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

Education Apps Review for 4-8 year olds

Hampstead & Frognal Tutors Logo

With tablet computers and smartphones becoming ever-more ubiquitous, it is inevitable that they will eventually form an integral part of the educational landscape for our children. Indeed, that is already being borne out, to some degree, by the plethora of educational games and apps available for Apple’s family of products.
This month, we have taken a look at some of the free offerings aimed at children aged 4 to 8. While most of these apps would require in-app purchases in order to unlock the full degree of enriching content, they are free to download, and thus, free to test. If your child doesn’t take to it, you’re not out-of-pocket. Below are brief snapshots of apps covering a wide range of topics, from fundamental English and Maths, through to coding!

Little Pim- Offering a variety of languages, including Russian and Chinese, Little Pim effectively consists of flashcards, with accompanying audio, that help children learn a basic range of vocabulary in the chosen language. There is nothing too impressive here, however, the variety of languages on offer is great to whet the appetite for more!

Daisy the Dino – A great introduction to computer coding to young children, Daisy the Dino uses a dinosaur animation that the child controls using basic commands. This programme introduces children to the logic and sequencing commands used within more sophisticated programming. There are two modes, one allowing the player to create any sort of animation they choose, and another setting specific challenges that grow more complex as the child progresses. Hopscotch, the makers of this app, also make other coding apps, allowing children to progress to more difficult challenges once they have mastered the basics.

BrainPOP UK- BrainPOP provides a series of short educational videos across a range of subjects, including science, technology, and the arts. Children watch the videos, then take quizzes based on what they just watched. There are three free movies per subject area, with more available to purchase. This app is best suited for the older kids in the age group (7-8).

Planet Geo- Planet Geo presents children with a series of map-based challenges on various aspects of geography. Puzzles include locating UNESCO World Heritage Sites on a global map, fitting countries into their respective continents, grouping countries by location. There are 6 puzzle types, only one of which is entirely free, but with interesting geography puzzles and bold graphics, this app is a great way to challenge and extend geography knowledge.

Spellinglish- Spellinglish is a pretty straightforward spelling app. The app announces words and asks the children to spell them, keeping track of their statistics as they progress through the levels. The vocabulary is varied, and many of the words will be quite a challenge, even for the older children in this age group. However, it’s a great app for introducing new words, and stretching the abilities of those children with more developed spelling and phonics skills.

Language! – This app, by Tribalnova, has three very basic games contained within it covering vocabulary, sentence formation, and listening comprehension. While these games are likely to be vastly too simplistic for native English speakers, this app would be a great way of helping very young children who are learning English to grasp the basics. The vocabulary and listening games require children to identify items that are hidden around the screen, while the sentence formation game presents them with a selection of verbs and nouns in picture form, and asks them to create short sentences by placing the words in a sensible order.

Johnny Grammar’s Word Challenge – This app, produced by the British Council, is perhaps the best entirely free grammar and spelling app available. Children can choose from ‘Grammar’, ‘Words’, or ‘Spelling’ categories, and choose their level of difficulty within each category, allowing the app to grow with the child’s abilities. Each category has a selection of interesting topics to choose from, and the app produces a quiz on each. This app also introduces a number of unique language challenges, including introducing young children to idiomatic expressions and the foundations of more complex grammar.

Storytelling- The Storytelling app walks children through three activities related to a single story- reading it, illustrating it, and writing it. Children read along with an illustrated story to familiarise themselves with it. They can then complete a challenge wherein they match illustrations from the story with the appropriate story point. Finally, they are able to use the illustrations from the story as inspiration for their own story. This app is a great way to introduce young children to key storytelling concepts such as structuring and presenting, describing, and resolving problems or conflicts.

Grammaropolis- Grammaropolis walks children through the different parts of speech, such as nouns, verbs, and interjections. Taking a page from Schoolhouse Rock, each section presents a series of short videos which explain and demonstrate the usage of the part of speech in questions, after which children complete quizzes which demonstrate what they’ve learned. The videos are catchy and colourful, and are a great way to make learning grammar less dry!

Maths Trainer- This app is great for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division drills. There are no frills here, just basic question and answer. Despite the basic nature of the app, it is a good app for helping children practice basic calculations.

DoodleMaths- DoodleMaths is a very comprehensive maths app. To begin with, children complete an assessment that determines their strengths and weaknesses across numerous mathematics topics, including calculations, geometry, and fractions and decimals. Once the app has determined the child’s strengths and weaknesses, it presents daily maths problems to build competency. Covering a vast range of problem types, as well as accommodating the child’s age and ability level, this is a great app to try!

Maths Wiz- Another quiz-style app, Maths Wiz covers a range of topics from addition through to basic geometry. Children can either complete quizzes, or enter ‘study mode’ which presents them with a range of questions and tracks the ones that they perform the best on. While not as sophisticated as DoddleMaths, this app allows children to practice different maths subjects, and to progress to more difficult material as they master one area.

Maths, Age 3-5 / 4-6 – These apps, part of a series aimed to grow with the child, begins with the very basics, such as sorting, matching, counting, and comparing, and progresses to more basic calculations. These apps are a great way to introduce young children to the concepts that form the foundations of a strong understanding of maths in a way that doesn’t necessarily focus on numbers.

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.

ADHD?

There is no avoiding the fact that everything about ADHD is controversial. Some claim that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a legitimate challenge preventing many children from keeping up with their peers at school and acting as a barrier to success. Others claim that it is merely giving poorly behaved children with little self-control, and their parents, a medical label to hide behind. Some believe that those who exhibit behaviour associated with ADHD should be treated with medication in order to best control their behaviours and limit their impact on others, while others believe that this is unnecessary medication for what are, essentially, normal childhood behaviours.

Whichever side you stand on, there is no denying that, in recent years, ADHD has become more and more of a challenge for classroom teachers in the UK and the staff that support them. A cursory glance around the internet demonstrates how prevalent the ADHD discussion has become. Medical websites, mental health charities, and ADHD-specific organisations all provide advice about dealing with the symptoms of ADHD in schools. Indeed, many schools themselves, particularly in the private sector, market their specific abilities to work with children with ADHD and accommodate their special educational needs. Tutoring companies receive myriad requests from parents of children with ADHD for help keeping their children caught-up in school and combating problems with focus and attention.

But whether you believe ADHD is a legitimate behavioural challenge or not, teachers in schools are having to cope with the consequences of ADHD’s increased presence in educational discourse. What does this mean for teachers in the classroom?
Harman, a Year 2 teacher in Haringey, feels relatively lucky. ‘To be honest, I’ve not had many students whose parents claimed that they had ADHD, but I know some of my colleagues have. As a primary teacher, we’re in a difficult position because there is already so much that we’re meant to be looking out for…When we are teaching kids to read we are meant to be looking out for signs of dyslexia. I’ve got plenty of children in my class who don’t speak English at home, which creates another set of challenges. It’s a long list. When you have to worry about ADHD as well, it can put a lot of pressure on an already challenging situation.’

When children are as young as Harman’s, it can often be difficult to distinguish between normal behaviours and ADHD. ‘When they tell you about looking out for ADHD,’ she says, ‘ they’re telling you to look out for things that kids mostly do anyway…like being unable to sit still or not being able to focus on one thing for an extended period.’
These criteria are all relative, and guidance can be vague. For instance, guidance issued by the Department of Education in Northern Ireland states that ‘ADHD cannot be…caused by environmental factors such as diet, parenting or education. However, we must remember that environmental factors can influence every child and so are still important.’ Thus, environmental factors are central, but not causal. It becomes easy to understand how teachers can feel lost.

Some children can focus for longer periods than others in their same age group, and indeed, the younger children within a year group are more likely to be labelled as attention-deficit, as are boys, who develop later than their female peers. Practical guidance for schools often instruct teachers to look for students who are often off task, make careless mistakes, appear disinterested, can’t focus or maintain effort, are disorganised, are talkative, shout out answers or interrupt, can’t wait their turn, are restless, etc. At what point do these normal childhood behaviours, which every child, particularly very young children, exhibits at some point or another, become present to an inappropriate or significant degree?

Jamie, who teaches Year 6 in Tower Hamlets, feels that teachers are being unfairly burdened. ‘Look, I’ve read all the guidance, and if people who are a lot smarter than me are saying that ADHD is the result of some kind of chemical imbalance in the brain then I believe them. I have a hard time, though, believing how many kids actually have it. Most of the time, I feel kids in my classes who claim that they have ADHD don’t actually have a diagnosis to back that up, its just something that their parents have told them over and over again as a way of explaining bad behaviour that they can’t control or don’t want to take responsibility for. They’re clever. By the time they get to me they’ve learned that if they say they have ADHD they can get away with things other kids would get in trouble for.’
Jamie contends what many have long suspected. While in a strict medical sense, ADHD should only be a diagnosis reached after consultation with a number of doctors and specialists, the subjective nature of the condition, as well as a reliance on those who see the child most (parents, teachers, carers, etc.) for a determination of what is normal, leads to many children being labelled ADHD whose behaviour is actually explainable by any number of other factors, including home environment, age, gender, diet, or amount of physical activity. Many children who exhibit behaviours associated with ADHD eventually grow out of these behaviours as they mature, throwing any initial diagnosis into severe doubt.

Indeed, questions have been raised about whether a broadening of the definition of what ADHD is in recent editions of the most common diagnostic manual (American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has led to over-diagnosis, wherein very mild or moderate symptoms are slapped with the ADHD label.
Jan Heller, a former teacher in the United States with more than 30 years of experience, believes that parents need to take more responsibility. ‘Sugary and fatty diets, lack of sleep, lack of exercise…all of it contributes. When I first started teaching, if a child came to me behaving in a way that we would now associate with ADD, I would have perhaps advised the parents that they needed to get more sleep…I obviously can’t speak for the UK, but here, teachers are dealing with so much. Class sizes are a lot bigger than they used to be, the shape and size of families is different, children are exposed to different influences. There needs to be a more honest dialogue between teachers and parents regarding child behaviour, what is normal, and why it happens. Otherwise, schools get lumbered with these behaviour issues in a way that is quite unfair.’

The problem of over-medicalising child behaviour is much less prevalent in the UK than in the United States, but similar trends are emerging. For teachers and schools, the best approach seems to be twofold. Harman, teaching year two, believes that more resources solve the problem. ‘The smaller the groups are the easier it is to handle children whose behaviour is a little more challenging. Smaller classes would be great, but I don’t really see that happening. It seems more realistic to make sure that, for younger children, there are enough teachers and teachers’ aides in a classroom to give the children that need it extra help.’

For Jamie, teaching year six, the solution lies elsewhere. ‘Parents and students need to take responsibility for the way they behave. As the kids get older they should be held to account for the way that they behave and the way that it affects the other kids in their class. And when parents are confronted with the poor ways their kids are behaving, the solution shouldn’t be to just say ‘Oh, well, he’s got ADHD.’ That’s not an excuse. I’m not saying that if there is a genuine issue there that I wouldn’t do whatever I could to help, or that schools shouldn’t give extra assistance. But I’ve taught enough kids to know when it’s genuinely ADHD or if, actually, they just have a problem with authority or can’t control themselves.’

If you believe that your child is struggling with ADHD, what can you do?
First and foremost, eliminate other possibilities. Try changing your child’s routine to ensure they are getting enough sleep. Or monitor their diet closely; balanced diets high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins help manage ‘sugar spikes’ and promote the ability to focus. Also, talk to your children! Many of the behaviours associated with ADHD can be a mask for emotional difficulties or a reaction to bullying, and many young people will not volunteer that sort of information.

Once all other possibilities have been exhausted, the NHS recommends that you turn to your GP, who may recommend or refer specialist services such as child psychiatrists or other mental health professionals. Parenting guidance and courses may also be offered, aimed at helping use behavioural techniques to manage or change a child’s behaviour, with or without an official ADHD diagnosis.

Websites such as www.adhdtogether.com , www.livingwithadhd.co.uk , www.addiss.co.uk, and www.youngminds.org.uk can also provide additional information about symptoms, treatment, and management should non-medical solutions fail to address the problems. These resources can help you navigate the medical environment, as well as provide advice and guidance on working with your child’s condition, and framing the discussion with those who work closely with them, such as teachers.

Teachers and schools are accustomed to working with children with any number of difficulties. ADHD is not, and should not be, the catch-all excuse for behavioural or attention issues in children. However, if you have received a confirmed diagnosis from the relevant clinicians, it is important to keep your school and teachers informed and involved. This will allow them to aid your child in the most effective way possible, and to provide the best support available.

7 Habits of Highly Successful Students

The new year has arrived and we have all thought of ways to improve ourselves over the course of 2014. Why not try to make yourself a better student? These 7 Habits of Highly Successful Students will help you improve your academic abilities and make for more effective learning!

1. Ask for help!
Teachers never tire of saying that ‘there is no such thing as a stupid question’…because it’s true! Forget about embarrassing yourself, or that other students may think less of you for not understanding a subject. If you don’t ask questions about things you don’t understand, you’re only hurting yourself! In fact, if you have a question, it is likely that other students do as well, and your teachers are there to help. You can never ask too many questions, or ask things to be clarified too much. If you still don’t feel like you understand something well enough, you can always get extra help. Search the internet, get a tutor, or ask your friends for help…all of the extra effort will be well worth it in the end!

2. Set A Schedule
Getting into a routine has many benefits for students. It helps with time management and assists in setting priorities. Schedules should prioritise schoolwork over things like television and games. This ensures that distraction is kept to a minimum, and helps develop self-control. Getting into a regular routine also helps minimise stress by keeping you organised. The fewer variables you have to worry about on any given day, the more energy you’ll have to dedicate to schoolwork, making you a more effective learner!

3. Eat Well
One of the best things that you can do for your brain is to make sure you eat a healthy and balanced diet. Diets that are high in sugary and fatty junk foods can make you feel lethargic, or prevent you from focusing by sending your body on a sugar rush! Eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins will give your body and your brain the best kinds of energy and help you maintain focus throughout a long school day. Likewise, it’s important to eat three square meals a day, particularly a good breakfast! Students who eat a well-balanced breakfast, avoiding sugary cereals or treats, perform better in school because their bodies have the best available energy to help them learn.

4. Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Pulling an all-nighter doesn’t do anyone any favours! Sleep is your brain’s way of recharging and processing all of the things you’ve learned over the course of a long day. Without a good night’s sleep, you can’t focus well the next day, and won’t absorb as much information. Getting into a routine will help you get enough sleep, and you should aim for 8 hours at night so that you awaken recharged and ready to take on the day.

5. Do More than the Bare Minimum
The most successful students go above and beyond the requirements set by their teachers. Not only does this show your teacher that you care about your schoolwork and that you are willing to put in a good effort, it also helps you understand your subjects more completely. Not understanding your classroom reading material? Read related books, or books about the time or place in which the book is set. It will help you develop context and give you a more complete understanding. A similar approach can be taken to all subjects. Don’t just stick to the required reading lists or texts, read extra and research more! You may just find that it helps you appreciate your subjects in ways you wouldn’t have imagined.

6. Have Passion for your Subjects.
It’s hard to motivate yourself to excel when you find your subjects tedious or boring. For older students who can choose the subjects that they study, this can be easy to fix by focusing on those subjects you find the most stimulating. However, for younger pupils, the best way to engage with subjects that you find boring is to find ways to apply those subjects, or their lessons, to your everyday life. If you can’t manage to get yourself excited or passionate about maths, try finding everyday applications for mathematical principles. It’s easier to connect with subjects that are relevant and useful.

7. Relax!
While it is, of course, important to work hard and be dedicated to your schoolwork, it is also important to give yourself time to relax. Take time out, relax, and do something special for yourself. Getting overworked or over-stressed leads to poor sleep, fatigue, and an inability to focus and learn. Even when you feel like you can’t, make sure you give yourself a moment to take a few deep breaths, relax, and regroup.

Last Minute Revision Tips for the 11+ Entrance Exams

11+ exams are fast approaching, and the Christmas holiday provides a perfect opportunity to do some last-minute revision and preparation.

In the last few weeks, it is important to focus your attentions on the elements of the exam that are most important. Focusing on a few key aspects of each subject area will allow students to maximize their revision time while also allowing them to relax and enjoy the time at home.

Below you will find some tips on how to revise most effectively in the last few weeks before the exam.

English
1. Focus on comprehension technique. While verbal reasoning is a part of many exams, it is less important than comprehension skills. Furthermore, many schools complete verbal reasoning practice during class time. As such, use your own revision time to address comprehension practice. For instance, now is the optimal time to start working through sample papers or past papers in order to become familiar with the types of questions asked and how best to approach each.

2. Practice timed compositions. Getting accustomed to the time limits on exams is crucial to success. Exam writing sections can range from 30 minutes to one hour in length. It is best to prepare by attempting different types of writing exercises at different time intervals.

3. Read! Reading helps expand vocabulary, and exposes students to a variety of different stories and writing styles, thus providing them with plenty of ammunition for their writing sections and helping reduce the chance of “writer’s block” striking during the exam.

Maths
The best way to prepare for maths? Practice! Practice! Practice!

Keep track of the questions that are routinely missed, and make sure to focus on those types of questions as the exam approaches. For instance, questions that students routinely find difficult include: number problems, date problems, speed, distance and time, averages, and conversions. If you’re struggling with questions like these, but are having no difficulty with others, focus your attentions wisely.

Basic skills such as adding fractions, finding percentages, and area and perimeter problems are best improved by using text books for added practice. Attempting some more challenging problems can also help develop skills by forcing students to really dissect what a question is asking.

Finally, useful resources can be found at the websites listed below.

Http://www.m-a.org.uk/jsp/index.jsp?lnk=251

Http://www.ukmt.org.uk

Http://nrich.maths.org/frontpage

Last but not least…
Relax! Don’t stay up until midnight the day before the exam trying to cram in as much study time as possible. This will only cause stress, which will harm your performance.

The day before the exam, give yourself time to unwind, relax, and get a good night’s sleep.
Remember to eat a good breakfast on exam day, as well! Getting a good start to the day will ensure focus and stamina through an exhausting day of testing.

Good Luck!

The Teaching Qualifications Debate

It seems hard to believe, but the political establishment has already begun to position itself for the next general election. With each election cycle, education comes into the spotlight. This is no surprise: education is a policy area that affects a vast percentage of the electorate, making it a prime platform from which politicians can reach out and grab the public interest. Education policy has undergone a lot of change under the current government, from an expansion in the number of academies to the introduction of free schools. Indeed, the coalition has not stopped there. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has promised free school lunches to all pupils between reception and year two in the next parliament.

However, there is another proposed reform that has introduced a lot more controversy. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has made waves by suggesting that it is unnecessary for teachers in state schools to have specific teaching qualifications. Rather, he argues, schools should be able to hire any individual who has a command of the necessary material, and has the passion and creativity to provide lessons that are engaging and effective. Free schools and independent schools already have the freedom to operate in this way, and so, the argument goes, should state schools.

There is some suggestion that this would be an effective reform. The teaching qualifications themselves do not impart a love of teaching, or necessarily a love of a particular subject, and enthusiastic teachers are much more likely to keep their students engaged in the material. Particularly where a subject is highly technical or specialised, a teacher who is an expert in that particular field, but who lacks a specific teaching qualification such as a PGCE, may be just as effective, if not more so, than a traditionally qualified teacher. The fact that independent schools feel secure using teachers without formal qualifications speaks to the ability of such individuals to create successful learning environments. It is also argued that older students may be better served by teachers who have experience working in the field or subject that they are teaching. For instance, physics teachers who have worked as engineers in the private sector can help students understand how the material they learn in the classroom can help them build a future in the workforce.

Naturally, the opposition Labour party has raised myriad issues with this proposal. Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Education Secretary, has claimed that these reforms are irresponsible, and not in the best interests of students. Labour ministers point to a similar reform in Sweden, where free schools, which are run for profit, hired unqualified teachers over qualified ones when feeling the pinch of cuts to education budgets. The result was slipping standards and the ultimate reversal of the policy. Teaching qualifications give teachers a good grounding in how children learn and expose them to different teaching strategies. Furthermore, having a teaching qualification would seem to indicate a dedication to teaching by demonstrating years of study and development in pursuit of the profession. Those who walk into teaching without a qualification could be more likely to simply walk back out again.

In any discussion about education reform that precedes a general election, the ideas are much more likely to be driven by ideology than by any deep or comprehensive understanding of pedagogy.

Carmela Hinckley, an educator at Twyford Church of England High School, with nearly twenty years experience, believes that the qualification is still important, and that the dichotomy that Michael Gove is presenting between qualified teachers and passionate subject-experts is false. “ While Michael Gove and others have said that [teachers] don’t have to have a qualification, he then uses the words ‘passion’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘engagement’, and those are the three things that the qualification looks for. Because the passion, knowledge, and engagement are constantly tested in the process of qualifying.”

At present, the government has no plans to provide a pathway to qualification for those individuals who choose to enter the teaching profession without a teaching qualification. This does seem like a mistake, and correcting this could be a way to bridge the two sides of this debate by making it easier for highly qualified people to enter teaching, but also making sure that they receive the type of training that will provide them with a wider skill-set, and make it more likely for them to last in the profession. Indeed, Ms. Hinckley believes that training for a teaching qualification provides teachers with the skills they need to confront the evolving challenges of teaching. These challenges range from evolving curricula and standards to the effects of family breakdown.

It goes without saying that having a teaching qualification does not make a good teacher, and research indicates that education systems that hold teachers to account, regardless of how long they’ve been in the profession, when their effectiveness begins to wane, produce the best results. Teaching qualifications are steps in the right direction, but they are hardly the only things encouraging strong performance. In Mrs. Hinckley’s opinion, the culture of the school, and the school environment, are instrumental in driving high teacher standards.

Indeed, investing in education professionals by consistently providing them with opportunities for feedback and development is crucial, and perhaps the best way to ensure that pupils are getting the best education available.

Lessons from the World’s Best Schools

In this day and age, we are constantly reminded that the global economy is becoming more and more competitive. It is our duty, it is endlessly repeated, to equip our children with the education and skills to compete effectively in this increasingly cut-throat environment. In a recent book, entitled The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley has tried to address exactly what makes education systems successful, and what kinds of practices create ‘the smartest kids in the world’.

A journalist with extensive experience covering education topics, Ripley tries to answer why the United States fails to attain the top of the international education tables, despite spending more per capita on education than almost any other country. In order to do this, she looks into the education culture in three countries that have achieved impressive results: Finland, Poland and South Korea. Each of these countries provides a lesson about how education should be approached, and what reform can achieve.

In Finland, Ripley focuses on the quality of the teachers. Teaching in Finland is a highly respected and incredibly competitive profession. Entrance onto teaching degrees and training courses is tightly controlled, with only the most academically talented gaining entry. The relative scarcity of places on teacher- training courses, combined with the high level of subject specialism required of teachers in the upper years, leads to teachers commanding a great deal of respect due to the acknowledgement of how much dedication, work, intelligence, and commitment goes in to becoming a teacher in the first place. Highly qualified teachers are then trusted to approach the curriculum with minimal oversight, and in the way that they feel best meets the needs of their students.

In South Korea, the practices of parents and students are the focus. With an unbelievably competitive university entrance examination, students dedicate untold hours outside of school to study, and parents support their children’s educations with equal, if not greater, fervour. While Ripley points out that, in many ways, the South Korean educational experience is unproductive, the intensive involvement of parents in their children’s education, and the motivation exhibited by students are held up at things to be admired and encouraged.

Finally, Ripley points to Poland as an example of a nation that has addressed sub-standard educational attainment rapidly and effectively since 1990. By reforming the way in which students were streamed in secondary schools, as well as placing more accountability in the hands of teachers and schools, Poland was able to significantly improve its rankings. This improvement was achieved both incredibly quickly, and without spending the vast sums of money that the United States spends per pupil.

Ripley’s book raises some interesting issues and provides worthy food-for-thought. However, she approached her research with the United States in mind, which makes her conclusions only partially useful to those trying to understand the UK’s middling educational performance. However, a couple of her conclusions are worth considering.

First and foremost, spending is not always the answer. The most effective way of achieving higher educational attainment is accountability on all fronts. Allowing teachers and schools to take more control over how they approach material and, in some cases, what is taught, will allow those who know the students best to work in a way that best meets their needs and tailor resources to specific challenges. Making schools and teachers accountable helps education professionals feel empowered and invested, and rewards those whose techniques and practices provide the greatest gains. This approach also allows teachers in specialist subjects to use their expertise to approach their subjects in ways that make them engaging, relevant, and dynamic for students.

Accountability for teachers and schools goes hand-in-hand with having highly qualified instructors. Teachers in secondary schools in Finland, for example, are expected to be subject specialists. This intensive subject knowledge, combined with the completion of a lengthy, rigorous teacher-training course, creates teachers who are highly respected and who need less oversight in order to ensure they are doing what is right for their students.

Accountability extends to students as well. Children rise to the expectations set for them given the support of their teachers and carers. When education is made a priority in the home, positive attitudes are created that foster high achievement. Likewise, in school, students who are streamed later in the educational careers are more likely to perform well because they are not being sent the implicit message that they are less capable. This is not to say that streaming is completely negative; acknowledging different strengths and weaknesses is a key to any strong education system. However, clear sets of expectations and standards help students perform well, and the longer one set of standards applies to everyone, the better.

The second key lesson to be gleaned from Ripley’s research regards the involvement of parents. Students whose parents are actively involved in their education perform better than those whose are not. This extends beyond helping with homework. Actively engaging with the skills that children are learning in class and helping integrate them into everyday life reinforces those skills and helps develop critical thinking abilities. For instance, using baking to practice with fractions or reading and discussing books are great ways to help children use the skills they learn in the classroom.

Lastly, but particularly importantly where London is concerned, is the lessons Ripley learns about diversity. America, Ripley claims, often hides behind diversity as an excuse for poor educational attainment. Children who don’t come to school speaking English find it difficult to achieve at the same level as native English speakers, it is often claimed. However, Finnish experience seems to suggest that this is a red herring. Diversity within a student population certainly presents a different set of challenges, but this doesn’t have to be a barrier to achievement when teachers are well-trained and have the right resources at their disposal. In fact, this maxim seems to be borne out in London, where some of the best primary and secondary state schools in the country are located. Diversity amongst the students does not stand in the way of success because teachers have the skills necessary to meet the unique challenges of diversity head-on. Indeed, diversity can enrich a child’s educational experience by exposing them to different cultures, languages, and ways of thinking, as well as challenging them to evaluate their experiences and beliefs differently. This quality is something that is conspicuously lacking from the South Korean educational system, where almost every student is aiming for the same universities and the same jobs at the same handful of companies. The creativity and tolerance that diversity engenders is something to be admired about London’s schools.

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!