Thursday, 27 June 2013

Why we still need GCSEs

The public’s perception of GCSEs has certainly been affected by the controversial news stories and several attempts at reform, causing some to lose faith in them. We thought we should point out some reasons why GCSEs are still relevant as things currently stand, and why they will remain so even while the plans to reform them continue.

Firstly, anyone wishing to go on to higher education will find that universities usually base their entry requirements around A-Levels, and in order to study A-Levels it is usually necessary to meet entry requirements based around GCSEs. Therefore having the right GCSEs and the right grades is an important stepping stone towards getting into your chosen university.

Non-academic career paths can also require good GCSE grades. Some vocational routes, such as apprenticeships, may include GCSEs in their entry requirements. The most common of these are GCSE English and Maths at Grade C or above.

Those wishing to progress from education and training to work may also find that their GCSE results become more important than they think. For example, if you want to become a teacher, you will need at least Grade C in English and Maths, as well as a Science if you wish to teach Primary or Key Stages 2-3. These qualifications (or the standard equivalents) are the basic entry requirements into the training you would need to get Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), which would then allow you to teach at state-maintained schools in England and Wales.

Another example of an area where GCSEs are needed is midwifery. There are no national minimum academic requirements for entry into pre-registration midwifery degrees, so each higher education institution (HEI) will set their own criteria. However, along with 2 or 3 A-Levels, HEIs will usually look for a minimum of 5 GCSEs at Grade C or above, including English and a Science.

Those aspiring to work in Childcare and Early Years will soon also find themselves in need of GCSEs. In response to the Nutbrown review, changes have been proposed that would mean anyone looking to become an Early Years Educator (level 3) would need to have at least a Grade C in GCSE English and Maths (however, nursery staff who are already in employment will not lose their jobs if they do not meet the new GCSE grade requirements).

Even if you believe your chosen career area does not require GCSEs, the realities of today’s jobs market mean that being able to include a Grade C or above in GCSE English and Maths on your CV is going to increase your chances of being shortlisted. Vacancies are fewer than they used to be, and the numbers of people competing for each place is much higher. More often than not, recruiters may find themselves needing to choose between hundreds of CVs. When the priority for them is trying to filter down as much of their applicant pool as possible, they may be forced to look for any shortcoming they can find as a reason to discard a CV. A Grade C or above in GCSE English and Maths reduces the chances that yours will be one of the ones that gets turned down.

Many employers consider a Grade C in English and Maths to be a basic requirement. They see it as a quick and easy way of telling that a candidate has a good level of general education, literacy skills and numeracy skills. Research carried out by Centre for Cities has also found strong evidence that grades in English and Maths are linked to rates of joblessness, particularly among younger jobseekers whose relative lack of experience can already work against them. Centre for Cities found that between 2007 and 2010 an average of nearly 50% of pupils in cities left education without these basic qualifications, and believes this left them unable to secure employment.

But what if you don’t have at least a Grade C in English or Maths? Or don’t have a GCSE in the correct subject for what you want to do?

One of the ways you can acquire GCSEs (or IGCSEs - International GCSEs) is through distance learning providers like NEC. IGCSEs are also becoming more and more common, particularly after several reports over the last couple of years showing that more schools are switching from GCSEs to IGCSEs. The flexibility of distance learning means that you can still earn while you learn, helping you to achieve your ambitions and improve your prospects. There are also places you can go for general help and advice, such as the National Careers Service.

For more information on distance learning and the courses offered by NEC, visit our website.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

An extra chance to learn something new

We are now over a third of the way through the list of topics to be released in our 50 Hours For Free campaign, and we have been overwhelmed by how many of you have taken up the challenge to learn something new!

We are pleased to be able to tell you that 50 Hours will now be available for even longer than we had originally planned, all the way through to the Family Learning Festival later in the year, giving everyone even more of a chance to learn something new for free.

Our most recent topic, released last Friday, is Climate Change and Alternative Energy Resources. Tomorrow we will be releasing our next topic, Short Stories, which is taken from our Creative Writing course. If you enjoy writing as a hobby or want to improve your skills, this topic will serve as a great introduction to storytelling.

Short Stories is the fifth of twelve topics we have planned to release for the 50 Hours series. The complete list of topics is as follows:

  • Week 1: Children’s growth and development
  • Week 2: Critical thinking
  • Week 3: Accounting principles, concepts and conventions
  • Week 4: Climate change and alternative energy resources
  • Week 5: Short stories
  • Week 6: Globalisation and international trade
  • Week 7: Electrical currents and practical electricity
  • Week 8: Law
  • Week 9: Presenting character in drama and prose
  • Week 10: Principles of double entry book-keeping
  • Week 11: Cognitive theory and cognitive behavioural theory
  • Week 12: Planning and managing work

We hope you continue to enjoy our 50 Hours topics and take the opportunity to learn with us for free. If you are new to 50 Hours and want to know more, visit our website for full details. All our previous weeks’ topics will remain available throughout the campaign, so no need to worry about missing out. Topics will continue to be released until all 12 are out - check back each week for a new topic every Friday!

50 Hours is part of our Future 50 campaign, marking the 50th anniversary of NEC. For more news on what else we have planned as part of our celebrations this year, keep an eye on our website or this blog. You can also subscribe to our Newsletter, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

GCSE reforms: a brief overview

The education secretary, Michael Gove, recently unveiled further details of the changes he wishes to make to GCSE exams. This is the latest development in a string of proposals, some of which have since been dropped (such as last year’s English Baccalaureate Certificates). With the growing list of proposed changes and abandoned ideas, it’s beginning to get a little hard to keep track of what the situation is. With that in mind, we thought it would be helpful to summarise where things currently stand.

Changes to the current system have been proposed under the argument that things need to change. Many of those who support the reforming of GCSEs have cited last year’s English grading controversy as evidence that what we have doesn’t work. There are also other problems, such as grade inflation coupled with an ever more competitive jobs market threatening to erode the value of GCSEs as a qualification, and the perception that (due to the changing economy) GCSEs may not be preparing pupils effectively for further education, training or work. Supporters argue that reform is therefore necessary to restore public confidence and safeguard the future of our young people.

Opponents to the proposed changes have raised doubts about the nature of the changes and their potential knock-on effects. While some agree that things may need to change, all are concerned about how Gove is trying to actually go about that change. Those closest to the front line, such as teachers, believe the feedback they are giving is not being sufficiently taken into consideration. They worry that Gove’s focus on one set of final exams encourages “teaching to the test” at the expense of fostering a love of learning, or ensuring pupils gain valuable skills that will continue to be useful to them in education, work and life.

Many opponents believe that coursework, which would be dropped under Gove’s proposals, can provide opportunities for young people to learn how to effectively manage their time, conduct research and analysis, prioritise tasks, and work to a deadline over a period of weeks or months instead of the few hours they’d get in an exam. The argument has also been made that modular exams and coursework provide more opportunities to assess pupils’ progress, and so give a more accurate reflection of ability than relying on one set of exams at the end of two years. Some have also pointed out that this system would better prepare pupils who wish to go on to higher education for the methodology of university assessment.

Caught up in the middle of the storm are students (and their parents). For many, the back and forth discussions have left them with a troubling sense of uncertainty. Due to the fact that the changes are not being rolled out across all subjects at once, pupils due to start studying under the new system will be sitting two different types of GCSE at the same time, and will have two different types of grades listed on their CVs. To further complicate matters, Wales and Northern Ireland are taking different approaches but will keep the GCSE name, meaning there is the potential for confusion between GCSEs taken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland already has its own separate system).

So if you are going to be affected by Gove’s changes, but you’ve been left disorientated by the uncertainty, here are the things you’ll want to know:

  • The proposed changes will affect England only.

  • The changes are planned to be in place for the start of the 2015 academic year.

  • Pupils beginning their GCSE studies in 2015 will sit the first of the new exams in the summer of 2017, at the end of two years of study.

  • These exams will be their sole method of assessment and all coursework will be dropped. The sole exception is Science, which will retain a practical element.

  • The 2015 changes will affect 9 core subjects: English Language, English Literature, Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Combined Science, History, Geography.

  • By the start of the 2016 academic year, changes to other subjects, including Modern and Ancient Languages, will be introduced.

  • The grading system is changing from alphabetical (A* - G) to numerical (8 - 1). The designation of 8 as the top grade is to allow for the addition of higher numerical grades in the event of grade inflation (9, 10).

  • Resit opportunities will only be available during the same time as the summer final exams, except for English and Maths, which can be retaken in November. This means that many students will have to wait a full year before they can resit their exams.

  • The pass mark is set to be pushed up, and there will be a greater emphasis on essay-based questions.

  • The ‘tiered’ exam system for different ability levels will be removed except in two subjects: Maths and Science.

  • A number of subjects will place a greater emphasis on the UK (for example, Britain in History or British Literature in English).

  • English Literature exam questions will be designed to check that pupils have read the whole book. Course content must include at least one Shakespeare play, a selection of Romantic poetry, a selection of 1850-1980 poetry, at least one 19th century novel, and one work of British post-war fiction, poetry or drama. No more than two texts should be selected of each from prose, poetry and drama. Digital texts, such as web texts or blogs, will be excluded.

  • English Language will award 20% of marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar (raised from 12%).

  • Maths will place an emphasis on the development of independent problem-solving. Pupils will required to apply their knowledge and reasoning to provide mathematical arguments. There will be fewer single-step questions and more non-routine problems, in order to avoid setting the types questions which can be rehearsed.

  • Geography will have a new emphasis on fieldwork skills, such as map reading.

  • Modern Languages (such as French and Spanish) will require that pupils develop an understanding of the culture and identity of the country where the assessed language is spoken. They will also be required to translate sentences or short texts from English into the assessed language. In addition, the changes will see the introduction of abridged or adapted literary texts, which can include poems, letters, short stories, extracts and excerpts from abridged and adapted essays, novels, or plays from contemporary and historical sources. Marks allocated for reading, writing, speaking and listening will be equalised, each making up 25% of a pupil’s final grade.

  • Ancient Languages (such as Latin) will require a greater focus on use of the language. New specifications will result in new assessment objectives: linguistic and cultural. Each counts for 50% of a pupil’s final grade. Pupils will be required to develop an understanding of classical literature, and explain how English words are derived from the assessed language.

These changes do not affect IGCSEs, which will remain as they are.

For those who want to know more or get involved with the discussion around GCSE changes, there are ongoing consultations which the public can respond to:

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The real thing – lifelong learning in action

Degree ceremonies are always inspiring – it is wonderful to see the pride and confidence on the face of a student who has achieved what they set out to do and get the recognition they deserve. It was both a privilege and an honour for me to be invited as a guest of honour to attend an Open University East of England degree ceremony last Saturday at Ely Cathedral.

The sun shone on the day, and the setting and the music in the Cathedral was exceptionally beautiful. The big difference between this presentation of degrees and a traditional degree ceremony is that the students represent all age groups – from those in their 20's to the third and fourth age. You can see lifelong learning in front of your eyes.

David Puttnam (Lord Puttnam of Queensgate), the OU's Chancellor, chaired the event and started the ceremony by recognising the support the students had received from their families and friends. All students need support of course, but students who are combining their studies with family and work responsibilities need an extra helping! David Puttnam showed that he understood and valued the exceptional levels of motivation, self discipline and sheer hard work evidenced by the achievements of these students.

My organisation, the National Extension College (NEC), was set up 50 years ago in 1963 as a precursor to the Open University which followed 6 years later. Both organisations can be credited with pioneering new and innovative ways of flexible learning, and have a mission to open up access to learning for everyone, whatever their background or personal circumstances.

The NEC specialises in providing courses at pre-university level for people who want to re-equip themselves for new roles and new interests, and for the increasing numbers of young learners who are being educated at home, while the OU mainly works at degree level. Our learners often move and progress between the two institutions. Both the OU and NEC are proudly 'second chance' organisations dedicated to students who have missed out first time round and need a second, third or even a fourth chance.

One reason why I am so committed to the mission and the work of the NEC and the OU is that I was a second chance learner myself – I went to university as a mature student and the experience transformed my life completely. The need to keep open access routes to education and opportunities for continuous lifelong learning is even greater now than it was when the NEC and the OU were set up on the 60’s.

Lifelong learning is needed now more than ever, because we are seeing that increased university tuition fees are leading to falling applications, therefore more people will want to consider higher education later in life, and a narrowing of the secondary curriculum from September 2014 will result in pupils now and as adults wanting to explore the subjects they missed out on at school.

The graduates at the OU ceremony on June 1st are living evidence of this and I add my respect and congratulations to all of them, and also to Professor Jean Bacon, Professor of Distributed Systems at the University of Cambridge, who was awarded an Honorary Degree by the OU for academic and scholarly distinction.

Ros Morpeth
Chief Executive, National Extension College