Thursday, 27 March 2014

A level reforms – what do they mean for distance learners?

Distance Learning Explained.jpg

There has been a lot of commotion recently about reforms to general education. The focus has been on 16-19 year olds and how this will affect mainstream schools, but what about the non-traditional learners?

The learner profile of NEC students is much different to that of a mainstream school or college. The learner could be any age, for example our youngest learner is 9 and our eldest is 93. Learners are often unable to study at a mainstream institution, which is why they turn to distance learning.

We want to see a change in thinking so that those who are making the big decisions about education consider that it’s not just about those studying full time. Widening participation reaches beyond the walls of schools and colleges, and not recognising this risks limiting opportunities for those that need them the most.

What is changing with A levels?

Lots. Ofqual are due to finalise details of the changes imminently, but we know that specifications for all subjects are being reviewed, and some are planned for change from first teaching September 2015. The rest are planned for the following year. Included in the first phase are:

  • English Language
  • English Literature
  • English Language and Literature
  • Biology
  • History
  • Geography
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Business studies
  • Economics

These changes are designed to strike a better balance between exam and non-exam assessments, meaning that non-exam assessments are only used where needed to assess essential skills. Sciences, for example, are likely to have the practical elements removed from the overall A level grade and reported separately. Geography is also facing the reintroduction of the field-work element.

Will the structure of A levels change too?

Yes. The current proposal means the return of the full A level, and the decoupling of the AS level. This means that rather than taking your exams across two sittings, as is currently the case, all exams will be sat at the end of the programme.

Under current proposals, the AS level will still exist but will not form part of an A level. The AS will be a standalone qualification that is hoped will be co-teachable alongside the first year of A level.

What does this mean for learners?

NEC CEO Ros Morpeth wrote in TES FE Opinion earlier this week, “The proposal to decouple AS levels from A levels has provoked a flurry of outrage from universities, schools, colleges and awarding bodies. Under the current proposals, scheduled to be introduced in 2015, AS-level results (achieved in one year) will no longer count towards the final A level at the end of two years.”

“Universities argue that this will mess up their admissions system as the AS level is a much better predictor of final A level grades than teachers’ "guesstimates", whilst teachers are concerned about removing flexibility and narrowing students’ options.”

“But among the cacophony of voices there is one that has got lost – that of the distance learning student. At the National Extension College we have around 1800 learners on A and AS level courses, but there are many more in the UK and worldwide studying through other organisations.”

“They include prisoners, people in the armed services, busy parents, people with disabilities, employers and employees with irregular working patterns and others for whom attending classes in schools or colleges is not an option. My concern is that by removing AS levels from the credit accumulation and transfer scheme (known as CATS) all the good practice built up in the design, delivery and assessment of AS levels will be lost and one of the building blocks for lifelong learning will be removed.”

Many NEC students choose distance learning as an option because they need a degree of flexibility. Being able to focus on the AS level before embarking on a full A level is more manageable for someone who has other commitments or a medical condition that prevents them from studying in the traditional way. It also allows learners to keep their options open.

Cost is another factor to consider. Exam fees can mount up for some subjects, and being able to spread this cost across AS exams and A levels exams is a much more manageable financial commitment for non-mainstream learners who have to fund their own exam places.

Liz Shiner, a tutor for NEC, told us, “Anyone involved in open learning knows how valuable the flexibility, availability and sheer satisfaction can be for people of all ages and in all conditions in life, to study in this way. How do I know? The students tell us!”

“Here's a recent extract from an e-mail sent by an NEC student, living in Italy on an A level course. He said: 'I have found the experience educational, accessible and highly enjoyable.'”

Can I still enrol on an A level now?

Yes. The current A levels are still available to enrol on, and with NEC you can enrol at any time of the year. When the changes come into place, your A level will not be de-valued in any way, and you can still take exams right up until 2016 for some subjects, and 2017 for the rest. We will tell you when you enrol how much time you have to complete the course.

Will NEC still offer A levels after these changes?

Yes, of course! We may not agree with de-coupling the A level but we still believe in opening up access, and A levels continue to be a vital qualification in their own right and an entry qualification to higher education and professional training.

We will use the changes in the specifications as an opportunity to enhance our services to ensure that we are delivering A levels in the best possible way. Our students are people who need a second chance, and they deserve the best possible support to help them overcome the obstacles they face.

To find out more about NEC and our wide range of flexible distance learning courses, visit
our website or get in touch and speak to our team.

You can keep up with all the latest NEC news and events by subscribing to
our newsletter or following our blog, and you can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Everyday maths: improving numeracy nationally


According to National Numeracy, 78% of the UK population have numeracy levels of below Level 2–that’s a GCSE grade C or above, or equivalent. To try and tackle this issue, the National Numeracy Challenge launched last week. They aim to reach 1 million adults across the UK over the next 5 years.

NEC support the campaign and it’s aims, and were in fact instrumental in the campaign’s predecessor in the 70’s ‘Make it Count’ with ITV.

What is numeracy and why is it important?

Numeracy is the mathematical skill we use in everyday life. We use maths in many situations such as checking our payslips, working out how much change we need, budgeting enough to cover all of our bills and understanding interest rates on loans or savings.

Without a reasonable level of numeracy, we can’t check that we are being paid the right amount, if we’ve been shortchanged at the local shop, or if taking out that loan will be worthwhile.

What is the National Numeracy Challenge?

The challenge aims to bring awareness of the importance of numeracy to everyone across the UK, and help those affected to make improvements to their own level of numeracy. Helping people to build the confidence to use maths in everyday situations, and to understand the benefits of doing so.

The challenge is online. It is a tool designed to help people to check their level of numeracy, suggest areas for improvement, and guide them to resources to help them improve their skills. You can check back at any time to take the challenge again and see how much you’ve improved.

National Numeracy want to prove that anyone can be numerate, and dispel the myth that you either can or can’t do maths. They also want to challenge the attitudes around numeracy, and show that anyone who thinks ‘I can’t do maths’ has the possibility to change that belief.

It has become socially acceptable to say ‘I can’t do maths’, and National Numeracy fear that people commonly make this statement when, in fact, it’s not true. They fear that this had led to a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ where people feel it’s okay to have low levels of numeracy, and therefore do not seek to improve.

So take the challenge today, and spread the word: Maths isn’t just about the classroom, we use it every day. There are resources out there that mean that no-one should have to be embarrassed about a low level of numeracy meaning that they don’t get the best value for money in the supermarket, or a loan costs them a lot more than they realise it will. It’s okay to say ‘I can’t do maths’–as long as you do something about it!

Once you have taken the challenge yourself, share it with friends and family. You never know how big a difference it could make to their life. And if taking the challenge has inspired you to take your learning even further, visit our website to find out more about our Maths GCSEs, IGCSEs and A levels, or browse our full range of flexible distance learning courses.

You can keep up to date with the latest NEC news and events by subscribing to our email newsletter or following our blog. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

NEC is thinking ‘Out of the Box’!

We were pleased to receive funding from the Nominet Trust for a new initiative called ‘Open School in a Box’. The project aims to demonstrate how innovative digital technology can improve educational chances and have social impact. Open School in a Box will provide access to high quality digital materials for GCSE courses from NEC over a local wi-fi hot spot.

The project is one of 17 funded as part of The Nominet Trust’s social tech/social change projects in 2014, sponsored by the Founders Forum for Good. About the project, CEO of the Nominet Trust Annika Small said 'All the evidence shows that digital learning can have a profound impact on those who've had bad experiences of formal education. This scheme means new digital learning opportunities no longer have to stop where they're needed most.'

At the heart of the Open School in a Box is an appliance with the capability to host large volumes of educational material capable of being delivered by wi-fi to low cost consumer devices such as kindles, mobile phones and tablets.  Open School in a Box provides portable NEC course material and assignments, a reference library of over 10,000 e-books, a copy of Wikipedia project, and videos from sources such as the Khan Academy. The appliance uses very low power and can be driven from a 12V car battery or even from solar panels so it can go anywhere with little or no technical support, including those locations that are not on or have poor connection to the internet.  

This week in the first of a series of blogs, Roger Merritt, the project manager for Open School in a Box, tells us more about the project.

Roger Merritt, project manager for Open School in a Box

Who needs an Open School in a Box?
NEC wants to open up more opportunities to enable digitally excluded groups to gain confidence and qualifications in literacy and numeracy using a range of mobile devices. The Open School in a Box project can provide people who did not achieve GCSE English and Maths with a second chance. Some of the most digitally disadvantaged learners in the UK include:
  • learners in prisons, and young offender institutions
  • those working at sea in the navy or merchant ships
  • armed forces whilst serving abroad
  • pupils not attending mainstream school
  • those who live in remote areas where high speed broadband connectivity is absent or unreliable
There may also be schools and colleges in the UK that want to provide access to digital GCSE content but are concerned about e-security, and some employers may want to enable access to digital learning material for apprentices and other staff using their own mobile devices. We are looking forward to working with organisations that like NEC, want to ‘think out of the box’ to increase learning opportunities.
What is the project aiming to achieve?
The project will act as a proof of concept for technological innovation to add social, educational and economic value.

The development team are creating an enhanced digital curriculum for Open School in a Box, which will deliver structured course materials from NEC for current English and maths qualifications at Level 2, with links to an extensive library of Open Educational Resources (OERs) such as videos, e-books and other reference materials to suit a wide range of learner interests and abilities. Tutor support will be available offline from specialist NEC tutors if required, and local mentoring may also be a possibility.

The project team want to explore markets in the UK that could include prisons and young offenders’ institutions not connected to the public internet, and also schools and home-school groups that have poor internet connectivity or do not wish to open up the whole of the internet to their students. Delivery of learning programmes for those working at sea is a market that we currently address with the Marine Society, more flexible access to digital course materials on mobile devices could be of real benefit. The armed forces may well prove to have similar requirements for those serving overseas who may have long periods with little or no online access.

Open School in a Box can also enable group online or ‘flipped classroom’ learning with text, audio and video course materials being made accessible by a mobile wi-fi appliance in a range of settings. This model provides options for using downloaded content on any suitable mobile device for individual self-study programmes with support from an NEC tutor and/or a local tutor or mentor. Wi-fi is ubiquitous in almost every smart phone, tablet or laptop so Open School in a Box is therefore ideally suited for ‘Bring Your Own Device’ – BYOD projects targeted at GCSE provision.

How will the success  of the Open School in a Box be measured?
The project team will collect, analyse and adjust developments based on usage metrics and user evaluation - both through the development phases and after launch. At this stage, we expect that a cohort of learners will be tracked through the model both with NEC tutor support and in partner institutions.  We are also looking forward to working with the team at the Nominet Trust to establish new measures of added value through their ‘triple helix’ approach to evaluation.

What about the technology behind the ‘Box’?
The 12 volt appliance contains a solid state hard drive with 250GB capacity and with no moving parts, overheating issues should be kept to a minimum and little or no technical support will be required. Boxes can have a wi fi broadcast distance of between 30 – 500 metres. The project will develop 4 boxes for testing in a variety of locations. As there is no direct internet access, the recently publicized concerns over wi-fi access through public ‘hot spots’ does not apply to Open School in a Box and we believe that this e-security will be an important feature for institutions working with us.

How does the project link to the work of NEC?
NEC is preparing to meet the challenge of putting all our courses online. Learners increasingly want to work in this way and use a variety of devices to access their course materials upload assignments and participate in learner forums. The sophisticated course design that is being developed and tested for Open School in a Box can act as a model for further NEC online courses. New features include tutor videos and podcasts from NEC lead tutors as well as carefully selected Open Educational Resources (OERs) that support course content and enable personalised learning approaches with support from our specialist tutors.

What are Open Educational Resources?
Open Educational resources are defined by the Higher Education Academy as ‘….digital materials that can be used, re-used and repurposed for teaching, learning, research and more, made freely available online through open licences...’ . The Open School in a Box project is exploring how OERs can be used alongside structured NEC course materials to provide interesting and fulfilling learner journeys through GCSE English Language and Maths Foundation courses

As we are one of the Nominet Trust’s social tech/social change projects for 2014 sponsored by the Founders Forum for Good, we are looking forward to working with our mentor, Nick Evans-Lombe of Getty Images to further explore the potential of OERs as part of the offer.

When will Open School in a Box be launched?
The phased development testing starts in April with a launch planned  in July ready for September enrolments on our selected GCSE courses.

How can I find out more?
This is the first in a series of blogs about the project, future topics will go into more detail about the technology behind the box, the use of OER’s and the course design. Of course, we’ll keep you updated on the progress of the user trials too! If you just can’t wait that long, and want to find out more, contact me at

Make sure you follow NEC on social networks too because we’ll post updates and other information here. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter, where we’ll be using the hashtag #outsidethebox.

For more information about NEC’s work or to view our full range of flexible distance learning courses, visit our website or get in touch.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Invest in your career

It’s a big week for education and training: National Careers Week and National Apprenticeship Week have been raising awareness of all things careers-related, and events have been held across the country to help people think about what they want to do and advise them on how they might achieve it.

Being asked to make big decisions about your future is something we often associate with the later years of school, but there are also many people in the same situation who have long since left the classroom. What if the career you picked at school turned out not to be what you wanted, or you picked the wrong subjects to study and don’t have the right qualifications?

Trying to get some sense of your options can be difficult, but a good place to start is the National Careers Service. Once you have an idea of what you want to do, you can start to find out what qualifications you need and how you can get them.

Here at NEC we have many learners who enrol with us because of their career aspirations. Over the last 50 years since we were founded we’ve helped hundreds of thousands of learners to invest in their futures, and invest in themselves.

Take for instance Sarah Savidge who took a break from her career in human resources when she became a mother. Once she was ready to think about returning she realised she wanted something different. With the help of a distance learning childcare diploma course from NEC she was able to obtain a new qualification, allowing her to change careers. She now works in early years education.

Childcare and teaching courses like Sarah’s are very popular at NEC. Our new Guide to Courses includes a table to help you decide which of our full range of education courses is right for you, whether you want to work with young children, teenagers or adults.

Another popular area is GCSEs and IGCSEs. For many people, literacy and numeracy qualifications are a barrier to progressing in their desired career, and a minimum of Grade C at GCSE level in English and maths has become essential for many career paths including teaching, nursing and midwifery. NEC’s IGCSE in English Language and GCSEs/IGCSEs in Maths at Foundation and Higher level have given many of our students that vital stepping stone they needed to overcome that barrier, allowing them to enter new and rewarding careers.

Asylum seeker Emmanuel (not his real name) from the Ivory Coast is one such learner. A Refugee Council volunteer, he was given a chance to study with us by the Council’s partnership with NEC through the Eileen Sellars Bursary Fund. A lawyer in his home country, he spoke very little English when he first arrived in the UK, but now he is studying for an IGCSE in the language and aims to continue his studies with a course in counselling.

Many of our students want to do a degree to help them get their ideal job. Gaining A levels with NEC means they can then go on to apply to study at a university and get a step closer that dream role. One student who did just that is Miranda Stocks.

After taking a couple of years out to work and decide on a subject to study at university, Miranda enrolled with us on two A levels–Classical Civilisation and English Literature–so that she could go on to get a degree in Classics. She fast-tracked both subjects, and within a year had not only met but exceeded her conditional offer from Cambridge University: she achieved two A*s. She is now into her first year at Cambridge’s Hughes Hall College, and her dream is to pursue a Masters after graduating so that she can go into a career in art crime prevention, helping to recover stolen works and uncover forgeries.

If you’ve been inspired by our learners’ stories and want to find out more about NEC, visit our website to view our full range of flexible distance learning courses. You can also get in touch and speak to our Course Advice Team, who will be happy to answer your questions.

To keep up to date with all the latest NEC news and events, subscribe to our email newsletter or follow our blog. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, 3 March 2014

The TES FE Leader of the Year 2014 is….Ros Morpeth!

In last week’s blog we wrote about the Times Education Supplement’s Further Education Awards, now in their third year of showcasing the very best in the further education sector. We are absolutely delighted that NEC’s CEO Ros Morpeth was named TES FE Leader of the Year on Friday evening, at a glittering black-tie event hosted by the comedian Jo Brand, and attended by over 500 people from the sector.

Ros, one of six people shortlisted for the award, was chosen as the winner because of her ‘tenacity and inspirational leadership’ since she came out of retirement in 2011. ‘There are lots of outstanding leaders, but only one miracle worker’, said David Hughes, Chief Executive of NIACE, speaking on behalf of the judges.
Ros Morpeth-FE Leader of the Year 2014(centre) with comedian Jo Brand (left) and David Hughes, CEO NIACE (right)

Commenting on her success Ros said: ‘My first reaction was disbelief followed by delight. I’m still pinching myself to be sure it really happened! My inspiration has been Michael Young and his commitment to breaking down barriers to open up access to learning. This morning, I called together everyone who works at NEC to show them the trophy because without all of their hard work and sacrifices, there would not have been an NEC to lead.’

She added: ‘We wouldn’t be here now without the help and support of our wonderful trustees, and other providers in the sector like NIACE, Open University, WEA and Campaign for Learning. The judges had the imagination to recognise a provider who isn’t a conventional FE College, but is a charity which for 50 years has been finding innovative ways to reach out to learners, filling the gaps in existing provision and doing its best to make sure there is continuity of education available for everyone, no matter what their circumstances.’

The awards have given us the opportunity to learn more about every one of the outstanding individuals and innovative institutions shortlisted. Their achievements makes us proud to be part of this impressive sector. You can read more here about the winners in each of the 13 award categories.We would like to take this opportunity to congratulate all the evening’s winners for their inspiring work.

For more information about our full range of flexible distance learning courses, visit our website, or get in touch and speak to our team. You can also keep up with all the latest NEC news and events by subscribing to our newsletter or following our blog. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.