Exam marks changed again – does something need to be done?

So let’s see. You work hard, you get your revision done, you make sure that everything is perfect going into the exam.  When you sit the exam, you don’t let the pressure get to you and you manage everything perfectly.

ExamsYou’ve done all you can, haven’t you?  All that has to be done is for it to be marked, a mere formality that confirms your effort and work and will determine whatever happens next in your life.

Of course, the big assumption here is that the bits outside of your control are taken care of.  Naturally, you’ll assume that markers will be competent, computer systems will be working correctly… and of course, the marks get delivered on time.

Evidently, it would appear something is going wrong on even the most basic level as news emerged recently that the exam board OCR announced that several hundred marks have had to be changed, resulting in many regrades.

The breakdown of the papers involved looks like this:

  • 98 GCSE papers
  • 285 AS Level papers
  • 50 A Level papers

This isn’t the first time that OCR has been caught napping – in July 2012, up to 250 students had overall grades changed on papers because markers couldn’t add up totals correctly.  One month before that, Maths A Level papers had to be scrapped by Edexcel after one of the papers ended up in a batch bound for Egypt.

Perhaps one of the more troubling things about this is the fact that we aren’t seeing computer faults or something out of the ordinary.  Something like this wouldn’t be ideal but at least we wouldn’t be reading news reports sighing and tutting to ourselves because, when it comes down to it, the people marking are just not doing it properly.

I mean, is it really that hard to add up the marks you’ve given?  I’m not talking about the marks here, I’m just talking about the process of counting.  Exam papers often carry sizeable margins to help examiners note where marks have been awarded in the process of examining the paper.

Really, there should be no excuse for managing to be unable to add these up – especially when you could easily pull out a calculator.

The nature of the issues this time are not precise, but a board statement said it was “human and process errors.”  To me, that sounds like someone made some mistakes and no-one picked up on it until it was too late.

Schools are going to contacted if any of their students were affected by the recount.  However, for those papers that were affected at the higher end of the educational ladder, we still aren’t sure if these blunders have affected a student’s prospects of getting into university.  Imagine if this had happened around the time of the university fee changes – chances are there’d be one unlucky student paying thousands of pounds more, simply thanks to a marking calamity.

Ultimately, we’ll just have to wait and see what the damage is with this.  More fortunately, OCR has said that it only affects 0.03% of results.  It also appears that the errors are rather concentrated – the majority affected History and English papers, mainly around a few small modules.

However, despite the isolated nature of the problem, it shouldn’t really serve as much of an excuse or as a comfort to the students who have lost out on something.  The fact that the errors occurred in English too – it’s a core subject that everyone takes.

The OCR board have said that the measures that are now in place will solve everything and that sounds like great news.  The problem there is that this is exactly the same thing that they promised us back in 2012, that measures were in place to make sure this kind of thing wouldn’t happen again.  Clearly something didn’t work and the system doesn’t work to this day.  With students having their marks changed and results altered, it’s difficult to see how effective such measures really were.

Exam papers are traditionally scanned and then marked on a computer screen by markers who are hired by the exam board in question.  This presents another issue, not because of what’s done now, but rather that it’s extremely difficult to imagine another solution to the problem that would work to make sure that things are marked correctly… I mean, we could give teachers the actual papers but then we get all sorts of logistic issues – something I can imagine the exam board managing to get it wrong or making it an expensive and drawn-out process somehow.

Do we have it marked a second time by someone else to confirm the given mark?  You must be joking, the wait is long enough as it is, without every paper in the country being looked at twice, that would be impractical and affect students even more.  Strangely, some modular modern foreign language courses in schools use this method for controlling the quality of the marking, but there are several key differences, chief among which is the sad notion that a small number choose languages in schools.

This is something that has to change.  It seems like we’re always hearing about the problems with examinations and marking… Now it appears that it’s not technical or logistical, but rather the weak link in the system is that of the people who mark the papers.

This is troubling for parents, students, employers, teachers and even schools.  The solution, however, does appear to be a little tough to find, since the alternatives could be easily considered even trickier.

Don’t try and solve a problem by risking creating several others.

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The 10 things you’ll definitely see when your Student Union’s elections arrive

Brace yourself university students, it’s that time of year again…

ElectionsSo you’ve got work to hand in, exams to revise for, dissertations to hand in (and the absence of a social life in that case) and other things to get prepared.  It seems like a hectic enough time as it is.

Fortunately, your university Student’s Union (SU) has other ideas and has the ultimate way to distract you: the Officer Elections.

This is a time when students really get to show off their skills as communicators and do what is effectively a more prestigious version of being on a school council.  The different roles vary for each university, but generally there are a core set of roles that people will be standing for:

  • President of the SU
  • A role dedicated to sports and activities – at my uni it’s known as VP Activities
  • An officer responsible for student welfare
  • Normally you’ll see an officer/ambassador for International Students
  • There is usually someone to liaise with the LGBT groups and societies
  • There will be an academic officer – designed to help students with course concerns.

Some universities will have other roles, depending on the focus of the university and desires of the students.

One thing that you will never stop seeing once the candidate list is officially announced is the massive advertising and shameless plugging you’ll see around campus, right up until the deadline day. With my tongue in my cheek… here are the things you’ll be sure to see when election’s loom nearer.

Social media goes bananas…

  • First thing I will say is that I was never the biggest fan of hashtags on Facebook… I think I represent a majority there.  However, you’ll quickly find that, for some reason, it becomes acceptable again, as the candidates and their entourage use them as if they’re actually cool and popular.  They’ll either be some thing simple like ‘#mikeforpresident‘ or something really catchy and witty, such as a slogan for their campaign.
    You’ll also, rather amusingly, find it in status updates and places where it really has no place, such as the sharing of a holiday photo.
  • To compound your misery, if you’re out and you happen to meet a new friend, the normal thing among us is to say ‘cool, I’ll add you on Facebook.’
    And that’s where it all goes wrong…
    When you scroll through the pages of friends you have… you’ll find they’ve all changed their profile pictures to a campaign poster of their chosen candidate!  How are you going to find that fellow student who you met earlier in the night?!  Suddenly it becomes a game of guesswork… Not easy.
  • You suddenly feel infinitely popular as you arrive home from a hard day’s studying to note you have several Facebook messages in your inbox!  Well, lucky me, you must be thinking!
    The reality is somewhat less interesting.  It is, in fact, a mass spam email from one of the candidates or their best mates asking them to like a page or attend an event.  Ultimately, this is a clever shock tactic used by many media-savvy candidates to help give an air of popularity to their campaign.  Ultimately it’s the votes that count at the end of it all!

Your campus starts to look partisan

  • Suddenly your buildings and social spaces brighten up a little bit, mainly through the use of large banners that are erected in some remarkable positions.  Well, I say ‘banners’… normally it’s a double bedsheet that someone bought from Wilko for £2.99.  The lettering is usually someone’s Sharpie they had laying around from Freshers Week…
    To be fair I have seen some great ones on campus in recent years – from sewn-on messages to even printed professional-type ones that look like they’ve been done by a massive advertising company.  The reality is that someone got their graphic design mates to do it for them, but still rather creatively done!
  • Every student space gets filled with flyers that have been printed off at vast expense – they’re always a great way of getting people’s attention and being really annoying at the same time. You’ll spot them in places that you’d never think too, from classrooms and on library shelves to even in front of toilets in the sports centre.
  • Sports practices are always starting late.  This really annoyed me as a former team president, but it’s a reality you’ll just have to get used to it.
    Candidates and their supporters know well that often the best way to engage with groups of people is to talk to (read: gatecrash) sports teams when they’re finished with their practice.  The usual tag-line you’ll hear is something like ‘we can get you a better deal if you vote for us or sponsor our cause!’  You often have to get a bit vocal with them and remind them that we want to get on with practice.
  • If you’re one of the more popular flats/houses around, you might find yourself hosting a few parties now and again.  And of course, that’s a fantastic way to meet lots of people, all complete with that student social lubricant… Alcohol.  Suddenly, candidates with a smile and a box of beer can drum up endless amounts of support – they’ll even let you keep the remainder of that lager if you’re the host.
    I can remember one of my mates turning up to promote his campaign for a particular role – turned up with a massive four-foot banner, a box of his favourite beer and four of his ‘rugby mates.’  Within 20 minutes, he’d got everyone to pose with said banner, get £30 in money to help with ‘admin costs’ and even managed to try and make me the poster boy of his campaign.
    Be warned.

Even in public, you’re not free

  • After your house party, you may be tempted to go to a nightclub.  Not so fast, this is a battleground for just about everyone.  You won’t be able to move from the bar or toilet without the collection of flyers and stamps tattooed on just about every square inch of bare skin. It is completely normal, for instance to have ‘VOTE JOE BLOGGS’ inked onto your forehead.
  • Suddenly, the places you find more promotional material goes from the strange to the bizarre… I once saw an A2 poster in the upstairs of a kebab shop.  Explain that one.
  • On the quieter nights, you might even spot the odd promotional company for a bar/nightclub chain handing out the odd leaflet.  Suddenly they become twice as irritating on the way to the supermarket.

Ultimately there is a serious point to all of this, which is to make your university life easier and more productive.  However, some people do go to comical efforts to make sure they win at least the popular vote.

If you’ve seen anything else wacky and wonderful during campaigning time, do let us know – I sense an election drive next year with some of the best ideas?

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The beginning of an academy shake-up?

I’ve never been the biggest fan of academies, I must be honest.  It always seemed a strange idea to give schools more money and less controls on how they actually choose to spend the money.  It sounds risky, to say the least.

AcademyOf course, the great argument was that it would cut back on all the useless red tape that’s caused so much waste over the years and would help schools improve.  After all, that’s what the Labour government created it for in the first place – to help struggling schools.  Of course, the Coalition opened it up to everyone and now we’ve got over 3,500 of them in England, or about 55% of all the secondary schools in the country.  Talk about taking advantage of political change.

I’ve written extensively on the topic of academies and the dangerous nature of taking a step back from schools and giving them lots of money to play with.  To me, it’s like giving a child lots of sweets… then forgetting to remind him not to eat them all at once and that if he swaps them, he has to find something suitable.  Before you know it, he’s swapped his sweets for a hot dog from the local shop and he’s feeling ill.  All in all, hindsight tells you a lot.

Of course, academies up and down the nation have justified their spending on the fact that their results had improved in their chosen specialisation, something which applies to the vast majority of cases.  Of course, with Olympic Fever hitting the nation many schools became specialists in sports – the only measurable success in that respect was on the field, while the ‘core’ subjects were criminally missed.  Of course, the debate with that begins is if academies are actually getting the job done in the first place.

Perhaps one of the key factors in this whole culture of “we can spend our money as we please” has been companies, enterprises and other organisations sponsoring schools, mainly around their specialism.  The only tape the schools get in that case is having to consider what the sponsor expects them to do with that money.  In some cases, there are companies, who form chains of academies across the country.

There was a little feeling when I first wrote about this that academies are lagging behind ‘maintained’ schools – those are under the control of the Local Education Authority in which they reside.  The evidence was pointing to some struggles around – most notably in schools where there had been a period of improvement after being placed under special improvement measures, followed by regression in marks.

This week, it has come out in the news that one particular chain called E-Act is to lose control of 10 academies that it runs.  This is after Ofsted raised concerns about the performance of some of the schools that E-Act operates.  Whilst the list naming the schools has yet to be announced, the BBC reported that it was believed the schools were the academies at Trent Valley, Sherwood, Dartmouth, Forest, Leeds East and Leeds West.The 10 schools in question are now working with the Department for Education to find new sponsors.

When I get into some detail about some of the schools mentioned, it doesn’t surprise me, despite the troubling nature of some of the things I read…

  • Trent Valley Academy – The academy classifies itself as having a double specialism in Performing Arts and Technology.  Boasting some impressive-sounding statistics, it does seem like the sponsors queued up to get in on this particular school.The most recent Ofsted report for the school was rather damning, with the school being graded ‘inadequete.’
  • Sherwood Academy – This particular academy has not been inspected by Ofsted yet and so there’s not really a lot to go on.  However, in December last year the academy hired two ‘co-principals’ to help boost results, according to the Nottingham Post.  You do have to wonder why, don’t you, especially with accusations of inadequate staff flying around.
  • Dartmouth Academy – To the credit of the Academy, their specialism focuses on Visual Arts and Mathematics, so at least one of them concentrates on a core subject.  However, in the last Ofsted report the school was graded as ‘Requires Improvement’, with extra attention paid to failings in English.
  • Forest Academy – This school was also graded as needing improvement.  Even the most basic of skills – reading and writing – were judged to be promblematic.  The school leadership and the achievements of pupils were also graded similarly.  However, the school frequently trumpets their sports facilities in their promotional material.  Funny that.

The underlying theme in everything that I read was that the school management needs improvement, all of which comes down to E-Act.  Amidst accusations of financial mismanagement, losing a third of your academies has got to be a little damming.

For once, I think Michael Gove is spot-on when he says that academies have to be held to account over their finances and performances.  It certainly is not reasonable to allow academies ‘get out clauses’ because they’re run by sponsors.

The reaction from elsewhere has been significantly less proactive.  The head of the Dartmouth academy claimed that it was a ‘huge distraction’ and handed the blame on to the sponsors.

The leader of the teacher’s union NASUWT, Chris Keates, argued that the ‘pass the parcel’ strategy was not going to work and wouldn’t support school’s improvements.A source close to the E-Act company claimed that it was not being done because of poor results but rather about giving fair access.  Somehow I don’t believe a word of that.  If the schools being removed from the control of E-Act all happen to have the same worrying signs, then I suspect we’re not hearing anything like the truth here.

Meanwhile, E-Act delivered one of the most appalling statements I’ve ever read…”

E-ACT has been working with the DfE to identify where we are best placed to make a significant difference to our Academies.  Our pupils, parents and staff deserve strong support and leadership. Our focus is on where we can provide this and to allow others to deliver elsewhere.

Not only does it fail to recognise the problem in hand, but it just seems to skirt around any acknowledgement that things are changing.  It certainly wouldn’t fill me with any confidence if I was involved.

Something has to change.  Accusations of mismanagement and damning reports from Ofsted are clearly getting in the way of schools, specialisms and their sponsors.  Key skills are being left out in favour of the continuation of prestige projects and schools being run like businesses.

Personally, I believe the system should be scrapped.  The same problem exists in that some schools aren’t doing their jobs well, but at least having some control over what happens in schools and their money is better than letting companies like E-Act taking over, privatising education at the expense of children’s future as they go.

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Top Tips: How to write an essay

When we talk about stress, it often is in association with tests or exams. Essays, however, can also be an extremely difficult challenge for budding writers, especially when the essay is lengthy and requires footnotes, authority sources and smooth, flowing language which does not come naturally to some students.

Essay writing

The purpose of this blog post is to provide you with some practical tips on how to write an essay, and put to rest some of you fears.

You will find that the more you prepare for your essay, the more confident you will be about where you are heading and the more essays you write, the less you will feel a sense of panic when you sit with your pen and a blank piece of paper in front you, knowing you have a specific word count to fulfil.

What follows are 8 tips to writing a great essay.

1. Clarify what you are being asked to do

Are you being asked to persuade your audience (a persuasive essay), to analyse a theory or article (an analytical essay), to provide the results of your research on a topic (an expository essay) or compare and contrast two works, people or theories (a comparative essay, also considered a type of expository essay)?

Each of these essay types will have a different type of structure. A persuasive essay, for instance, will begin with a statement, it will provide arguments both for and against your stance and will end with a conclusion. An expository essay, on the contrary, will often begin with a statement of intention of your research and a taster of what your conclusion will be. In the main body of the essay, you will be presenting facts and figures that will allow you to come to the final part of your essay, the conclusion.

In an effort to best understand the type and complexity of essay you are expected to write, communication with your teacher/professor is key. Ask them whether or not footnotes are expected (and to what degree) and inquire whether you need to provide a bibliography. Most essays in the final years of secondary school and at university will expect you to back your statements with authority sources.

2. Make an essay plan

Some people find it useful to brainstorm first and jot down or map all ideas which may be of interest; if you already know which general direction you are heading in, however, you can get straight to the task of creating an essay plan. The latter may take on a written or map form. The idea is to start with a main thesis or idea, write down sub-branches/sub-headings for each main idea and include smaller details at the end of the branches of your map/ beneath your sub-headings. You will need to go through your notes for this.  If you are using a variety of sources (books, articles, class notes), it is useful to spend time creating a summary of each source. This process begins the first time you read the material; highlight important points or take down notes. These will help when you come to the stage of summarising.

3. Start at the beginning

Once you have determined your structure, go for it. A good introduction will grab your readers, prompting them to discover the fascinating information you are about to share. Don’t worry if your first go isn’t perfect, though; the aim is to get the momentum going. Come back later, after you have finished your essay, and sharpen your introduction with an interesting quote, anecdote or news story.

4. Be disciplined

When it comes to footnotes, write them down neatly or type them out while you are writing the essay; if you leave citation to the end, you may find it difficult to find the precise sources for various statements. Discipline will also come in handy when, after writing a couple of paragraphs, you are tempted to take a long break (e.g. by watching a television show or going out with friends for a break). Unless you are writing a thesis, taking a long break in the middle of an essay may not be the best idea. This is because essay writing is one of the most demanding tasks you will encounters as a student in terms of concentration. For your ideas to flow and for you as a writer to get into the zone, try to write from start to finish (or take only one or two short coffee breaks).

5. Use appropriate language

Don’t write in the first person unless you are specifically asked to. There are a wealth of online resources which provide excellent examples of language to be used in academic writing. Language varies considerably depending on whether you wish to point out a problem, discuss controversial themes or simply establish the importance of an idea or fact. Additionally, avoid colloquial language or informal expressions, unless, for instance, you are writing a narrative essay where the latter might be appropriate, bearing in mind the characters/situation.

6. Leave an impact in your conclusion

Your conclusion should definitely summarise your key findings but should not state them in the same language you have used to argue key points. This is the part of the essay that will leave a lasting impression on your readers so try to make it a good one.

7. Proofing / editing your essay

If you have already written your essay and time permits, put it aside and return to it in a day or two. This mental break will enable you to spot any grammar mistakes, illogical statements or awkward sounding language in your essay. This is also a good time to tweak key components of the essay like your introduction, conclusion and the first sentences of each paragraph. It is likewise the idea moment to watch out for key points or sources which you may have left out. Watch out for typical spelling mistakes (such as whose and who’s, lie and lay), since these can detract from the quality of your work. Make sure that your essay looks professional, selecting an aesthetically pleasing yet easily readable font and using tools provided on Word, like headings, bold print, italics and underlining.

I hope that you have found these tips useful. If you would like to tell us what works for you, please feel free to tell us via the comments.

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The massive flaw in modern foreign language teaching

Modern foreign languagesEver since Year 7, when I walked into secondary school as a fresh-faced 11 year old, I managed to get the knack for learning foreign languages. It just seemed to click for me.  Vocabulary and verb structures all just seemed to make sense – on my last day of Year 7 my French teacher gave me the weight of expectation by saying that ‘this is a potential A Level option for you, Mike.’

Talk about adding a bit of fuel to the fire.

Of course, that was at a simple time when the idea was to get a knack for introductions and how to hold a basic conversation.  For an 11/12 year old, this probably was no bad thing.  However, as you get older, stick with the subject for longer… you begin to realise that the whole system is flawed and, when it comes to the crunch, you feel a little bit deflated.

I have learnt French now for coming on ten years – 9 of those have been sat in a classroom.  However, now I’m here in Grenoble on a year-long Erasmus placement I find myself increasingly frustrated at what’s happening in our classrooms, regardless of the level.  It’s left me largely unprepared for the real world.

So what exactly is the problem?

First and foremost, I think the initial problem starts with the fact that many schools make this compulsory.  International relations and communities with similar language skills are important, but it isn’t for everyone.  Ultimately you end up with 2/3rds of a class really not caring about the latest verb structure.

Even when it came to the optional GCSE stage, where things were a little more relaxed on what you did, my school really made people feel uncomfortable if they didn’t want to but were reasonably bright.  That kind of pressure was really rough on some people.  I can remember the presentation we had in Year 9 about languages and so on… meant absolutely nothing compared to the pressure of your teacher.

The second problem that I feel is out there has got to be that the topics aren’t practical  OK, so when you start, little pieces of information about school life are good but when this continues into GCSE I do question the point.  GCSE is meant to provide a framework for more advanced things and speaking about things that aren’t useful in the real world doesn’t get anyone anywhere. The solution is to build on different topics concerning what the language is aimed to be used for… Business, conversational-type work and holidays.

Thanks to this use of aimless chitchat about your school subjects and pencil case, it’s difficult to really find the step to A Level manageable.  All of a sudden you’re expected to talk about some of life’s more sensitive subjects without the confidence to because of the impractical framework you got given.

The problem continued for me at university, which was just a re-cap of everything from the last four years… OK, so the grammar went up a notch but ultimately I never felt confident actually moving to France. Of course, I’m here now and it’s like starting again.

The next real problem is that the pace of the language never changes in school – it all goes at one speed to make sure you understand what’s being said.  OK, that’s fine, but at some point you have to consider that other languages speak an awful lot faster.
This, you could argue, comes down to the fact that, of the ten years I’ve been learning French, only in three of them have I actually had a teacher who was French.  The rest were English.

Of course, I can’t criticise them too much, but the accent and pace are so different that all of a sudden you realise that you have been given a much easier route through school.  The lack of a language assistant for many years didn’t help matters.  Perhaps more and more people need to be encouraged to be an assistant in a foreign country – it could be the saviour of listening skills.

The final major flaw is the obsession with writing essays and reading books.  That’s all very well, but there is a focus there on the perfect grammar.  In reality, I have found that the practice is somewhat different from the theory, with different phrases and expressions flying all over the place in real French conversation – many of these would have been frowned upon as part of my lessons simply because grammatically… it was a bit off.

Ultimately being out here has been massively useful for me, but it has exposed some shortcomings in what I’ve learnt.  Ultimately there has to be a bigger emphasis on speaking and having someone French there to go through the finer points.  There has to be more practical information in the material too, with a focus on the sort of thing people are likely to use their skills for, not just anything that seems to almost patronise the beginners.  We, for instance, learn a language for a holiday using topics about hotels and car hire.  Why not something like that for modern languages.

I also did German at GCSE and would later do a Spanish GCSE too.  I can confirm to you that all the particular exam board did was pump out the same sort of thing for each subject.

Languages are meant to be fun, inspiring!  They’re meant to engage us with the rest of the world and bring us all closer together.  One thing that they shouldn’t be for is to be another part of exam factories, where the true meaning is lost.

It’s sad to see language take-up dropping like a sinking stone, the rest of Europe characterising us Brits as ignorant…. But ultimately it’s equally the attitude of the people who create the courses as it is the people who turn them down to do something else.

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Flipping the Classroom: MOOC’s and The Khan Academy

The switch to conducting business online hit commerce and businesses as far back as the 1990’s. It may come as a surprise to many that the impact on education has been much more gradual – okay Schools have access to computers and the internet, but the lessons have stubbornly remained in the lecture hall and classroom.

Khan AcademyFor many people, sticking to lessons in a classroom seemed out of kilter with the way that people want to ‘consume’ education – online. You will hear this called the ‘flipped classroom‘ or ‘flipped teaching‘. It’s a blended form of learning in which students learn new content online by watching video lectures at home, and what used to be homework is now done in class with teachers offering more personalised guidance and interaction with students – instead of traditional lecturing and ‘chalk-and-talk’.


The Open University has been a front-runner in delivering a university education online, but those with an eye on the news will see that US / UK Universities are now starting to join the rush and publishing courses online via Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC’s). A quick look at EdxCoursera (both US based) and Futurelearn (UK based) will show you what is on offer.

Receiving tuition online drives down the cost of learning for many, and improves accessibility – we are finally seeing an important change in the way that education is being delivered.

Whilst the focus maybe on universities at the moment, we would not be doing the subject justice without a good look at probably the most important US institution that has led this change – the Khan Academy.

The Khan Academy

From humble beginnings in 2006, the Khan Academy now has some 10 million students from all around the world.  It’s runs it as a non-profit educational website has one aim: to offer a free world-class education to everyone.

For its Founder Salman Khan, this goal can be traced back to the year 2004, when his cousin, Nadia, was struggling through her maths lessons at school. Khan agreed to tutor her remotely, posting short lessons on YouTube. Nadia’s grades did improve, but so did those of many other students, who were watching, learning from and commenting enthusiastically on his practical, entertaining online lessons.

Khan quit his job as a hedge fund analyst to focus all his energies on his new online tutorial academy. Soon, he would attract the attention of Bill Gates and Google, leading the latter to fund this project. The  financial backing enabled Khan to expand his team, to create software for use in schools and to branch out from maths into an array of relevant subjects, including Science, Economics and Finance, and Humanities, with information aimed not just at primary school children, but at secondary and tertiary students as well. Indeed, many university lecturers are referring their students to the Khan Academy to hone crucial skills in subjects like maths.

Delivering education

Instead of sitting in class and listening to their teacher wax lyrical on a subject, students watch a short video lesson the day before at home, using class time to undertake exercises with guided help from their teacher.

Using Khan’s dedicated software, teachers use a computer to view the progress each child is making on a specific set of exercises. They can also see how many seconds each child is taking to answer a question, and easily glean information on which children are stuck on a problem, as well as those who are whizzing through lessons.

Teachers no longer have to assume that one particular area of mathematics, for instance, calculus, will pose a stumbling block to the entire class. Rather, they can gather the students who are having difficulty in one area and take the time to explain that specific area to them, while other students are working on another different set of problems.

Those who resist the Khan Academy system may say that learning through computers is impersonal but in fact, the opposite is true; the idea is to personalise study so that each student can work at their own pace.

Students who are struggling, for instance, can take more time on one particular lesson, repeating the short videos and practice exercises as required, without feeling like they are incapable of keeping up with the teacher’s explanations. 

Teachers play an important role in mentoring students. In addition to using software to do so, they can also use the Khan Academy website, which allows a teacher or parent to sign up as the ‘coach’ of one student or set of students, to monitor their progress and see where they may be lagging behind.

Using the Khan Academy Website

When you sign up for a free account on the Khan Academy website, you are given a quick test to glean areas you may need help with. A specialised programme determines whether you need help with two-digit addition or subtracting decimals, for instance. As you progress through the many short exercises, a grid tells you how many skills you have mastered and how many require further practice.

The problems seem easy but some may surprise you; moreover, you can click on an icon to obtain hints and handy tips. For instance, we encountered the following problem: “Gabriel had to read pages 26 through 52 for homework. How many pages did she have to read?” If you click on the hint icon, you are told that the problem becomes much simpler if you subtract 25 from each number. By doing so, you realise that you simply have to consider pages 1 through 27.

Aside from practice games, there are a host of short tutorials covering a host of specific topics. For instance, if algebra or calculus have always been a stumbling block for you, all you need to do is click on those icons, under ‘Maths’.

The tutorials will take you through pre-algebra/pre-calculus levels and proceed to quite advanced levels. Best of all, as Salman Khan takes you through key concepts, his enthusiasm and sense of humour are great. Sometimes, the process that takes him to the answer of a complex mathematical equation of chemistry problem is not all neat and predetermined, since he tackles all subjects ‘on the spot’. 

Another appealing aspect of the materials on the website is that they are conveniently divided by age: for instance, in the mathematics category, you can either choose by category (i.e. Addition) or by age (e.g. Grade Three mathematics).

The millions of international users of the website indicate that it does not really matter that Khan bases his lessons on the U.S. educational system. Maths is maths, so parents and students alike can easily see what content is covered by each lesson, targeting their sessions at key concepts covered by the curriculum of their respective country.

The site is growing on a daily basis; as more and more subjects are covered and tutorial offered, the Khan Academy is coming to be recognised as a standard bearer for the future of education. In addition to the content produced by Salman Khan and his team, the site also features partner content (i.e. tutorials by respected bodies such as the Stanford School of Medicine, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the California Academy of Sciences).

In the UK, we are very much ‘stuck’ with the Government’s prescribed ways of delivering primary and secondary education – through the classroom. Time will tell whether we start to see flipped classrooms commonplace here – some schools like Denbigh are experimenting with it. Will it stick – I for one, hope so. 

I hope that you have found this blog post interesting. The world of online education is moving quickly, and we’ll be blogging about it again soon.

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Is there something amiss in school examinations?

It’s no secret that students want to get through exams with good marks.  Teachers are in the same position too – after all, there is a lot of motivation for them to have classes full of bright sparks, all attaining results far higher than their predicted grades could ever imagine.

ExamsSome methods of ensuring this aren’t even in the slightest bit controversial.  Half of that simply comes down to being a good teacher who knows how to get the best from children, someone who can inspire and lead.  There are lots of determining factors for the grades that kids get predicted, but the true measure of a teacher is if they exceed expectations – they’ve all been striving to achieve greater heights.

Well, so it seems.  In recent time we’ve seen something rather interesting – this is the clever use of tactics to ensure that if things don’t go quite right, everything can be sorted out rather easily.  The trouble is, what happens and why do they do it?

The obvious forms of cheating

I’ve previously written about the theories and practices of teachers cheating for the students and introduced you all to the study in Freakonomics.  I wrote that back last August and it was published a few months later.  More recently, we found that the annual figures on teacher behaviour showed that the rate of teacher malpractice had soared 62% in one year to 97 cases for last summer’s exams.  Whilst this was lower than the 2011 level, it does show there’s something going on that has to be addressed.  Students have cheated too, ever since there was a motivation to do so – 2,590 cases in the summer exam period.

Clearly the motivation for both teachers and students to cheat revolves around the pressure of schools and futures – the same could be said for both groups of people.  Students need to get on with their life (whatever they choose to get on with) and teachers have school headteachers breathing down their necks to ensure things are going smoothly for the school.  Incentives for good teachers and penalties for ‘failing’ ones leads to only one conclusion: this is purely reputational.  Of course, I could be less cynical and say that they care for students… but then again the shear amount of data they use in promotional material with regards to results clearly shows a desire to appear to be a good school.

With the reputational aspect of exam results in life, it didn’t surprise me to see the latest offering into exam-result tactics employed by schools.  Now, I must say right off that these are perfectly ‘legal’ and within the rules so I think we ought to consider the system too… Let us be reasonable about it!


At the same time the latest figures on teacher malpractice were uncovered, it came to light the amount of requests put in ‘special consideration’ – extra marks, to put it bluntly.

  • 347,000 request for ‘special consideration’ were approved, and around only 10% were rejected.
  • The total number of requests had jumped by 13% from the previous year, to a total of 415,200.
  • The most common adjustment made was an increase of 3% of the total maximum mark.

The extra marks can be awarded if it is agreed that the candidate is at a significant disadvantage.  More often than not it’s for something unexpected, such as illness or bereavement.

For example, if a student has suffered a loss in the family, the maximum award can be 5% of the total.  For a ‘minor illness on the day’, it is generally around 2%.  There were also a further 209,000 extra special cases for known medical conditions or disability.

Now, at no point am I considering the facts here to be false or untrue.  However, does it not appear that, as the pressure on schools to perform rises, the number of requests has slowly risen too? Also, if you consider that exam results have generally been improving year on year… Perhaps schools are putting in more and more requests to ensure that they’re getting the best possible marks?

Of course, if the students are putting in more and more work then that’s great.  However, look at it logically… If there are more people needing special consideration and yet the exam results are getting higher, you do wonder if the school are putting them in with the kid’s interests at heart.

Consider also that the rate of improvement in grades in the core subjects hasn’t been improving by 3% (the most common rise under the term ‘special consideration’) and then you have to wonder if some schools are using it to prop up lowering expectations and higher demands, all whilst keeping a reputation.

Exam appeals

One thing that got on my nerves about all of this was that reading schools are putting in ‘tactical’ appeals on marks.  The tactical nature of it concerns when the school decide to appeal – according to Ofqual (the exam regulator in the UK) – focuses around where a grade is considered to be close to grade boundary.  Seems fair, but I can remember at GCSE and A Level being persuaded not to appeal on marks where where I was right in the middle of a bracket.

Meanwhile, if I was on near the top?  Of course, Mike – you go for it!

This appears to be in the interests of the student – that is until you see where the appeals are focussed on.  Mainly they are to be bound on the C/D border at GCSE.  Remember that schools frequently measure their success on the number of students who obtain grade Cs at school… That goes into the promotional material, all right.

At A Level?  It’s at the A/B border.  Of course, that’s to the benefit to the student, since universities love A grades.  Then again, students going to top universities always makes for gread press for the school.

Maybe I’m being cynical, but this does seem all a little odd.  Requests for support up meaning above average increases and appeals that definitely don’t represent fair opportunities for students.  Strange.

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Are we putting too much pressure on kids to play sport at school?

Football, rugby, cross-country, cricket (if you were unlucky enough), hockey, netball, athletics, dodge ball… Yeah, I remember all those.

Why do I remember them?  Simple: PE lessons.

TutorhubPE and sport is probably the overriding memory people have when they think of their school life.  It broke the year group down socially.  From day one, you were either the sporty guy… or you weren’t.  Such an attitude from your first week of Year 7 is clearly full of implications for the rest of your school days.  Schools really do drive it home…

  • Schools don’t mind focussing on sport as an area for vast expenditure.  One of the main reasons behind this is because it is one of the few ways a school can be measured against another without making the kids too worried about exam results.  Progress on the sports pitch is almost certainly going to get more exposure than attainment in learning.
  • Take my old school for example.  When I was there, they received a sports and science double specialism.  Naturally, there was additional funding for the school to help improve.  It is interesting to note the £2m AstroTurf field and the gym that followed last year – that at an even greater cost.

Strangely though, the science facilities remain untouched and falling to pieces.  It seems pretty clear where the school’s priorities lie!  To this day nothing has been done at that school – a massive multimillion pound gym has been built under the guise of ‘well, the whole community can use it.’

The issue is that sports is not for everyone and previous (and the current) governments have drilled it into our heads that every kid is obese and everything has to change to save them.  Unluckily for many, this meant that schools started to worry about their reputation more when it came to student’s well-being.  Of course, sports got added in more and more and other subjects became marginalised.

For example, even though we had projects to complete and work to get ready, I remember that for Years 7-9 we were forced out of lessons on a Wednesday in November to take part in a bit of cross-country.  The locals would turn up and watch and you got the impression that the school really did it to make themselves appear responsible.  I never saw the point in wasting that afternoon each year so I always walked it!  It was during this that you realise ‘hang on, shouldn’t I just be actually learning?’

Don’t get me wrong, people need a healthy lifestyle and that starts at school.  What my concern is when suddenly it becomes highly competitive and people who really aren’t athletic end up running three miles for the school’s image.

Surely the extra-curricular sports in that case should have been available to those who wanted to and something else for those who really wanted to carry on with their education?

Don’t forget the one day each summer where everything would stop for Sports Day?  Read: the day where all the athletic kids run and throw things and everyone else is forced to watch.  Such a waste of time I think.

Maybe helping to kids to make decisions on their own lifestyle instead of forcing them into sports activities would make a better solution?

If nothing else, remember the pointless end-of-year assemblies at school, designed to reflect on achievement… That was two minutes of academic certificates and then an hour of how well the netball team was doing – made all the more predictable because the captain was the daughter of the netball coach.

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Homework: Who do you go to first – parents or teachers?

Recently we discovered that something wasn’t quite right when it came to parents ‘helping’ with children’s homework.  Recently the news got out of that many parents are actually just completing the homework for them.

HomeworkIt does serve as a bit of an eye-opener for those who thought that kids sat down and did their homework, only needing a little help.  So much for the notion that everything was getting ‘dumbed-down’ at school.

Suddenly we begin to not only question if kids are getting their homework done but we also have to wonder if the support systems in place to help kids is actually working.  We’re always quick to criticise teachers and staff about different things, from exam results to support for Special Educational Needs.

However, with the new findings from the report I think we ought to hold fire on the teachers and schools whilst we consider the notion that some parents are doing some of the damage.  I mean, if little Johnny goes into school with a piece of homework he did himself and gets a less-than-average mark, hopefully the teachers are going to see this and be able to point him in the right direction.

However, if Johnny doesn’t have a clue how to do the work and his parents do it for him… Well, he’ll go into class and get a top mark.  What exactly did that achieve?  When it comes to exam time and he gets the bad mark (let’s face it, someone’s going to notice the parent present in the room) then all of a sudden he’s stuck.

I also bet the first to criticise the teachers would be the parents who did Johnny’s homework.  Well, they shouldn’t have to do it for him if he got the right support, right?  It’s a vicious circle, because you wonder where it all started.

Suddenly, this simple idea over parents doing homework has a few more wider implications than we first thought.  There’s more pressure on teachers, parents and pupils to get the job done, all of a sudden.

I guess we can go one stage further and think about the root of the problem – did Johnny go to the right person for help?

So, parents or teachers?

Mum/Dad or your teacher?

The argument could be made that perhaps parents are the right people to see first after all.  I mean, they’ve known the child longer than the teacher ever could so it’s worth noting that they’ll probably know their habits and what they are capable of.  You’ll be able sit down and get through those questions, each with a rational step or two and some motivation.

Also, when you think that many teachers don’t hold a degree in the subject they’re teaching (only half of maths teachers hold a maths degree, according to the  Department for Education) so in some cases I would imagine there are parents who are more ‘qualified’ to help with a certain subject than the teacher.  If one of your parents has, say, a Master of Business Administration (MBA) to their name, I’ll be hard-pushed to find someone more qualified to help me with my management work than if I had a Professor or Doctor in my school.

On the other hand, we’re seeing the problem of parents doing the work for kids, which defeats the objects.

Furthermore, I’ve always known school reports to be a little on the brief side at times – parents might not be so clued-up on where a child needs the most support.  Also, in some cases the parents might not be completely sure on what to do – indeed, there have been the odd change.

I guess then this is the arena for teachers to take over and provide the first place for help.  After all, I can remember seeing my maths teacher every day, for example.  There are some teachers out there who understand individual needs and troubles and can help with them.  Some teachers might be more sympathetic than parents, though I’m not really sure.  Is there a certain expectation from parents for their kids?  Could be – perhaps this is something that teachers understand better so know how to help in different ways.

Of course, you have to balance that out by thinking of the large groups that kids are in.  Imagine if every teacher had every pupil of theirs coming to visit them in their office for help every day?  It would become almost impossible to manage and very difficult for the teacher, not to mention frustrating for the pupil.

There could also be an issue if the teacher feels like they are going over something the student should have learnt previously – are they going to unfairly judge them for needing help?  I think even if they were asking for help on a difficult thing then there is a danger that the teacher might look upon them a little differently.

Talking to a teacher or parent about difficulties in academic life is a strange one because they are so evenly-matched in my view.  Personally, I was a bit stupid and didn’t really see either for help. Of course, that didn’t work out so well for me.

So what do I suggest?  Well, I think your parents are a good place to start as long as they don’t start taking over.  Perhaps take your ideas and your parents ideas to the teacher one lunchtime if you still haven’t worked it out.  I think a teacher will then appreciate the effort you’ve made.

Have a go first, is basically my first suggestion. I think that works better.

Add a comment if you’ve had that decision to make yourself – we’d love to know how it worked out for you.

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9 ways to manage exam stress

Revising for exams? Tough isn’t it.

Everyone wants you to do well, and the pressure to succeed builds up and up the closer you get to the exam. Stress is something that you will encounter throughout your school, university and work life. The purpose of this article is to explain what it is, and finding ways to reduce its effect on you.

StressStress is usually seen as a negative emotion but like the emotion of fear, it doesn’t always have to be. Healthy stress motivates us to complete a task or perform a task to an excellent standard.

There is another kind of stress, however, which freezes our ability to think, act or perform tasks to the best of our abilities. Non-productive stress often makes its presence felt when we least need it to: during the already tension-filled season that is exam time.

There are many strategies to adopt in order to stop stress from paralysing our bodies and minds or from reaching such great proportions that it can cause anxiety or even a full-blown panic attack.

You may find the following tips useful:

1. Get organised

Identify the cause of non-productive stress. Is it an inability to study properly because there is too much noise or activity at home? Is it your own failure to craft a strict study plan or revise regularly? Are there other, deep-seated reasons for stress, such as a fear of failure or a lack of self-belief?

Identifying and working on the source of stress may be difficult work, but it is definitely worthwhile. Usually, the problem is simply poor time management; if so, from the first day of your course, identify your ultimate goal: passing the course or achieving top marks. These goals depend on taking small steps daily, not one giant leap the day before exams.

2. Look on the bright side

Stress and fear are emotions that take hold of all people at some point in their lives. Yet usually, the outcome of stressful situations (exams, public speaking etc) are not as bad as our imagination can lead us to believe. Ultimately, even if the worst-case scenario did take place, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Even if you suffered from mental block at a written exam or froze up during an oral exam, it would simply be a matter of picking yourself up, preparing to the best of your abilities for future exams and one day, even looking back at your moment of panic with humour.

3. Have fun

During exam season, you need to ensure that you aren’t spending 100 per cent of your time on study. Working too hard can lead to boredom and stifle creativity. Slot some leisure time into your study plan and spend it with people who lift your spirit, motivate you and make you feel at home. One good talk over a cup of tea can do wonders for the soul.

4. Take exercise

Exercise will not only improve circulation throughout your body, it will also bestow countless health benefits, above all it because it relax body and mind, reducing levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin, and stimulating the production of potent mood-boosters called endorphins. For maximum benefit, aim to exercise for at least 30 minutes every day and try to perform both cardiovascular and strength (weights-based) exercises. If you find that time is of the essence, try out short but intense workout like CrossFit or Electro-Muscular Stimulation (EMS). Both these workouts take just 20 minutes but are said to be equivalent in effect to an hour-long workout.

5. Take a  break and go outdoors

Getting outdoors helps us ‘clear our head’. Contact with Nature can help us recover from illness, alleviates stress and reduces aggression and violence. Various studies reveal that people’s stress levels decline within minutes of contact with Nature.

Even short walks can keep stress at bay and induce positive feelings. Moreover, those living in green environments are more capable of dealing with tense events and stress, than those dwelling in urban surroundings. Even if you have just an hour a week to spare, spend it in Nature; both body and mind will soon reap an array of benefits.

6. Some stress can be good

A recent study has found that short bursts of stress can help us focus an improve our ability at performing cognitive tasks. The important word here is short; chronic stress produces premature ageing and cellular damage. Productive stress is the kind that pushes us to study harder as exam time crops up, motivates us to improve on past results and leads us to concentrate harder on our main goals.

7. Avoid stimulants

Those prone to anxiety attacks should be specially wary of stimulants like caffeine, which, taken in excess, can cause everything from an accelerated heart rate to insomnia. Getting a good night’s sleep is crucial if you are to stay calm and focussed during your exams.

Likewise, steer clear of processed foods containing high amounts of salt and/or sugar. Too much sugar causes blood glucose levels to spike, but soon cause a dip in your energy levels. Stick to low-glycaemic index (G.I.) fruits instead; these release energy in a slower, more lasting fashion. Some of the most delicious low-G.I. fruits include strawberries, apples and peaches.

8. Avoid negative people

Those who constantly compare their results to yours, casually mention disturbing information or rumours that may cause you to panic, or generally make you feel unhappy, should be avoided. Surround yourself with positive people with whom you can laugh. Indeed, humour is one of the most efficient stress busters there is, since it puts things in perspective.

9. Reward yourself

Break up a large body of work into smaller, more digestible chunks and tackle these on a daily basis throughout the duration of your course. Set rewards for yourself for each small goal completed.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, the exams will be over sometime (hopefully) soon. Many students also find it useful to dream up one big reward for after exams are over for instance, camping with friends, a trip or a fun activity like skiing, canyoning or deep sea diving. The ultimate reward, of course, is the sense of achievement that comes from being consistent, committed and courageous.

We hope that you have found these tips useful in managing stress as you revise for those exams. We would love to hear your tips, please feel free to share these with us via the comments.

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