Testing times for our kids

Some new research and a couple of policy announcements have caught my eye just recently and it’s about time had my tuppence worth on the important issues raised.

First off, a new report has found that one in five young people in the UK say they have ‘abandoned their ambitions’ because of poor grades.

The research (funded by HSBC) draws on official statistics showing that around 40% of last year’s school leavers in England alone did not achieve the required standard of five good GCSE results, that’s almost 250,000 young people.

Key findings

* 34% of 2,300 16 to 25-year-olds with poor grades polled for The Prince’s Trust charity believed they would ‘end up on benefits’. Many had experienced problems at school or home so exam results did not reflect their true potential, the report says.

* 26% of those who left school with poor grades believed their results would always hold them back.

* About 22% of those gaining few qualifications said their ‘home life was so stressful that they struggled to focus on homework’. This compares with just 11% of all young people.

* Less successful students said they were less likely to have access to a computer / internet at home – around 44% of those attaining poor grades said they had access compared with 70% of the age group as a whole.

I find the report worrying, particularly given government proposals for further, more rigorous testing and this deep emphasis on competition to achieve. Where will perceived failure leave the mindset of a generation worn down by persistent testing?

Primary school pupils in England also look set to be ranked directly against their peers under new government plans – pupils aged 11 could be ranked in 10% ability bands measured against a yardstick of the rest of the national year group.

There are important underlying questions here; how would a parent feel if their child is left floundering in the bottom percentile? Is this likely to demoralise or motivate our children to improve? And moreover; is primary school in danger of turning into one giant spreadsheet?

Here’s the thing. I understand the impulse to test and measure, obvious tools in any society looking to track the academic and intellectual progress of its children, its future generation.

But it’s what can’t be measured that is equally as valuable (and arguably more so) than what can. Testing is such a common force in the young lives of our children that there is a danger it will begin to define them as people.

Our children must not start seeing themselves as defined by external testing systems.

What would a national statistics table look like for measuring the level of curiosity, the depth of empathy, a sense of compassion or commitment to the common good and social conscience? Such characteristics should be embraced and encouraged in the classroom – these children will one day staff our hospitals, our care homes, our corporations and our government corridors.

As one report highlights the damaging and demoralising effect that comes hand-in-hand with rigorous testing, and yet further testing is announced by the government, we need to ensure just as much emphasis is put into comforting our children in the knowledge that life isn’t as much about winning as admiring, not competing but exploring.

Alongside the exams and tests, percentiles and spreadsheets we must also remember the original meaning of the Latin Educare: ‘To draw out that which lies within.’

Top Ten: Excuses for getting out of school games

tutorhubSeveral recent reports in the media have bemoaned the dwindling amount of time set aside for school sports and games, with education inspectors saying there’s not enough strenuous physical activity in many of England’s school PE lessons.

For some students it’s a sorry state of affairs as they look to assert there sporting prowess but for others it’s blessed relief – not everyone enjoys cross-country runs on crisp February mornings.

Now, the government is kicking into action by introducing its draft PE curriculum aimed at putting competitive sport back at the heart of school life. Yikes.

So for those of you who’d rather run a bath than run a mile I’ve compiled a list of ten excuses to have up your sleeve for when you just aren’t up for the cup. Don’t take it too literally folks, it’s all fun and games…

Wardrobe malfunction: The standard, go-to excuse for anyone looking to dodge games or sports day, forgetting your kit (accidentally, of course) could see you warming your tush on the sidelines while your chums chase eggs on a hard frosted patch of bare earth. Be warned though – sometimes forgetting your kit just won’t cut it; the more sadistic games teachers could force you to strip down to the classic vest/pants combo leaving little protection from the elements (nor the merciless ribbing from your mates). Worse still, you may be marched to the dreaded spare kit cupboard to find a suitable get-up from a hotchpotch collection of stinky shoes, high riding shorts and odd socks…

Oh the pain, the pain of it all: Feigning an injury is easy, but you’ve got to do it well if you want to pull it off. Get creative with bandages, plasters and any accessories you can find – limps, crutches, casts and muscle supports all give weight to your sob story. Try to appeal to the Gym teacher’s heart – if you’re trying to get out of football, for example, try saying you picked up the injury playing for the county or making a match-winning save, they’ll feel the pang of sympathy. If you’re really up against it and need a fix pretty pronto then remember: only a true friend will bloody your nose on request…

Can’t touch this: A decent amount of acting skill and dexterity with a make-up brush will be needed if you want to convince teach that you’re dangerously contagious. Get down the nearest joke shop and stock up on fake scars, fake blood, and latex for that authentic peeling skin look. Rope in some arty mates and see what you can come up with. Chances are Mr PE isn’t even going to want to take a sick note from your scaly hand let alone allow you nestle into the scrum…

Mr Creosote: Ever noticed how swimming lessons are cannily scheduled in to avoid being near lunchtime? Teachers know that you shouldn’t swim straight after eating for fear of a technicoloured pool come lesson end. Try saying your special dietary requirements mean you have to eat at certain times of the day (and woe is you that just happened to be right before the lesson). Clutch your tummy and chuck in an occasional urge for added effect.

London’s burning: Pretty risky this, given the amount of trouble you can get into for deliberately setting off a fire alarm and definitely a last ditch tactical diversion. You really want to make this one look like an accident – a well-placed free kick or a ‘clumsy stumble’ could accidentally set off the alarm without the need for arson. With all the kafuffle and excitement that goes with the fire bell routine there’ll be no time for games.

Science is the great antidote: Youth obesity is a hot topic in this day in age and the wobbly epidemic that started in the food halls of the US has spread like hot butter on a scone to the fair shores of Blighty. Time to pull the wool over the gym teacher’s eyes; tell them, you’re conducting a science project whereby you have to spend a week avoiding exercise and eating junk food to measure the result on the human body. Sit back, relax and stuff yer face while as the rest of the class huff and puff their way through an hour of exercise.

Religious reasons: Thou shalt not worship false deities, so the command goes. Well, yeah you can – stick your thinking cap on and come up with a name for a new religion, and when games time comes around calmly inform teach that your new found faith forbids you from taking part in competitive sport. Try to look insulted should they question your god.

Speccy speccy four-eyes: Losing or breaking your glasses is surely enough to render you benched come games time, right? That pudding can never be over-egged so stumble around arms outstretched, bump in to things and talk to inanimate objects – make sure your teacher knows that coordination is impossible without your wire-framed friends. Probably only going to work for our bespectacled brethren.

A-tishoo A-tishoo we all fall down: Did you know that grass pollen is known to cause a variety of different allergic reactions such as allergic rhinitisallergic conjunctivitis and asthma? Well you do now – saying you’re allergic to grass pretty much covers from a long Summer of sport.

Scaredy cat: If the allergy excuse isn’t getting you anywhere there are plenty of freaky phobias to fall back on. Break out the long words like Auctoritasophobia (fear of authority figures i.e teachers), Aquaphobia (no swimming for you) or Rupophobia (fear of mud and dirt). Sod it – go the whole hog and pull out the ace in the pack; Scolionophobia (fear of school) could seal it once and for all.

There you have it – ten excuses for getting out of school sports and games, lined up and ready to go (home).


Should payday loan companies be banned from advertising at all UK universities?

The National Union of Students (NUS) has called on more UK universities to get behind its campaign aimed at protecting students from marketing by payday loan companies.

tutorhubPayday loan adverts are already banned from campus at the University of East London and now the universities of Northampton, Northumbria and Swansea have all joined the fold.

Lenders have been branded as ‘hugely irresponsible’ for targeting students struggling with financial debt and students are warned they risk becoming financially destitute or desperate through taking out high-interest loans.

Already this year the Office of Fair Trading has found evidence of ‘widespread irresponsible lending’ practices in such companies, including firms that appeared heavily reliant on struggling customers who cannot afford to pay back their loans. Quelle surprise.

According to the NUS, 3% of college and university students have taken out high risk debt (which includes doorstep loans, payday loans and cheque cashers) rising to 6% of over 21-year-olds and 10% of students who are parents. Students who are carers for dependent adults are three times more likely to take out a high-risk debt.

Anyone who’s been to university knows that worrying about cash flow is part and parcel of student life, and recent research by the NUS shows two thirds of students are not able to concentrate fully on their studies due to such concerns, with half of all undergraduates regularly worrying about meeting the cost of basic living expenses.

The problem is that university fees and living expenses have risen steeply over the last 10 years whilst student loans and other forms of monetary support have flatlined.

In my experience payday loans can be used as a last resort only when forced into a tight spot – and for anyone about to start university that’s going to happen at least once during the course of your studies for one reason or another. What’s important is that you stay on top of things and don’t start relying on them, that’s when the vicious circle starts turning.

Prospective students should take a look at our top tips for making money while at university to help keep the wolf from the door, and check out my advice for dodging those avoidable university fines.

Should pornography be included in sex education lessons?

A report published last week by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (pithily entitled ‘Basically… porn is everywhere’) found that a significant number of children access pornography.

TutorhubThe study reveals that the level of pornography children are exposed to is influencing their attitudes towards relationships and sex, is linked to risky behaviour (such as having sex at a younger age) and shows a correlation between holding violent attitudes and accessing more violent media. The report concludes that urgent action is needed to develop children’s resilience to pornography.

It’s been a hotly debated issue for years and there are huge differences in the way it is taught, but there’s little doubt that sex education in schools is struggling to keep up with the availability and accessibility of pornography. Sex education is an emotive and divisive issue; there are often conflicts of interest between the wishes of parents and the professional duties of teachers. Kids grow and mature at different rates and some parents are more comfortable talking about sex than others. There are issues of religion, sexuality and class. In short, it’s a minefield.

Gone are the days when pornography was confined to the top shelves of off-licences, brown paper bags and that skip down the road – anyone can access adult content via an internet enabled device. We should all be aware that our tech-savvy kids are just a few clicks away from accessing adult content – be it through accident, coercion or endeavour – it’s happening and in my opinion sex education needs to move with the times to ensure they’re not absorbing warped ideas about sex and relationships through the content they’re consuming.

Currently, sex education is only compulsory in state maintained secondary schools, it is not compulsory in primary schools and not a great deal of data exists on the policies of free schools, academies etc.

So the questions are – should sex ed be compulsory in all schools (including primary), should pornography be discussed, how should it be taught and what do parents need to know about the issue?

What’s clear from the growing body of research is that attitudes to sex and pornography differ for boys and girls – boys increasingly see girls as objects while girls are more aware of body image and appealing to the male gaze. There are definitely wider social issues too: sex is everywhere. Music videos; lad’s mags; adult T.V channels – all intrinsic parts of youth culture.

The report’s key findings were

* That children and young people’s exposure and access to pornography occurs both on and offline but in recent years the most common method of access is via internet enabled technology.

* Exposure and access to pornography increases with age.

* Accidental exposure to pornography is more prevalent than deliberate access.

* There are gender differences in exposure and access to pornography with boys more likely to be exposed to and deliberately access, seek or use pornography than girls.

* It concludes that there are still many unanswered questions about the affect exposure to pornography has on children: a situation the Office of the Children’s Commissioner considers requires urgent action in an age where extreme violent and sadistic imagery is two clicks away.

In primary schools perhaps an agenda that covers self-esteem building, gender equality and respect issues would be best placed, sex doesn’t even have to be mentioned in a child’s first understanding of relationships. And what about old fashioned notions of love and emotion? If we need to move away from the mechanical way sex ed is taught in secondary schools perhaps primary school is the first port of call for more emotive sex ed teaching. I don’t know, I’m shooting from the hip here.

All too often sex education has been left to a part-timer; perhaps a science teacher who’s attended a couple of courses at the start of the year. Maybe it’s time to get serious and bring in specialist, pastoral teachers to tackle the important social issues of sex and drugs.

However we should remember that if legislation is passed making sex ed compulsory right across the board, parents will be disempowered from making their own decisions about how best to broach the subject with their own children. After all, they know them best. Not only that, but making it compulsory actually criminalises any parent who feels they don’t want their children to attend the lessons, for whatever reason. Is this really fair?

The fact is that there is little guidance coming from central government, hard policies on sex ed and pornography are non-existent and headteachers get little guidance form the DfE. What is clear is that there are growing calls to change the default setting on internet ready devices – in essence making adult content opt-in rather than opt-out. Of course, this would be difficult to impose both from a technological and a moral standpoint – is it censorship?

A lot of the pornography our kids have access to is misogynist, associated with power and violence. We need to be contextualising it for our kids, framing it around issues of exploitation, sex trafficking and poverty. They need to know that some of what they are watching is far closer to rape than the mutual sexual acts experienced in a healthy relationship. It’s all about education, and while pornography is part of mainstream culture our children need to be educated about it.

My perfect teacher in ten traits

I think that most of us hold a particular teacher from our childhood in cherished memory; that special person who ignited fires of inspiration and instilled within us a thirst for learning.

tutorhubThere are loads of good teachers out there, but in my experience the special ones are few and far between. Do you remember at school how (much to the delight of the class) some poor soul would accidentally call a teacher mum or dad? Well, that was normally them – the ones that stay vivid in the memory because we felt close to them; their creativity, their sense of fun, their compassion. The special ones.

I’m counting down my top ten most desired teacher traits that I think amass to one formidable knowledge-dispensing unit, feel free to use the comment box below to add your own suggestions.

10) A passion for students and teaching:  Great teachers are passionate about their craft and understand the impact and influence they have on students’ lives every day, and this doesn’t go unnoticed. For the best teachers, teaching isn’t merely a job, it’s a vocation. Hell, it’s a lifestyle choice!

9) Create a pleasant atmosphere: Remember those drab, windowless, musty classrooms that felt like morgues? That’s no way to teach or learn – cheerful, happy classrooms are remembered best and they work to stimulate learning. A good teacher will go the extra mile and create a pleasant room where students feel comfortable and ready to learn.

8) Being organised: Setting clear objectives and planning coherent structures for lessons is half the battle. Every good teacher has to think on their feet, but the best lessons have been carefully crafted and students will recognise and appreciate this. Efficient organisation frees up more time for one-on-one teacher/student interaction – vital for strengthening that special bond.

7) Being open to new things: More than ever, an awareness of (and a willingness to try) new methods of teaching is a fantastic trait to have in your locker. Advances in EdTech mean new ways of teaching and learning are coming to the fore every day and the best teachers keep abreast of trends, establishing what works well to engage the students who themselves are changing all the time. The Facebook generation is far more likely to engage with methods that relate to their home life and culture – and keeping things fresh makes for interesting learning.

6) Being creative: Embracing a variety of teaching methods doesn’t just come down to technology, oh no, those that think outside the box, outside the ordinary, outside the classroom are remembered fondest. Teachers that show as well as tell, teachers that take students outside the school gates and enforce learning through real world application, teachers that are spontaneous, tactile, tangential and eccentric. Teachers that are fabulous.

5) Being open to learning: Teachers that don’t think having a top degree or being uber-qualified makes them any better or more knowledgeable than the rest get more respect than those that do. Students are more likely to rally against a megalomaniac than a harsh disciplinarian even – they don’t want (or deserve) to be talked down to or brow-beaten. Someone who learns from/with their students and adapts/reinvents their practice all the time gels the classroom.

4) Sets the bar high: Great teachers don’t underestimate their audience; they set high expectations in the classroom and encourage everyone push themselves to their full potential. Students feed off the belief their teachers put into them – expectations form a self-fulfilling prophecy that gives students the self confidence and desire to fulfil that expectation.

3) Knows their onions: An obvious one, maybe, but so often overlooked – a great teacher commands respect through their wide knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject. Any tricky questions are batted away with ease and rebuffed with a counter question. Some students love to test their teachers and the more you know, the harder they’ll have to work to catch you out – it’s stealth teaching!

2)  A good sense of humour: A decent sense of humour and an ability to go toe-to-toe with students on their level is a mighty weapon in any teacher’s armoury. An engaging personality and teaching style relies on a good sense of humour, building a strong rapport with students and establishing trusting relationships. Humour makes learning more fun and memorable for students whilst serving to stave of the stresses and strains of the school day. It teaches them that they can make mistakes and laugh. The class will hang on your every word if they’re waiting for that nugget of humour.

1) They are human:  For me, perhaps the greatest trait a teacher can have is to be comfortable enough to show that they’re human. They celebrate success with students, show compassion for those that struggle, tell stories from their own lives, share their quirks, laugh at their own mistakes and are not afraid to be imperfectly human in front of students. The most effective educators bring their entire selves to the job. It’s not just about delivering curriculum – they’re educators in every sense of the word, preparing future generations for everything life’s got to throw at them.

Behold – the recipe for creating my perfect teacher in ten tasty traits.

Puppies and pants: The things we do for exam success

We all have our own strategies for clearing the high hurdles when it comes to exams. From the slow, steady plodders who take a long run up to the late night, caffeine fuelled crammers; our exam approach is as unique as our fingerprint.

PuppyDon’t recognise yourself in either description above? Ah, you’re one of them – a mascot type. A superstitious, gonk botherer.

And you’re not alone. A recent poll suggests one in three students admit to wearing lucky pants in the exam hall, with others turning to lucky pens, jewellery, charms and teddies as their spiritual guide through those tricky timed tests.

65% of those polled said they were superstitious, with 33% becoming even more so as exams get nearer.

Others take a more scientific approach. Some 60% of the 2,000 polled said they changed their diet before exams because they believe some foods will boost their brain power and memory. More than half take up eating oily fish (53%) and 46% chow down on extra fruit and veg. Food for thought.

Meanwhile, at Scotland’s Aberdeen University a stress-busting “puppy room” has been introduced for students in an effort to dispel those pre-examination nerves through the medium of fluff.

Undergraduates get 15-minute puppy-petting sessions with the cutest bitches on campus in a scheme that works on two fronts – helping anxious humans relax while giving puppies the social time they need to aid their development. The puppies will eventually be trained as guide dogs – it’s win win.

The scheme is thought to have originated in North American universities and, no word of a lie, Harvard Medical School now has dogs on site which students can borrow, just like books.

BARKING mad or STROKE of genius?


Do you have any quirks or superstitions you have used to make it through exams? Use the comment box to share them with us!

Private Tutoring: Parental neuroses or necessary evil?

The headmaster of a leading Battersea prep school recently described private tutoring as a “hideous concept” that can undermine education.

In the Times article, headmaster Ben Thomas bemoans the amount of tutoring in London, arguing there is far too much.

TutorhubI can see his point of view. According to the Sutton Trust 18% of UK children received private tuition in 2005 but by 2011-12 the figure had increased to 23%. In London 38% of children are thought to receive private tuition and it’s rising fast.

But that’s exactly what it is – it’s a headmaster’s point of view. It’s time someone started looking at this from a parent’s point of view. And here I am.

Firstly, let’s examine the headmaster’s view. High on the worry list is the fact that private tutoring is essentially an unregulated and unproven phenomenon. Also, headteachers are witness first hand to the incredibly busy day an average child has – they are set an enormous amount of homework and there shouldn’t be time in the week for two extra hours of tuition. It’s eating into the time when they should be being children.

Some believe private tutoring can undermine classroom learning because children tend to think, “I don’t need to listen to my teacher, I’ll ask the tutor when I get home”.

Mr Thomas believes “[…] that there is a significant industry which trades on insecurity and exam anxiety, sometimes undermining rather than building confidence. There should be a charter which requires all tutors to register with the school any child they tutor attends, so that all parties can work together.”

I’m not saying that these and the worries of parents are mutually exclusive, of course many are shared. But a lot of parents feel obliged to tutor their kids and this isn’t only driven by a fear of missing out.

Statistics published by the Department for Education show thousands of teachers are giving lessons in English, maths and science when they do not have a relevant degree.

Figures reported by the Times show that almost a quarter of secondary school maths teachers (around 7,500) and more than a third of physics teachers (around 2,000) do not have a relevant degree-level qualification, while about 7,300 secondary school English teachers (a fifth) fall into the same category.

In addition, half of those teaching Spanish (about 3,400), more than half of information technology teachers (about 9,200) and more than two in five religious education teachers (6,500) do not hold a relevant qualification higher than an A level.

It’s no wonder that parents increasingly see private tutoring as a necessity for filling the gaps left by poor standards of classroom teaching.

And let’s not forget that often parents will simply employ a tutor to teach a subject not offered at the school, such as Latin or music. In such cases the parents shouldn’t be accused of turning education into a competition, they should be praised for aiming to enrich a child’s learning.

There are other reasons parents invite tutors into their homes – children with special educational needs or those that have fallen behind due to illness no doubt benefit from the extra help on offer. Parents are aware, too, that the world is an ever more competitive place as schools and universities continue to up their ante regarding admissions, grades and league tables.

Yes I find it vulgar that children as young as 2 are being privately tutored to secure places at top London prep schools. Yes I believe the test-heavy education system is eating into our children’s childhoods. But until parents feel that their children are getting a decent shot at a decent education, private tutoring isn’t going anywhere.