary, but will also support their efforts in spelling and grammar. Make sure the children engage with what their reading by asking them questions about what has happened in a story and how they feel about characters or events. Reading for even a short period every day can have a massive impact on attainment in English. To extend the benefits of these exercises even further, writing and illustrating short stories based on what they’ve read is a wonderful reinforcement, and can also serve to get their creative juices flowing!

Verbal Reasoning practice is easiest using Bond resources. The exercises are varied, and become more complex as the children move through the practice books. They are most helpful in simply exposing the students to the types of questions that they may see on a 7+ exam, and can give them an opportunity to exercise their new vocabulary.

In mathematics, summer practice should be all about practical skills. There are myriad iPad applications and games that can turn times-tables practice into a fun and interactive experience. In particular, cloudpebbles.com provides a fun environment in which children can practice and develop. Likewise, there are easy ways to help children become more comfortable when confronted with numerical problems both in an exam environment and in everyday life. Learning through the application of skills is key. Asking children to compare prices in a supermarket, mentally calculate change, tell the time, or even working out the ingredients for a cake, can help them develop the key competencies that will serve them well in the new school year.

For those students of primary age that are struggling with fractions, decimals, and percentages, KS2 Revise and Practice by David Rayner is a great resource for routine practice.

 

11+/13+

Years 6, 7, and 8 can be very stressful for students, particularly where independent school entry exams are concerned. Entrance exams can begin as early as September, so it is important not to lose ground over the summer months.

To ensure that English language and literature skills stay up-to-scratch, there are easy steps to take. First and foremost, it is essential that reading isn’t neglected over the summer months. From age 11, schools are looking for students to demonstrate that they have increasingly sophisticated understandings of literature, and can appreciate a wide variety of genres. These skills cannot be developed without independent reading. For 10-11 year olds, at least 45 minutes of independent reading a day is recommended. For 12-13 year olds, that time should be increased to at least an hour. By dedicating this small chunk of time to reading each day, a student can expand their horizons and help develop wider comprehension and writing skills. Check [insert weblink here] for Hampstead and Frognal’s lists of recommended reading for ages 9-13.

In addition to reading, schools and teacher also expect a lot more from students in regards to their writing in these critical years. As they progress, students are expected to master a variety of writing styles, particularly discursive and persuasive writing. While children are likely to have spent a lot of time working on creative writing in school, discursive and persuasive writing presents a much newer challenge. Encouraging children to read the newspapers, and then to formulate written responses to, and opinions on, what they read, will help them develop the skills necessary to excel in these new areas.

In mathematics, the most common problem for students preparing for entrance examinations is problem solving. Spending a short period every day trying out some problem solving questions is a great way to improve skills and keep minds sharp over the summer! The UK Mathematics Trust publishes a wide variety of books aimed at developing problem solving skills. The exercises in these books are different from the ones seen in a regular school text, and are more in line with Olympiad and Maths Challenge. Attempting some of the more difficult questions at home over the summer can help boost problem solving ability. For more able students, or for those who make steady progress, The Mathematical Association also offers great resources. The key to success is Practice, Practice, Practice!

Many schools now subscribe to ‘MyMaths’ online software, which allows students to log in at home and practice the skill sets they feel the least comfortable with. Do check and see what resources your school has available and how you can make use of these during the school holidays.

 

GCSE/ A-level

                  The current GCSE and A-level curricula, across all subjects, are designed to cover a lot of material in a relatively short space of time. In order to ensure success, and limit stress, it is important to work independently over the summer.

For English, or indeed any of the humanities, it is important for students to familiarise themselves with key texts before the beginning of the school year. Schools make information about which exam board the students will sit, as well as specific curriculum information, readily available, so there’s no excuse not to get a head start! The volume of material there is to cover often means that schools move through material very quickly throughout the year. Use the summer months to allow time to read slowly and carefully. This will ensure that, as teachers begin intensive study, strong foundational understanding will already be in place, allowing students to ask considered questions, and to investigate a bit deeper.

Indeed, it is also useful to read ‘around’ a subject, not just those works which have been assigned. Using the summer months to read literary criticisms, additional historians, or complementary philosophers will contribute to a more complete understanding of the subject that will show through in the work produced throughout the year.

This applies to maths and science subjects as well. Investing in an additional textbook, different from the one used by the school, will increase the opportunities for practice and development, and help target those areas on which students are weakest. Texts like those by David Rayner and Brian Speed are extremely useful, and will help keep skills honed over the summertime.

 

None of these activities, if undertaken consistently over the summer, need be very time-consuming. By putting in a small amount of work every day, or at least multiple times a week, students can ensure that they begin their new school year prepared.

 

Left it too late?

                  It’s never too late to get a head-start on the next year’s school work! In the last weeks before school re-starts, focus on reviewing the curriculum from the previous year, and dedicating an hour every day to those areas where students feel the least confident. This will help kids prepared and self-assured in the first days and weeks of the new school year, and allow them to approach their new challenges with a positive outlook!