Friday, 30 January 2015

On science practicals and distance learning: an open letter to Nicky Morgan MP

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Earlier this week the Education Secretary called for practical science to count towards GCSE and A level exam grades. Ofqual and the exam boards in England have responded with their intention to continue with their current plans despite opposition.

There are strong opinions on both sides, however there is one perspective that risks being overlooked in the midst of all the discussion: that of the non-mainstream learner. Our chief executive, Dr Ros Morpeth, writes an open letter to the Education Secretary on behalf of the many young people and adults who study by non-traditional means.

Dear Minister,

I am writing with an additional perspective on this week’s debate about the inclusion of practicals in GCSE and A examinations on behalf of the thousands of young people and adults studying A level and GCSE sciences at home through distance and online learning and who have to enter the exams as private candidates.

The number of students taking science A levels and GCSEs who are not studying at school or college is substantial. It includes young people being home-schooled. By the Government’s own estimate, a minimum of 20,000 families have made the decision to educate their sons and daughters in this way - and the number is rising.

If you doubt the challenge of obtaining salts from sea water, investigating the field patterns of bar magnets or assessing the factors that influence the activity of enzymes in a domestic kitchen or bathroom, we are happy to take you to see one of NEC’s science students giving it a go. There are many ways to carry out scientific investigations at home in a way that makes for effective learning, but there is a big difference between carrying out an experiment in the spirit of discovery as part of a programme of study and conducting an experiment under exam conditions.

Graham Stuart MP, in his capacity as chair of the Education Select Committee, understands only too well the challenges faced by young people studying outside school when taking public examinations. The Committee concluded in its December 2012 report into home schooling that ‘it is “not reasonable” that some home-educated young people have poor access to public examinations’, calling on the Government to ensure fair access and to meet the associated costs. A rethink by Ofqual on the inclusion of science practical results in A level and GCSE final grades will put back up a barrier for home-schooled pupils just as it seemed to have been taken down.

We know from the enquiries we receive from potential students as a national distance learning provider of GCSEs and A levels that there is a high demand for science subjects from young people not able to study full-time at a school or college and from adults. These include people who want to retrain as physiotherapists or nurses (usually women), people on deployment in the armed services, people with disabilities, and men and women who have put their careers on hold to prioritise caring for children or older relatives. Some of them may not have had the opportunity to study science subjects at GCSE level at school. Others may have chosen to focus on the humanities at secondary level or when studying for their first degree.

Semta (the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies) has warned that the UK faces a shortfall of 80,000 workers by 2016. Already, the difficulties for independent students in gaining access to a science lab to do the practical work and take the practical assessment is a barrier for GCSE and A level science distance learners. If marks for practicals and the written exam are accredited separately as Ofqual proposes, more able people will be encouraged to sign up for science subjects. Reversing Ofqual’s decision would have the effect of dissuading young people and older students from opting for science subjects. Do we really want to risk losing what these often highly motivated young people and adults have to offer because of a decision to include the results for practicals in the final exam grade?

Your call this week to Ofqual to revise its thinking on science practicals works against the principal of access to written exams for private candidates that we know the education community, including the Education Select Committee, is keen to encourage. We invite you to help open up access for private candidates, not only by allowing Ofqual to exercise its independence but by asking exam centres to find ways to make it far easier than it is at the moment for private candidates to access them.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Guest blog: Frances Crook on the Books For Prisoners campaign

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NEC has a long, rich history of providing access to education in a variety of different—and sometimes difficult—circumstances. For many years we have worked with the Prisoners’ Education Trust to support learners serving custodial sentences. Our work has shown us first-hand how much of a positive impact education can have in prisons, and we fully support the Howard League for Penal Reform’s campaign for better access to books for prisoners. We are therefore delighted to share a blog from Frances Crook, CEO of the Howard League, about the ban on sending books to prisoners.

Reading a book can be a lifeline for a prisoner. We all know that books can take you to different worlds and different people, but if you are sitting alone in a cell the size of a cupboard and you haven’t been outside for weeks or out of the cell for more than an hour or two, that imaginative leap can save your life and your sanity. It doesn’t even have to be great literature or even a novel, it can be a book about bird watching or engineering, anything that is of interest to you as a person, not as a prisoner.

So it was with astonishment that the Howard League learnt of the ban on sending books into prisoners as part of the ban on parcels introduced in the new incentives scheme in November 2013. At first ministers claimed the ban was part of the incentives scheme. But that claim was shot down when it was pointed out that no matter how well prisoners behaved they could not receive parcels under the new rules. Then ministers claimed it was not a privilege after all, but a part of a plan to increase security because so many drugs were being smuggled in. But they were unable to provide any proof that any drugs had ever been smuggled in via books. Then they claimed, in desperation, that there had always been a ban on parcels, but that is simply untrue.

In March 2014 I wrote an article about the ban on sending books and other essentials (like underwear and gifts from children) which appeared on the website and it went viral. By the end of that week we had a demonstration organised outside Pentonville prison with the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, Sir David Hare, Vanessa Redgrave, Sam West, Tracey Chevalier and Kathy Lette,

The country’s top writers supported the campaign and we held vigils, bombarded the Ministry of Justice with tweets picturing people’s bookshelves, wrote letters to the press, got Parliamentary questions and debates, delivered a letter to Downing Street, met political leaders, and at Christmas we (and Santa Claus) delivered boxes of books to the Secretary of State.

The media coverage was international. Howard League people did interviews with media in Russia, Australia and the US. The most interesting and important part of the year of campaigning was the public reaction. It was one of outrage that government had restricted prisoners’ access to books. For once, prisoners were being seen as human beings with legitimate rights. People had sympathy and empathy for prisoners. This was an extraordinary outcome and one we hope will be carried through to other discourses about prisoners’ rights and their treatment.

Receiving books through the post has become increasingly important as massive staff cuts have curtailed prisoners’ access to a library. Inspection reports reveal that whilst most prison libraries are reasonably well stocked, the lack of staff means that people in some prisons can hardly ever get there. This will continue to be a challenge for prisons and the Howard League has recently submitted a memorandum to the House of Commons Justice Select Committee revealing the extent of the problem.

The best news is that the legal challenge was successful and the court ruled that the ban on sending in books was unlawful. Sadly the ruling only referred to books and so prisoners will still not be able to receive underwear and other packages to help them through their time. This is particularly problematic for women who are not given a prison uniform and for remand prisoners who often cannot do chores to earn a little pocket money. Both will have to wear the same clothes, including underwear, that they went in with.

The government has delayed implementing the court decision on books until February and the Howard League will continue to exert pressure to reverse the ban on parcels for prisoners.

Frances Crook
Chief Executive
The Howard League for Penal Reform

Friday, 9 January 2015

10 ways a distance learning course can help you with your new year's resolutions


It’s that time of year again where we resolve to change our lives for the better. Perhaps 2015 will be the year we join a gym, buy a house, or get our dream jobs?

For many people, getting back into education is their top resolution, and learning can help you achieve your many of your goals and kickstart others. Here are just some of the ways that a course with NEC could help you to make your resolution a reality in 2015:

1. Change your career

If you’ve always dreamed of becoming a teacher, nurse, midwife or many other careers but have felt held back by your GCSE results, you can improve them with a distance learning course. The best thing is that you can fit your study in around your other commitments, choosing when and where you study!

2. Go to university

If university wasn’t something you considered the first time round, but now realise that is something that you would love to achieve, A levels by distance learning can help you gain the UCAS points you need to get there without having to give up your job and go back to the classroom. You can also study for a degree by distance learning with the Open University!

3. Start your own business

If you have always fancied yourself an entrepreneur, perhaps the next Lord Sugar, try NEC’s Business Start-up course. It will help you to turn your ideas into reality and give you a basic grounding in what you need to do in order to make your business a success.

4. Become a better manager

Management training courses can help you to improve and develop your skills, making you a more effective manager. They can also help you to prepare for the promotion you’ve been dreaming of!

5. Understand finances better

A book-keeping course can help you to understand more about finances generally, whether for your own business, to improve your skills for a job, or to manage your own finances better.

6. Get back into work after a career break

A popular career choice for returning to work after a break to have children is working in a nursery, or as a teaching assistant. The hours fit in nicely with childcare requirements, and it can be very rewarding seeing young people develop and grow. Why not consider an Early Years or Supporting Teaching and Learning qualification to help you get started or progress to the next level?

7. Understand politics better before this year’s general election

Are you determined to understand more about political systems and how the UK government works before this years general election? An A level in Government and Politics will help you to do just that. You can choose to do the exams and get an A level, or just to study to learn.

8. Deepen your appreciation of English Literature

Perhaps try an IGCSE or A level in English Literature to get you started. You will learn how to improve your analytical skills, different uses of language and get more out of what you are reading. Learn to savour Shakespeare and adore Austen, taking your love for reading to the next level.

9. Be able to help the kids with their homework

Maths and science are two of the subjects that parents often don’t feel confident about helping their kids with. An IGCSE in these subjects can help refresh your memory on topics such as photosynthesis, eutrophication, fractions and algebra and learning together as a family can be fun!

10. Publish something you’ve written

Whether you’ve an idea for a novel, feel inspired to write about a particular topic, or just love putting pen to paper, a creative writing course can help you to improve your skills and your chances of getting published. If you’re already a seasoned writer, but need advice on getting published, our Writing for a Living course could help you get there.

In conclusion, learning something new can open up a whole world of possibilities and help you to achieve what you set out to do. These are just a few examples of how you can kick off your new year’s resolution from the comfort of your own home, and stay on track to make the changes you want to in 2015.

Make learning one of your new year’s resolutions today!

To make it even easier for you to get the new year off to a good start, during January we are running one of our best ever offers, with £100 off the cost of any GCSE, IGCSE or A level course, and £50 off any AS or A2 course! Full details can be found at our Special Offers page.

You can learn about the wide range of flexible distance learning courses we offer by visiting our website, or you can get in touch and speak to our team. To keep up to date with all the latest NEC news and events, subscribe to our email newsletter or follow our blog. We can also be found on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.