Blog: November 2016

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Why is philosophy important?

The Thinker, a bronze sculpture commonly used to represent philosophy

Today is World Philosophy Day so we’ve invited NEC tutor Ed Piercy to write about why philosophy is so important and how language has a vital part to play.

Why is philosophy important? Because of that first word. We are inquisitive creatures, and mechanical explanations are never enough. I also teach economics, and there’s a fundamental concept called price elasticity of demand. One example of this occurs on my journey to work. I travel to college in the mornings at 7.30, and I have to pay more than people who travel after 8.58. The economist will explain this in terms of supply, demand, income, profit, consumer surplus and degree of necessity, and will give you a bit of algebra to make it look really solid. But this question might arise: WHY should those who have to travel at this time, to earn a livelihood, pay more than those who travel later, for shopping, visiting or going to a museum? Why should the necessary cost more than the optional? Economics doesn’t answer this – we need moral philosophy for that.

In an episode of the US TV show Numbers there’s a shoot-out in a police station between the cops and some arrested people who’ve got hold of a few guns. One of the cops is shot dead, and an enquiry reveals that the bullet, which ricocheted off a filing cabinet, came from a police gun. The officer to whom it was traced felt really guilty, but was told it wasn’t his fault. “Yeah – but it was my bullet!” Are we responsible when it’s not our fault? Classical Greeks said we are – ask Oedipus. At least in this TV episode, we’re not. This is a philosophical debate. There isn’t an answer, but we have the need to think it through.

Astrophysicists will give us wonderfully complex explanations full of dazzling maths about the origins of the universe. They’re looking at the question ‘how was it created?’ There’s another question too: why was it created? Why is there something rather than nothing? We’ll probably never arrive at a conclusive answer, but that doesn’t stop us trying. Ever since the Milesian Greeks, 2600 years ago, we’ve been asking questions to which we may never have an answer. But we need to ask, and we need a framework in which to do our thinking – that’s philosophy.

Language in philosophy

Speaking of nothing, I was asked in class the other day by a 16-year-old: “What is nothing?” What a question! I started to give a Parmenidean answer, but she saw where I was going and said, “So nothing is something. So if nothing isn’t nothing, there isn’t any nothing.” Nothing is something. That’s a language problem. We often find that the way we use language isn’t always going to be adequate for what our minds are giving us. (It works better in Classical Greek, but Classical Greek is a better language than English – now there’s a contentious point!)

Take the idea of a timeless God. When I was presenting this idea to my students, I suggested that time was created when the universe was created. God, the creator, existed before time. Pause. “Why is that nonsense?” I asked. An answer came: “You used the word ‘before’ but there wasn’t any time then, so God couldn’t be before anything.”
I’m reminded of the old philosophy joke: one philosopher, in response to a statement, asks “What do you mean?” and the other replies, “What do you mean, what do you mean?”

Enough said.

If this blog has inspired you to study A level Philosophy or GCSE English Language then head over to our course pages to find out more about these exciting courses.

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Wednesday, 02 November 2016

Why NEC is campaigning for a public exam system that works for everyone

Dr Ros Morpeth OBE, Chief Executive of NEC
Above: Dr Ros Morpeth OBE, Chief Executive of NEC

Today's blog is written by Ros Morpeth, our Chief Executive, and is a follow-up to our previous blog: “Barriers need breaking down for private exam candidates”.

Just over six months ago, the JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications), which represents the UK’s main qualifications providers, published regulations for the new GCSE and A level exams. They detail how candidates will be examined from summer 2017, and include for the first time a requirement for non-examined assessments (NEA) to be examined in the same exam centre as the written papers.

The subjects affected include A level English, history, physics, chemistry and biology, and English GCSE. They are all mainstream subjects and popular choices for distance learners. English Language GCSE, for example, now has an endorsed component covering spoken language. For A levels sciences, the NEA assesses practical skills – hands-on activities that test understanding of scientific concepts and phenomena.

Ofqual’s deceptively small change in exam procedure went virtually unnoticed by schools and colleges. Just as they have done in the past, schools and colleges will enter students for exams and look after NEA. But for the UK’s estimated 50,000 private candidates taking GCSEs and A level exams each year, the picture is rather different. Most of them study at home and have to find an exam centre willing to let them sit their exams.

Finding a centre isn’t easy for private candidates. That’s why NEC has a network of partner centres across the country where our students can go if they choose. Having to find a centre where they could sit the written paper and do the NEA element would have been yet another barrier for them to climb. There was the risk that students unable to take GCSEs and A levels if they couldn’t study through distance learning would be so discouraged at this extra hurdle that they would think twice about enrolling.

I’m in no doubt that an exam system that isn’t sufficiently flexible to young people studying at home because of illness or people who want to gain qualifications for a career change isn’t a public exam system that works for everyone.

Private candidates account for only 5% of the total number sitting public exams. In the midst of a programme of extensive curriculum change, we were all too aware that finding a solution was unlikely to be seen to be a priority. But we knew that for private candidates across the country who had enrolled in good faith in autumn 2015 to sit exams in summer 2017, as well as for those planning to enrol in September this year, we had to find a way forward – and to find it quickly.

By September, the exam boards had proposed a solution. Now, each distance learning provider can register as an exam centre to enable them to enter students for exams and manage the NEA elements. That means students no longer need to find an exam centre willing to enter them for both the written paper and the NEA.

It’s a solution that means no student is disadvantaged and quality assurance is maintained across the exam system, regardless of whether students are studying at school, college or with a distance learning provider. It’s particularly important that the new arrangements will be in place in time for the exams in summer 2017.

Two NEC students who would have struggled to complete their A level qualifications had the new NEA regulations been applied to distance learners are Lottie Blunden and Angela Parfitt. Lottie is a single parent in her second year of a midwifery degree at a university in the Midlands. She studied Biology with NEC so that she could change career, working part-time waitressing, cleaning and in admin jobs to support her family. Angela, who works in a legal practice in Bristol, passed her A level French with NEC this summer. When she started French A level at school, she soon dropped it because she didn’t enjoy the focus on literature. Years later, her son inspired her to have another go when he was studying French A level himself.

Here’s what led to the change in direction for NEA. In July, I wrote to Justine Greening MP, the newly appointed Secretary of State for Education, outlining the issues and proposing possible solutions. A copy of the letter went to the chief executives of the exam boards in England and Wales, Ofqual’s Chief Regulator and representatives of organisations that support widening access to education, including the Learning and Work Institute.

Daniel Zeichner, NEC’s MP, supported our campaign by asking questions in Parliament, challenging Ministers to have the new procedures reviewed. The TES, the UK education magazine read by nearly half a million people each week, got on board. Its coverage spelt out how the changes would put up yet another barrier for adults and young people who take GCSEs and A levels under their own steam.  In August, I was invited by the TES’s further education editor Stephen Exley to make the case for changing the regulations. UCAS went public on the issue in the TES, stressing that private candidates play a key role in widening participation in higher education.

Two factors in particular have made the difference that was needed for the regulations to be changed for distance learning students: Ofqual and the exam boards’ willingness to work with us, and the support of individuals and institutions who know that it’s quite simply unfair that anyone who wants to improve their qualifications should have barriers put in their way.

The Prime Minister’s emphasis on ‘a country that works for everyone’ was the springboard for NEC’s campaign to get the regulations changed. Less than a year since the new regulations were published, we’re well on the way to having an exam system that works for everyone.

Dr Ros Morpeth OBE
Chief Executive of NEC

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