Friday, 5 February 2016

The NEC Blog

The NEC Blog has a new home

In 2016 we are moving our blog to its own home on our website! You can now find new blog updates here:

Friday, 8 January 2016

What's your New Year's learning resolution?

Above: Margarita’s notebook, where she will record her progress on her New Year’s learning resolution

Happy New Year!

We’re glad to be back after the seasonal break and getting back into gear at NEC HQ. It’s a time for fresh starts, new ideas and sinking your teeth into your to-do list. Many of you may have already thought about the resolutions you want to make for the New Year, as we have been doing at the office. Perhaps you want to visit a place you’ve never been before, take up a new hobby, learn a new skill, get a new job, or simply indulge your curiosity and look up something you’ve been meaning to find out about?

Of course, our natural tendency is to lean towards something to do with education or learning in our own New Year’s resolutions. However, it’s fair to say the New Year is indeed an ideal time to get started if you want to fit more learning into your life. To help get you inspired, here are some ideas from members of the NEC team based at our offices in Cambridge:

Carly is even more driven to succeed with her learning this year, after having achieved a major goal in 2015. She says, “I feel really motivated to stick to my New Year’s learning resolution this year after finishing the Award in Education and Training last year. I'm going to get on with the CMI management course, which I have been putting off for some time now!”

Margarita, who originally hails from Germany (and whose notebook is pictured above), has already made a start on her New Year’s learning resolution, which came about quite spontaneously. “I received this notebook as a Christmas present and it occurred to me to use it to write down English words that are new to me, along with an explanation of their meaning in German. It will be really fun to see how many new words I have learned by next year!”

Stephanie is thinking about brushing up on her language skills too. “One of my new year's resolutions is to fill in the grammar gaps that have been created in my memory since studying languages seriously a few years ago,” she explains. “It's fun to be able to communicate, but I'm beginning to realise that I need a little more than bricks. Somehow I've got to get some mortar back in there. So it's back to the books for me, which I'm really looking forward to. So if any language students are moaning about grammar, I would say it's definitely worth learning it thoroughly the first time round, as the "mortar" will then take a lot longer to crumble away.”

Alison is our third NEC staff member who is also thinking about language-related learning goals, but the language she is interested in is sign language. “I'm thinking about learning British Sign Language, but haven't arranged anything yet,” she says. “I like the idea of learning a language and sign language has always fascinated me. I learnt to sign the alphabet when I was in my teens... I think I need to move on!”

As well as learning a language, Alison is also interested in finding out more about different periods of English history. “My area of ‘specialism’ is the Plantagenet period, especially the Wars of Roses time span,” she explains. “I feel I need to know more about the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans. Luckily, I have ten billion books in the spare room, gathered from various Oxfam and other second-hand book shops, that might help me learn. I just need to find the time to read them...”

Finding time to read is a problem Sophie shares with Alison. “I have a list of books about various topics that have caught my eye or been recommended by friends that I keep saying I’ll get around to reading. The new year would be a good excuse to finally get started.

“I also have a backlog of factual documentaries to catch up on,” she adds. “For instance, Sir David Attenborough has a new natural history programme out about the Great Barrier Reef, and I know it will be available on BBC iPlayer. I just need to get around to watching it. I don’t watch a lot of television any more, but the BBC has a way of making science and natural history programmes that keep you curious. I think that’s a good thing; it encourages people to stay curious and keep learning throughout life.”

What are your New Year’s learning resolutions? Let us know in the comments, or join the discussion on social media by tweeting at us or posting on our Facebook page. You might also find our previous blog about choosing a subject to study useful if you want to narrow down the focus of your learning resolution, and you can even download free course samples from our website as tasters!

Whatever your plans for 2016, we hope you will have the opportunity to enjoy learning something new this year. Let us know how you get on!

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

A look back at 2015: a new home, new courses and an OBE


As 2015 draws to a close, we reflect on some of the high points from throughout what has been an incredible year at NEC:

A new home for NEC

This year’s Christmas tree at our new offices

We’ve moved offices and settled into a shiny new home. We’re still in the heart of Cambridge, the city that is renowned throughout the world for educational excellence, and you can find us at:

National Extension College
The Michael Young Centre
School House
Homerton Gardens

Our phone numbers remain the same, so you can still call us free on 0800 389 2839 from any UK landline, or dial +44 (0)1223 400200 if calling from overseas or a mobile phone. You can also contact us through our website or send us an email at

Responding to the reforms: new A levels and new subjects

NEC Gold Star logo.jpg

With the government’s reforms to general education well under way, NEC are delighted to have developed nine new Gold Star A levels. We’re really proud of them and have lots of students already working their way through them ready for the first exams in 2017.

All of our Gold Star A levels are delivered online through our new learn@nec platform. They are interactive courses designed by distance learning experts to help give you the best possible chance of success.

The first eight Gold Star A level subjects opened for enrolment earlier in the Autumn: Biology, Sociology, English Literature and History in September were followed by English Language, Psychology, Business and Economics in October. We are delighted to be able to add a completely new ninth subject, Physics, to our range of A levels for the first time in December.

As a final piece of exciting news, we will also be offering another brand-new subject early in the new year: Chemistry. This will mean you can study any of the three major sciences up to A level by distance learning with us. Something to look forward to in 2016!

Work of NEC’s chief executive recognised in Queen’s Birthday Honours

NEC’s chief executive, Dr Ros Morpeth OBE

When the Queen’s Birthday Honours list was announced in June this year, we were immensely proud to find that our own chief executive, Dr Ros Morpeth, had been awarded an OBE for services to Further Education. It felt particularly compelling that the honour has been awarded in the centenary year of the birth of NEC’s founder, Michael Young.

NEC’s Chair of Trustees, Tony Dodds, said in his announcement to staff and tutors: ‘Those of us who know Ros, whether we have worked with her for many years or have met her since she came out of retirement in 2011 to rebuild NEC, can have no doubt of the energy and learner focus that is at the heart of everything she does.’

When interviewed by the Times Educational Supplement following the announcement of the award, Ros said: ‘This is a very public recognition of both the achievements of the NEC and the fact it was worth fighting to give the organisation and its students a second chance.’

Season’s greetings from NEC

Finally, a message to you, our readers. From everyone at NEC, we would like to wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a happy New Year.

Whatever plans you have for the season, we hope you find the chance to relax and unwind, and that the new year finds you refreshed and rejuvenated.

Here’s to 2016. May it be a year full of learning!

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The cat on the keyboard (and other tales of daily life as an NEC tutor)

At the centre of NEC’s model of distance learning is a personal tutor who is a specialist in the subject each student is studying. For anyone considering becoming a distance learning tutor, there’s no doubting the value the role brings to students. Time after time, when students tell us what they really like about studying with NEC, it’s their relationship with their tutor that they value above everything else.

But what is being an NEC tutor actually like day-to-day? We asked two tutors to talk about their work. Each of them paints a picture of a way of earning a living that is varied and flexible, with lots of contact with students and time to fit in other interests.

The former FE teacher

Josie, who is a biology specialist, taught in colleges of further education for almost two decades before she started working for NEC.

‘Each day is different, so it's impossible to pin down what I do on a typical day. The flexibility of the work means I can fit it around other work, gym, swimming, shopping, the dentist and whatever else I need to do. Most days I check to see if there are any new enrolees for me, then contact them with the welcome email or letter and log the contact.

‘It is a rare day when there are no queries to deal with, by email or forum, so I like to answer those as soon as possible. Queries may be from learners or NEC staff. Then any assignment marking gets tackled.

‘There is also occasional chasing up to be done, contacting learners I've not heard from for a while. All this while trying to keep the cat from walking on the keyboard and editing documents, sorting and packing in preparation for moving house in a few weeks, doing a bit of gardening when the weather gives me a chance and dealing with anything else that comes along.’

The second chance learner

Valerie is a tutor for all the English and literature subjects NEC offers, as well as classical civilisation and sociology at all levels.

‘Over the ten or more very enjoyable years I have been an NEC tutor, I have had a variety of students of all ages, abilities and from all walks of life, from the UK and abroad.

‘I can understand some of the students’ fears and problems from personal experience as I left school at fifteen with no qualifications. I was married at twenty-one. My husband was in the RAF and we lived abroad for over twenty years. So it wasn't until my 50s that I finally had the time and a chance to resume further education. I joined the Open University and completed a BA (Hons) then an MA in Literature.

‘I really enjoy my work with the students and NEC whilst also being able to work in the comfort of my own home. I would guarantee that anyone considering joining us will receive a very warm welcome and help to achieve their ambitions as a tutor.’

What NEC learners say about their tutors

Carly, Angela and Elliot have studied very different subjects, for very different reasons. What they have in common, though, is acknowledging the support they received from their tutor.

Carly, who studied the CACHE Level 3 Diploma for the Children and Young People's Workforce, says:  ‘If it wasn't for Kate I wouldn't have been able to complete the course. It was always a pleasure dealing with her, she was so helpful and nothing was too much trouble.’

Angela, who has finally achieved her goal of a maths GCSE, told us: ‘I've tried twice before at adult learning colleges so I'm chuffed! Alan was so helpful and answers assignments and queries straight away every time.’

Home educated student, Elliot, now in the final year of a law degree at the University of Cambridge, acknowledges the debt he owes to his tutor: ‘Phillip...passes on his genuine interest in and enthusiasm for his subject.’

To find out more about our tutors, our learners, and the wide range of flexible distance learning courses we offer, visit our website or speak to our team. You can keep up to date with all our latest news and events by subscribing to our newsletter and following our blog. We can also be found on social networks including Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, 16 November 2015

A tribute to an inspiring lifelong educator: Nora Tomlinson (1938-2015)


Ros Morpeth, Chief Executive National Extension College, writes:

The death of lifelong educator Nora Tomlinson and former NEC tutor in the summer took me back to an earlier era of adult learning. In the late 1960s and the 1970’s, when Nora worked with us at NEC, we had just introduced weekend courses, a national innovation at the time. In an eloquent personal tribute to Nora, Roger Lewis, a long-standing NEC course writer and former education director, recalls a discussion about washing machines at one of those NEC weekends: ‘...some of the students were, I recall, somewhat taken aback that their tutors spent time on such matters, assuming tutors only talked about things like Platonic philosophy and Middlemarch.’

As her obituary points out, Nora was a classic (and excellent) adult tutor - patient and enthusiastic with students; enthusiastic also about furthering her own learning (a key ingredient in successful adult tutoring). The patience and enthusiasm that Nora’s daughter Jane Shore remarks on in the obituary of her mother published in The Guardian are what foster the belief in even the least confident of students that they can succeed.

As well as her work for NEC, Nora worked at the OU for over 30 years, teaching English Literature, but also initially helping out with teaching the foundation Arts course (known as A100). She wrote teaching material for Arts preparatory and foundation courses and for second and third level literature courses, including a unit on the Nineteenth Century Novel – George Eliot remained one of Nora’s favourite novelists. It is clear that Nora was particularly good at communicating with her students and engaging them in lively debates – stubbornly and provocatively declaring, for instance, that Wordsworth was ‘boring’; and many found her an inspiring and subversive teacher.

There can be few places more constricting for adults learners than a prison cell. Understanding this, Nora’s sense of social justice led her through the gates of Bedford Prison to read to prisoners, something she managed to make time for alongside teaching for the NEC and the OU, protesting at Greenham Common, promoting fair trade, singing in several choirs, playing the piano and offering accommodation to striking miners.

The will to make prisons places for learning seems to have weakened over the last decade or so but there may be a new commitment to offender learning. At Conservative Party conference, the Prime Minister set out the vision of his government for prison education, a development welcomed by, amongst others, The Prisoners’ Education Trust. The announcement followed the news that Justice Secretary Michael Gove plans to give greater powers to prison governors for the education of prisoners to reduce re-offending rates.

Twin tub washing machines may have been superseded by front-loaders in most households since Nora shocked her students, but the wide-ranging curiosity that was such a central part of her character is at least as important for tutors now as it was then, whatever the history and background of the young people and adults who come to them for a second chance at learning.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Victoria’s pebble pledge gains her GCSE maths at last


All her working life, Victoria Foster had been frustrated by not passing her maths O level when she was at school. Victoria works full-time in London in a senior management position in childcare. The problem of her lack of achievement in maths continued to haunt her as she advanced up the career ladder. It became particularly acute when, early in 2014, the government announced that only students who had achieved a minimum grade C in GCSE maths and English would be eligible to take the new Level 3 Early Years Educator qualifications being launched later in the year.

Swimming in the sea on holiday that summer brought a moment of illumination for Victoria. As she emerged from the water, she said to herself: ‘Other people achieve a maths GCSE in their 50s. Why not me? Why not go for it?’ As a pledge that she would pull out all the stops to gain the maths qualification that had eluded her more than 30 years before, she picked up a pebble from the beach and put it in her bag.

Choosing NEC was relatively easy for Victoria once she realised there was no institution near her home in Suffolk that offered maths classes at a time when she could attend. What’s more, she knew what distance learning entailed as she had completed a degree with the Open University at the age of 42. ‘It was the quality of NEC’s course materials and the tutor support all students are offered that clinched it for me,’ explains Victoria. ‘My tutor was immensely supportive and my experience of being a student with NEC was all I hoped it would be.’

Victoria knew from the word go that all distance learners must be highly self-disciplined to achieve what they set out achieve. In her case, that meant studying while she was commuting between Suffolk and London from Monday to Friday and setting aside Sunday afternoons as well. ‘There are plenty of things I would rather have been doing, and I’m sure that’s true for everyone,’ says Victoria. ’But if it’s for a defined period of time – in my case, nine months – and that does make it seem manageable.’

Victoria’s self-discipline paid off: GCSE results day arrived. In her dressing gown, she opened the door to the postman and ripped open the registered envelope he had delivered. ‘I burst into tears of joy in front of him!’ recalls Victoria. ’36 years of regret at what I saw as my failure in maths were washed away in an instant. I had to reassure the postman that my tears were happy ones.’

What was it like being a student again after so many years in employment? ‘Going back into a large school sports hall to sit the exams was rather odd – us few adults surrounded by throngs of young people,’ says Victoria. ‘With GCSEs, there’s no escaping the fact that exams have to be sat at defined times. That’s why it’s essential you keep up with the workload. Even more structure in courses would help students with that, in my opinion.’

An unexpected bonus is that Victoria’s employer sees her maths GCSE as something she can speak from personal experience about studying to colleagues now studying it themselves.

Victoria concludes: ‘At last, I have put to rest the distress that had been with me for so many years of my failure to pass O level maths. Now, it seems ridiculous that it had become such a big thing. I didn’t need the qualification to progress in my career but I feel in a position to advise others who are looking to progress because I have achieved it myself.’

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Get creative with horror this Halloween

Halloween is just around the corner, and it’s got us talking about our favourite scary stories, films and books in the office. The horror genre is full of opportunities to use your creative talents and we want to pay tribute to the men and women who write these stories, films and novels, and are the cause of people across the world sleeping with their lights on!

There’s nothing like a good horror novel to keep you awake at night and one of the most famous and successful horror writers is Stephen King. His writings have have spanned over 5 decades and been turned into Hollywood blockbusters. From the terrifying tale of The Shining to the blood-curdling book Misery, I’m sure Mr King has given us all a sleepless night or two over the years!

Many people will be settling in with some popcorn and a good horror film on Halloween and it  would surely be remiss if we didn’t talk about horror films. One of the best known film writers in the world of horror is Wes Craven, from A Nightmare on Elmstreet to the Scream films, chances are there will be at least one of his creations playing this Saturday on the TV and many people afraid to turn out the lights.

When you think of horror, you don’t often think of Poetry until, that is, you remember Edgar Allan Poe. As well as a series of Macabre tales, Poe is most recognised for his eerie poem The Raven. Published in 1845, The Raven does not take long to read, but leaves you with the chills long after you’ve finished—particularly if you hear a tapping, like someone gently rapping, rapping at your chamber door!

Short stories are easily accessible these days with websites publishing them, blogs dedicated to them and social media sites such as reddit making it easy to share them. HP Lovecraft was a prolific short story writer in the 1920’s and 1930’s and published in several pulp magazines. Although relatively unknown during his life, almost 90 years later his own surreal brand of horror even has it’s own sub-genre named after him: ‘Lovecraftian’ Horror.

If you feel inspired by these creative writers to get writing this Halloween, take a look at our Creative Writing course. Sections to help improve your skills in many different types of writing could be the start of something new for you. You can download a sample of the course here free of charge to see if it’s right for you.

To find out more about NEC and the wide range of flexible distance learning courses we offer, or to enrol at any time of year, visit our website or get in touch and speak to our team. You can keep up to date with all the latest NEC news and events by subscribing to our Newsletter or following this blog. We can also be found on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.