Thursday, 24 July 2014

Nicky Morgan: a new era in education?


Nicky Morgan, UK Education Secretary
Photo credit: Pearson Teaching Awards via Photo Pin [cc]

Since last week’s cabinet reshuffle, education news has been dominated by the arrival of a new Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan. Replacing Michael Gove, who was best known for his disagreements with teachers and for some controversial changes, Ms Morgan enters the education arena with a lot on her plate.

The world of education is feeling the pressure, with changes to the  A level and GCSE curriculum not least among them. Without implementing even more large-scale changes, what can be done to improve the educational environment within the UK?

Whatever happens next, we want to make an appeal to the new Education Secretary: Please don’t forget the non-traditional learners. As one of the longest standing providers of flexible and distance learning, we feel that it’s our duty to give a voice to the tens of thousands of learners who are studying independently.

There are many different types of non-traditional student, but broadly speaking they will be an adult or young person whose circumstances make it difficult to access conventional education. They could be a young person with an illness that prevents them from attending school, a serving member of the armed forces, a single mother working to support a family or an offender looking to improve their chances of finding employment on release from prison.

The common factors among them are that they are willing to take their own initiative to succeed, but without support they may not reach their full potential. Their drive and determination should be celebrated, and we believe the government should bend over backwards to help people wanting to improve opportunities for themselves and those around them.

Over the last 51 years NEC has helped almost a million people change their lives and improve their prospects through education (some of their inspiring stories can be read here), but even with the help of organisations like NEC the road to success is not easy. For example, it can sometimes be difficult–and costly–for a private candidate to access exams:

  • students sometimes have to contact up to 30 different schools to find one able to help. We understand that there are often sound administrative reasons for not being able to help, but driving theory test candidates do not have to jump through these hoops
  • even if an exam centre is willing to support a private candidate for written papers, it is even more difficult to access provision for oral exams and science practical exams
  • arrangements for students with special needs can be problematic. In an Opinion piece written by Ros Morpeth for the Times Education Supplement earlier this year on the needs of students not learning in schools or colleges, the example of teenager Tim Pople was given, an NEC student who is studying for AS levels in maths, history and biology and who as a result of suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (ME), is studying part-time from home
  • exam centres add their own costs to the fees private candidates pay to exam boards. Some centres charge a modest fee but others impose high charges, at a level which they are able to determine themselves. In addition the student will have to pay travel or accommodation costs which may be necessary if the exam centre is at a distance from the where the student lives.

NEC has partnerships with several schools across the UK who act as an exam centre for our students as private candidates, but they are not convenient locations for everyone. We would like to see government, possibly through Ofqual, working with the exam boards in the following ways:

  • requiring them to collect and publicly report data on the number of private candidates sitting examinations. There is currently no published data on private candidates available
  • asking them to work with schools and colleges on making reasonable arrangements for private candidates to sit examinations on their premises so that, giving a positive response to approaches from private candidates becomes the norm rather than the exception
  • encouraging them to work with schools and colleges so that they understand that the results of private candidates sitting papers at exam centres run by them have no impact on the performance of individual schools and colleges as private candidates’ results are not included in the figures used to compile league tables
  • encouraging them to consider establishing open exam centres which could be used as a safety net for students who are unable to find a local centre.

With such a short space of time to impress between now and the next General Election, improving access to exams for private candidates is one way Nicky Morgan could make her mark.

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