Liz Lightfoot Education

Liz Lightfoot, Former Education Editor of the Daily Telegraph, answers your questions on education.

How to live well

Health, wealth and happiness on our stretch of the Thames

Q.

Our 10-year-old son will be sitting entrance tests for independent day schools this January and has set his heart on one of them because everyone was “cool and friendly” when we visited and he liked the feel of the place. We would prefer him to go to another school which has an extremely high academic reputation and sends nearly twice as many students to Oxbridge. What would you do?

A.

It’s commendable that you are listening to your son’s views though I question whether he can make a decision on the basis of one visit. Perhaps you could have another look around? I’m sure both schools would put you in touch with current parents or you might find parents to talk to yourself through social media.

 

Meanwhile, take a close look at the “destination of leavers” lists for both schools to find out what subjects they go on to study. Some schools are more likely than others to steer students into less popular degrees that are easier to get in to and there’s a risk that they may then spend three years struggling to motivate themselves in the subject at university level. Both Oxford and Cambridge universities publish detailed application statistics showing the acceptance rates for their different courses. The acceptance rate for French and German at Oxford, for example, is 48 per cent for women and 33 per cent for men, compared to just six per cent for women and nine per cent for men applying for economics and management.

 

You can also find useful tables on their internet sites called “Applications and Acceptances by UCAS Apply Centre”. These show you how many students applied from each school and how many were offered and accepted places. The acceptances are usually lower than the offers made because some students fail to get the offer grades or decide to study elsewhere. The figures have to be read in context because some schools are more likely to enter borderline candidates than others and some are more academically selective at 11 or 13.

 

Of course, there is much more to a school than destination of leavers but if, as you say, Oxbridge is your goal for your son it’s worth doing your homework. You don’t name the schools but, to give an example of schools with similar sized sixth forms - St Paul’s boys’ school in Barnes entered 63 students for Cambridge in 2015, of which 30 were offered places and 23 accepted. It entered 66 to Oxford and there were 22 acceptances. Hampton School entered 23 students to Cambridge of which 13 were offered places and 12 accepted. Hampton entered 32 to Oxford and had 14 acceptances.

 

UCAS statistics show state school sixth formers are significantly more likely to apply for the most competitive courses than those at independent schools. Tiffin Girls’ School bucks that trend but you have to wonder whether all these girls are really fired up for careers in medicine or science. Its 2016 destination graph shows 59 sixth formers going on to medical, veterinary science, dentistry, optometry and science courses and only 14 into humanities and five into English/film/languages.

 

 

Q.

My daughter came home from school today and told me she had been given a dojo and she wasn’t happy with it. I looked it up and it is some kind of digital report score. What’s all this about?

A.

It’s one of the latest fads to improve behaviour and I know no more than you do about it. Judging from what I read – and what schools tell us – it looks like a bureaucratic behaviour management system dressed up in modern clothing. Pupils apparently have their own on-line dojo and get points for good behaviour or being helpful or creative etc. Teachers can use their laptops, tablets or devices to give pupils points for good behaviour or knock them off.

 

It is supposed to reward those well behaved children who tend to get ignored and inspire the less diligent to strive to improve their dojo. In other words, it’s great for teachers’ pets and another form of punishment for those who struggle with school.

 

According to the ClassDojo site “ClassDojo connects teachers with students and parents to build amazing classroom communities”. Parents can be given access to their child’s class dojo “sharing photos and videos of wonderful classroom moments”. They can also check up on their child’s point score. So that’s great for “helicopter” parents but a bit of an intrusion into the child’s world at school, don’t you think?

 

 

Q.

I’m finding it hard to work out the ages of children in Year 1, Year 2 etc and what do teachers mean when they talk about phases?

A.

It sounds confusing but all you have to do is add five to the year number and that will be the age that a child will reach in that school year. For example, add five to Year Six and they will all reach 11 before the start of the new school year. Phases usually means the national curriculum key stages which are blocks of years. Early years is nursery aged three and four plus reception aged four and five. Then comes Key Stage 1 (KS1) years one and two, followed by KS2 years three, four, five and six. KS3 is years seven, eight and nine and KS4 years 10 and 11.

 

 

Q.

Several parents at my son’s independent day school are planning to move their children after GCSEs to a local state school or sixth form college. They believe that state school pupils get into Russell Group universities on lower grades than those from private ones. Are they right? Would you recommend it?

A.

They are right that universities are more likely to make lower offers to state school sixth formers and, all things being equal, favour the state applicant. However, it is by no means clear-cut. Admission tutors will detect from the UCAS form that an applicant has spent most of their time at an independent school and that puts them into the advantaged category. I don’t believe that the actual teaching is generally any better at independent schools than state schools but there is more of it and closer monitoring of performance. Good independent schools will make sure that their sixth formers go beyond the syllabus to demonstrate their ‘passion’ for a subject and have relevant extra curricular activities or experiences that look good on the UCAS personal statement. Some state sixth forms do as well but it is more patchy and dependent on the student’s willingness to go beyond their assignments.

 

There’s really no right or wrong answer. If your child is ambitious, motivated and able to self study, then they should do fine at a good state sixth form or college. But if not, you may need a school that will keep them on track. The likely effect of moving a teenager from his or her familiar surroundings and friendship group at this crucial time is another consideration.

 

 

Q.

My daughter started this year at a Richmond secondary school and I’ve already had to pay £14 for her to visit a mosque on a school trip. It will cost me £95 for visits the school says are compulsory because they are part of the school curriculum. Then I’ve got to find £55 for compulsory visits organised by my other child’s primary school. Yes, I’m working and not on benefits but it’s a constant struggle to make ends meet and I dread the letters home with the latest demand. The school says parents who can’t afford to ‘make a voluntary contribution’ can apply for help with the cost but who wants to embarrass their child like that? Are state schools allowed to do this?

A.

Presumably the mosque didn’t charge entrance fees so the £14 must be transport charges. There’s a mosque on the Ham side of Kingston and another on the border of Twickenham and Hounslow so the cost does seem excessive. The Department for Education sets out the rules in the document ‘Charging for school activities’ published in October 2014. Schools cannot charge for education provided in school hours or outside if it is part of the national curriculum, on the syllabus for a public examination or part of religious education. Nor can they charge for ‘transport provided in connection with an educational visit’.

 

Of course, they all get round it by asking for so-called ‘voluntary contributions’ and use pupil post to send home colour coded ‘reminders’. Richmond is supposed to be a rich area but there are many families like you, who are not on benefits but are living on or near the poverty line because of the cost of housing, council tax and transport. Maybe you could take it up with a parent governor and ask for the trips to be costed so parents can at least see what they are paying for and perhaps suggest economies.

 

Charging for school activities can be found at www.gov.co.uk

 

Q.

My daughter’s college is encouraging her to apply to the University of Cambridge though she has set her heart on Bristol where some of her friends are already studying. We think she should at least give it a go because of the prestige of an Oxbridge degree. Any thoughts?

A.

Like you, I would tend towards Cambridge because of its global reputation and the way an Oxbridge degree marks someone out as a high academic achiever. On the other hand, Bristol also has an international reputation and scores very highly on the employability of its graduates. The city is probably more fun as well. Once graduates get a foothold in the workplace then it’s their drive and personal qualities that will propel them and the university they attended will be much less important.

It’s a decision only your daughter can make, but if she does decide to apply to Cambridge, then she should bear in mind that it is a seriously challenging process of tests and interviews and she will have to spend a considerable amount of time preparing for both. Oxford and Cambridge say they are trying to identify raw talent, but schools that regularly submit candidates provide tuition for both the aptitude tests and the interviews. If your daughter’s college does not provide it she could consider a private course and choose one with a solid reputation that provides mock interviews and input from Oxbridge tutors about what they are looking for.

 

Q.

My son has chosen Lancaster University as his firm UCAS choice and Nottingham as the insurance choice because his conditional offer from Lancaster was lower and he thought he stood more chance of meeting the grades. Can he change the order and make Nottingham his first choice and Lancaster the insurance?

A.

It really is amazing how many students do this and it makes you wonder why their schools and colleges are not explaining clearly to them that insurance means just that, a safety net. The insurance choice is the university that will take you with lower grades than your firm choice. A friend of my son’s turned up at Newcastle University to study English with no accommodation because he made the same mistake. He wanted to study in Newcastle because it was the nearest university town to his home and Northumbria offered lower grades than Newcastle. When he achieved A*AA he went into adjustment and managed to get a place at Newcastle. So it turned out all right and he did find a room in halls eventually.

First your son should ask Nottingham if they would agree to being changed from insurance to firm choice. Lancaster is a little trickier but this is what UCAS tells me: “Nothing is fixed at this stage and universities are happy to talk to students and advise them. UCAS is also happy to advise students of the best approach, so he could contact us. Your son needs to phone both universities and explain to them what he wants them to do and get their agreement. He should speak to Nottingham first. His insurance choice Lancaster would be unlikely to create a problem because they want to encourage students. If Lancaster becomes his insurance choice then there’s still a good chance that he might end up there, so it’s in their interests to work with him for a happy resolution.”

 

 

Q.

We re-mortgaged our house to send our children to independent schools and have foregone many things that make life more enjoyable, but now my son’s school is saying he may not be able to stay on in the sixth form because he is unlikely to get good enough GCSE grades. Can we challenge them on it?

A.

Sadly, no. It’s not uncommon for independent schools to steer their less high- achieving students towards state sixth forms and colleges. Great schools though most of them are, they are businesses at heart with an eye on their reputations. A-level grades and university places achieved are their key selling points.

If your son is happy there and you want him to stay on into the sixth form, then beat them at their own game by helping him at home. GCSEs are marked in a formulaic way and with a bit of time and perseverance you will be able to work out how he can optimise his marks.

Find out exactly which exam board and syllabus the school is using for GCSEs in the subjects he wishes to take on to A level – you need the exact codes as there are variations even within the same subjects. Then go to the exam board’s internet site and download specimen papers and answers, plus the mark schemes. You can then set your son the questions and mark them according to the scheme and show him where he has gained or lost marks. Boards issue advice to teachers on the way they mark and grade and you may be able to find this too on the internet.

You can also download or order past papers and compare them with that year’s examiners’ reports to see where candidates scored or lost marks. Boards publish examiners’ reports for the different subjects on their internet sites. GCSEs are changing however, and it is not possible to access past papers for English Literature, English language and maths because this summer’s candidates will be examined on new syllabuses with a new 9-1 grade scheme, instead of the current A*-G. However, the boards have published some specimen papers and answers. The first examinations for the new GCSEs in other subjects will be in the summer of 2018.

 

©RiverTribe Magazine 2017