Thursday, 02 March 2017

The books behind A level English Literature

A stack of hardback novels

Today is the 20th annual World Book Day. A day to celebrate all things reading, including the authors, illustrators and of course books. Children across the country are dressing up as their favourite book characters for school: we’ve had reports of the NEC team spotting Willy Wonka, Oliver Twist and Horrid Henry on their way into the office this morning.

This year, we thought we’d celebrate by talking about the wonderful works of literature featured in our A level English Literature course.

Othello, William Shakespeare
If you study English Literature at A level, you expect to come across Shakespeare. Othello is one of the great tragedies, a story of love, hate, jealousy, deception and revenge. The varying and enduring themes keep this classic story relevant, even 400 years after it was first written.

The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
Written in 1925, this story is about love in Jazz-age New York. A classic tale made popular again recently by the film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio, it explores themes such as decadence, social upheaval and excess and has been described as a cautionary tale for the American dream.

Skirrid Hill, Owen Sheers
This collection of poems can be described as haunting, wise, and tender. They are grounded in sharply but delicately observed detail and deal with separation, loss, division, conflict, the anguish associated with growing up and relationships with the past, along with celebrations of love, sensuality, tenderness, constancy, the beauty of the natural world and the connections which people make with it.

Spies, Michael Frayn
Uncovering secrets in their innocent game-playing, there are plots within plots in this modern psychological thriller. An elderly man reminisces about his life during the Second World War as he wanders down the now modernised London cul-de-sac that he once called home.

All My Sons, Arthur Miller
A modern play set just after World War II sees a man accused of knowingly shipping damaged airplane parts that led to the deaths of 21 servicemen. While only his business partner was convicted of the crime, he was guilty as well. When the truth comes out, it damages even further the psyches of both families' children, who were left scarred by their own experiences during the war.

The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Gilman-Perkins
This short story depicts a descent into madness in the mid-nineteenth century. The story of a woman suffering from postnatal depression who becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in the room she has been confined to by her husband.

A View From The Bridge, Arthur Miller
Set in an Italian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, the central themes in this 1950s play are love, justice and the law, and codes of honour. A gripping and tragic tale of a family living in poverty after immigrating to make a better life for themselves.

All of the above are studied in-depth as part of our A level English Literature as well as a selection of poems from the AQA Anthology. Would you like to learn more about these literary classics? You can find more information about NEC’s A level English Literature on our course page, or by getting in touch with our Course Advice Team on 0800 389 2839.

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Friday, 24 February 2017

Our top 10 reasons to love distance learning

Love is in the air at NEC. Valentine's day inspired a chat in the office about all the things we love about online and distance learning courses. Here are our top ten reasons to love online and distance learning:

1. Enrol at any time.

Motivation comes and goes, so if you have a flash of inspiration in February to get that GCSE Maths that eluded you at school, you don’t want to wait until September to enrol. You can enrol whenever you like on an online, distance learning course.

2. Study whenever you want.

Set classes don’t always fit in with your schedule. If you’re a shift worker for example, you might not have a regular free evening each week. So why not study whenever you like, whether that is 3am or 3pm, you can set your own timetable.

3. Study wherever you want.

Whether it’s at home, at work or while you’re travelling you can study anywhere you like. This makes distance learning accessible to people who otherwise might not be able to study, perhaps a naval officer serving on a submarine or an offender serving a custodial sentence.

4. Choice.

There’s a wide range of courses available online. At NEC alone you can study anything from Art History to Physics. If you’re not looking for qualifications or support, but want to learn more about something that interests you, you might be able to find a free course online.

5. Gain new skills.

If you’re planning on going onto university, independent study skills will be essential. Distance and online learning helps you to develop these in a supported and structured way, so you’ll finish your course with a new set of skills as well as the course!

6. A more diverse peer group.

If you have the opportunity to interact with students on the same course as you, this can be a rich and rewarding experience. Imagine a group made up of people from around the world, all with different experiences. Forums are an excellent feature of NEC courses.

7. Take it at your own pace.

You may need to take the course quickly, or life might get in the way, meaning that you’ll need to take break from your studies. The flexibility of distance learning means that you’re in control of the pace of study.

8. You get a second chance.

If you didn’t get the grades you wanted the first time round, online and distance learning gives you another chance. Perhaps maths GCSE didn’t seem important at age 16, but now you’re thinking of retraining as a teacher, it’s essential.

9. Study at any age.

There is no set age to study. At NEC we have students aged from 9 to 86. From law to Spanish, you’re never too old to learn something new!

10. Build your confidence.

If you’ve been out of study for a while and feel daunted by jumping back in. An online or distance learning course can help you get you gain confidence in your abilities.

What do you love about distance learning, has it changed your life? Let us know on social media or comment below.

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Thursday, 23 February 2017

The importance of GCSE Maths

In our blog this week, NEC Maths tutor Sally talks about the importance of GCSE Maths and introduces our new online GCSE Maths course.

Following the recent changes to GCSE specifications, we’ve been working hard on getting our brand new GCSE Maths course ready. We’re really pleased with it and can’t wait to tell you all about it!

But first I’ll answer the question that, as a maths teacher, I’m often asked: ‘Why is maths GCSE so important?’

Maths is something we use every day – often without even realising it. When you work out how much something would cost with the discount voucher you have, add up how much your weekly shop comes to, or figure out how much paint you need to decorate your living room. It’s all maths.

You’ll often find that you need it if you decide to go on to higher education. If you want to change career and get into teaching, nursing and many other things, maths will be on the list of essential qualifications that the admissions team will want to see. This is to gauge your suitability for higher study and in many cases, because maths will factor into the course in some way.

GCSE Maths is also something you’ll often see on job adverts as a requirement. This is one way employers assess whether you’re suitable for the position.

Maths can make a big difference between right and wrong. In a recent case, that was widely publicised, an error in maths had near-fatal consequences. Students at the University of Northumbria were part of an experiment to measure the effect of caffeine on exercise. A calculation error saw two students accidentally given a dose of caffeine equivalent to 300 cups of coffee. Both were admitted to intensive care and eventually given dialysis.

In the case above, a simply misplaced decimal point was responsible for this tragic accident. Both students went on to make a full recovery, but this case really does highlight how maths can and does have a huge impact on us.

A new course for 2017

I love maths. I love the elegant way everything fits together. I love the clever tricks that turn a complicated problem into something that is recognisable and (relatively!) easy to solve. I love the way equations can model sometimes very complicated real life situations. My aim is to pass the passion I have for my subject on to others. I want to support students to achieve their potential through flexible and supportive tuition – appreciating that each learner has different commitments, motivations and ways of learning.

NEC’s new GCSE Maths is an excellent way to learn maths. As well as being the lead tutor, I have been involved in the development of the new online course. The self-contained course guides you through the specification, helping you to understand mathematical concepts by using videos, examples, detailed explanations and most importantly, plenty of opportunity to practice.

You’ll have an expert tutor, like me, to help you by interacting with you in the forums, marking and giving you comprehensive feedback on assignments and answering your questions. You’ll also have the support of your NEC course co-ordinator who will help you through any technical issues and processes such as booking your exams.

Another great feature of the new GCSE Maths is the flexibility between the foundation and the higher levels. Everyone will start off with the topics needed to cover the foundation specification. If they find they do well, they can opt to carry on and do the additional topics required for the higher specification.

I know that not everyone feels the same way as me about maths. For many, the concept of mathematics can seem daunting. If you – like many people – are daunted by maths, please don’t despair. Many adults find the childhood maths they struggled so hard with makes more sense in their adult lives. As adults we solve millions of little problems each day and maths is often really just about developing logical thinking skills, solving problems and looking for patterns and relationships – something that often comes naturally.

Read more about the new Maths GCSE from NEC, or get in touch with the Course Advice team on 0800 389 2839 or email them at

About the Author

Dr Sally Everitt is an NEC tutor for A level and IGCSE maths. After achieving a BSc from Leeds University she went on to do a PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education). Sally taught in schools for several years and became deputy head of the maths department. When she and her husband decided to relocate to Yorkshire she studied for a PhD. Sally taught undergraduates during and after this time, teaching foundation and undergraduate courses. She is also an A level examiner.

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Friday, 17 February 2017

The importance of time management in exams

This week’s blog is written by NEC team member Carly, who recently sat a GCSE exam and learned a valuable lesson.

Our NEC tutors tell us often that managing your time is the key to success when studying an online, distance learning course. You’re responsible for your own timetable, so giving yourself enough time to fit your study in around other commitments is essential. Because you can start at any time, you also need to think about the bigger picture: is there enough time to complete the course between now and when you plan to sit the exam? If you need to spend 10 hours a week studying, do you have that time available? Have you factored in time off when you go on holiday?

Managing your time is an essential life skill that learning at a distance can help you to develop and it really comes into its own when you have an exam. I learned first hand recently that time management can make or break your exam success.

I decided, after many years, that I would retake English GCSE which I didn’t get a great mark in the first time round. I’ve been embarrassed by this for years and finally took the plunge after seeing so many NEC students do it. Like Victoria, who re-took GCSE Maths and told us after she successfully completed the course, ‘At last, I have put to rest the distress that had been with me for so many years of my failure to pass O level maths.’

Going into the exam room I was confident, I knew my subject matter like the back of my hand and there was no reason that I shouldn’t get a good grade this time round. No reason, that is, until I failed to manage my time properly during the exam.

Two hours seems like a long time when when the invigilator says ‘you can start now’, but it flies by. Particularly when you know the subject and have a lot to say. I made the mistake of getting distracted by the first question, it was a really nice piece of writing and I found a lot to comment on, but before I knew it most of my time had elapsed. I’m confident that I did really well on that question, but the remaining three were left with very little of my time.

My advice is to really take notice of the time that the question paper says to allow for each question, even note down the time that you should have finished next to the question. Don’t fall into the same trap: if you have until 11am to finish Question One, keep an eye on the clock and be realistic about what you can achieve in that time. You may have a lot to say, but will it gain you extra marks?

There are several practice papers available, use them and make sure you stick to the time limits, giving yourself an extra five minutes is not helpful in the long-run. Practicing for exam day will give you a good sense of what to expect and what is possible in the time allowed.

I managed my time much better in the second paper, finishing on time and giving each question a fair chance. I could have written much more for each of the questions, but I concentrated on the main points and did not let myself get distracted. I finished with just enough time to read through my answers and correct a rogue spelling mistake.

Whether better time management in the second paper will be enough for me to get a decent mark overall remains to be seen, but I did learn two valuable lessons which I hope will help you.  Firstly, you can be an expert on a subject and still fail the exam, practice makes perfect and the exam paper even suggests how long you should spend on a question. The second lesson I learned was listen to your tutor. After all, they are experts who are on your side and really want to see you succeed.

If you want to study for a GCSE with NEC, remember you can enrol before the end of February for a 10% discount off your course fees for any GCSE subject. Visit our Special Offers page for full details.

You can also find out how we can help you take your exams, including guaranteeing an exam place at one of our partner centres and entering you for non-exam assessment (NEA), by reading our Exam Information page.

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Friday, 13 January 2017

A crisis averted for distance learning students

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

In our blog this week CEO Ros Morpeth gives us an update on non-exam assessment (NEA) and the successful campaign that has led to NEC’s nomination for the Times Educational Supplement Further Education Marketing & Communications Campaign of the Year Award. This blog follows our previous blogs about NEA, 'Why NEC is campaigning for a public exam system that works for everyone' and 'Barriers need breaking down for private exam candidates'.

What was the issue?

People who are studying GCSEs and A levels through a distance learning provider achieve exactly the same qualifications as a student taking the exams at a mainstream school or college. They take their written papers alongside other students, sitting in the same exam halls, as private candidates. Subjects which have an element of non-exam assessment (NEA) — such as coursework for English or history, or practical assessment for the sciences — have always posed a particular problem because of the requirement to verify that the coursework is the student’s own work. When coursework was first brought into the curriculum, NEC worked closely with the exam boards to offer a secure system for authenticating the NEA for distance learners. This solution was based on a split entry arrangement whereby the NEA components were handled by NEC and the student took the written papers at a local exam centre.

In 2016 the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which is the overarching body for the awarding bodies, issued a regulation which stated that both the written papers and NEA components must be undertaken at a single centre. NEC spotted immediately that this would make it impossible for distance learning students to enter for qualifications with NEA because an exam centre would not be in a position to authenticate or mark coursework from a student they had not taught.

Why we took action

The courses affected included important and popular subjects such as A level English Literature, English Language, History, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and GCSE English. This presented a major crisis for students studying these subjects and would be grossly unfair.

People often choose distance learning as this is the only route left for them to achieve the qualifications they need. Students come from all walks of life and could be serving in the forces, in prison, being home-educated or looking to change their career. Everyone deserves the opportunity to study what they want to without disadvantage and NEC has been at the forefront of making sure they can for more than 50 years.

How we did it

NEC initiated a campaign to raise awareness of the situation. 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.

Daniel Zeichner, NEC’s MP, supported our campaign by asking questions in Parliament, challenging Ministers to have the new procedures reviewed. Coverage in the TES, the UK education magazine read by nearly half a million people each week, 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. UCAS went public on the issue in the TES, stressing that private candidates play a key role in widening participation in higher education.

A positive outcome

We are delighted to report this has resulted in a solution: the JCQ and awarding bodies have helped us ensure that distance learners can study a course with NEA elements and enter for their exams through their distance learning provider.

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, are the reason for this positive outcome.

How it works for students

If you are planning to enrol on a course which has NEA you can be confident that NEC will ensure that your coursework or practical endorsement will be assessed along with your written exam papers.

NEC is an approved exam centre (this is the key part of the agreed solution) and as an NEC student, you'll enter through us for your exams and NEA. A transfer of candidate application will then let you sit the written exams at a centre of your choice. This ensures your NEA will be assessed along with your written papers, and solves the issue of exam centres being unable to authenticate NEA for private candidates.

Don’t forget, the deadline for booking exams at one of NEC’s partnership exam centres is fast approaching. If you would like us to take the hard work out of booking your exams, get in touch before the 20th January deadline.

Dr Ros Morpeth OBE
Chief Executive of the National Extension College

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Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Top tips for studying over the holiday season

With the holiday season fast approaching, it’s easy to lose sight of your studies. Christmas parties, decorating the house with an unmentionable number of fairy lights, family get togethers mean there are many reasons to procrastinate.

Here are our top tips for keeping your studies on track over the next couple of weeks.

1. Plan your time

We agree that wrapping presents and getting last minute shopping are going to be essential tasks in the run up to Christmas, but try to make a plan that incorporates your study and stick to it. Alan, NEC maths tutor, says: ‘Plan your life, remember it’s busy people who get things done.’

An open paper planner book with blocks of time allocated using coloured markers and notes written in each box, next to a cup of tea on a white desk

2. Reward yourself

Set yourself goals and reward yourself for sticking to your plan.  If you’re aiming to get through a certain amount of material by the end of the day, break that material down into manageable sections to make it less daunting. Give yourself a little reward as you complete each section, and a big reward at the end when you’ve completed it all — perhaps another turkey sandwich!

A sandwich made using seeded sliced bread, filled with chicken, tomato and lettuce, cut diagonally into two halves and placed on a white plate

3. Remind yourself why you’re studying

Everyone’s reasons for starting a course are different. Perhaps you want a career change in 2017 or you are applying to university. Don’t forget those reasons and remember what’s next. Remind yourself of why you want to learn something new, and look forward to what you will have achieved once you’re done. Remember also that education of any kind has a positive and enriching effect on your life, no matter what your plans for the future are and that in itself is motivating too.

A blackboard with the message 'What's next' written on its surface using white chalk

4. Give it a try!

If you’re planning on making a change next year and need a qualification to do it, why not download the course sample from the NEC website and give the subject a try. Whether you’re looking for maths, English or counselling. A sample could be just the thing to get you motivated for the new year!

 Level 3 Award in Education and Training, IGCSE Maths Foundation, and Gold Star A level Biology

We hope you find these tips helpful. Whatever your plans over the next few weeks, we hope you have an enjoyable Christmas season and a wonderful New Year.

We’ll see you again in 2017 — may it be a year full of learning!

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Friday, 16 December 2016

Looking back at 2016

A large gathering of people standing grouped together to form the shape of the number '2016' when viewed from above

2016 has been a full year at NEC. We’ve achieved some great things and have helped thousands more people to change their lives. In our blog this week, we take a look back at the year and make an exciting announcement!


Launch of three new Gold Star A levels in Biology, Chemistry and Physics – NEC’s range of STEM A level subjects increased to include maths, biology, chemistry and physics – the widest range available from any distance learning provider. These excellent new courses quickly proved to be a firm favourite with NEC students.


OBE for Outstanding Services to Education – Last year NEC’s CEO Ros Morpeth was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for her outstanding services to further education. The ceremony took place in February at Buckingham Palace where Prince Charles awarded Ros with her medal.


January 2016 exam session results – Carrying on tradition, NEC students again achieved some excellent results. 100% of IGCSE Biology students achieved grade A* or A compared to Edexcel’s average of 23.1%. 100% of IGCSE Maths students achieved grade A* to C compared to Edexcel’s average of 66.7%.


A level practical endorsement – NEC formed a partnership with the Open Science Laboratory at the Open University to give an innovative solution to the challenges of learning about practical skills at a distance. Learn more about the partnership in our previous blog.


Working with UCAS to improve study skills – We started working with UCAS (University and Colleges Admissions Service) on a series of study skills guides to help students make the transition from school or college to higher education. You can expect to see more of these throughout 2017.


Exam season draws to a close – While most of the country was deciding whether to vote in or out in the historic Brexit vote to determine the future of the UK, thousands of people were sitting exams to determine their own futures. Record numbers of students chose to enter for exams at one of NEC’s partnership exam centres this year.


NEA (non-exam assessments) – When we found out about a new change to exam regulations that would create barriers for private students, we responded by launching a campaign to change this. You can read about this in CEO Ros Morpeth’s blog.


Inspiring stories and great results from the June 2016 exams – NEC students achieved some great results in their exams. This summer, 100% of our students achieved A* to C in Religious Studies, including home educated Kathryn who is now studying English at King’s College London. Read her story here.


Launch of learn@nec – our new virtual learning platform – We launched a new virtual learning platform learn@nec which provides our students with the flexibility to be able to access their course online, on the go. The forums allow students to speak to others on their course and they’re able to easily access other resources to help them to succeed. Everything our learners need is in one learning environment designed with them in mind.


A place to get practical – Students who study science A levels with us are able to do the practical endorsement at our partnership exam centres in Oxford and Coventry. Students need to sit their exams and the endorsement at the same exam centre. To find out more about how this works, get in touch and talk to our Course Advice Team.

New courses – We launched some exciting new courses. The Award in Education and Training – Level 3 (formerly PTLLS). Ideal for anyone with training responsibilities, and two new Gold Star A levels: French and Religious Studies. We also launched GCSE English Language, the first of our new Gold Star GCSEs that support the new 0-9 specification.


NEA success – We have agreed an approach with leading UK awarding bodies and we’re now well on the way to an exam system that works for everyone.  You can find out more about the outcome in CEO Ros Morpeth’s blog.

New partnership exam centres – We added 2 new partnership exam centres to make it easier for even more NEC students to access exams and non-exam assessment – in Oxford and Stockton-on-Tees.


An excellent way to end the year – The TES FE Awards 2017 announced the shortlist today. We’re pleased to say that the campaign we have been working on since the summer, to give private candidates access to GCSE and A level qualifications on an equal footing with candidates from schools and colleges, has been shortlisted in the Marketing and Communications Campaign of the Year category!

We’d like to finish for the year with a huge well done to the thousands of students who have studied with NEC this year and a thank you to everyone who has supported them in their journey of life-changing learning.

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Monday, 05 December 2016

Top five writing tips

Ballpoint pen resting on the blank, lined page of a spiral-bound notebook, next to an English dictionary

November was Novel Writing month. Did it inspire you to try your hand at creative writing? To get started, read our top five writing tips. You might want to use these tips to help you with your career, or to help you write as a hobby or during your studies.

  1. Making the most of your characters in short stories
    Avoid long detailed descriptions in short stories – there isn’t space and the reader will find it more interesting if you let them picture the characters, without going into too much detail. Make sure you keep your reader engaged by only having a few characters – too many can confuse them and make them lose interest.
  2. First or third person?
    Fiction is usually written either in first or third person. You’ll need to decide whether you’re going to focus on one main character and only reveal his or her thoughts, or take on the role of an omniscient author and report on the thoughts and actions of all of your characters. Both of these tips are taken from NEC’s Writing Short Stories course.
  3. Research your market
    If you’re writing for a living, make sure you do your research. Don’t just write for publications that you read or for television channels you watch. Have a look around your bookshops to see what they offer. Research where the magazines and articles are being published. Some magazines are sold in shops, whilst others are sent through the post. The more research you do, the more avenues it’ll create. Taken from NEC’s Writing for a Living course.
  4. Use of good dialogue in fiction
    Dialogue has many functions in fiction, including helping to bring a scene to life by putting the reader directly in the here and now. Good use of dialogue conveys information effectively. You need to make sure that you don’t include too much dialogue to carry the story – in real-life scenarios, information is often conveyed through what isn’t said, rather than what is said.
  5. Use of figurative language
    Using figurative language is a great example of conveying meaning using pictures.  Images generate more meanings than words and often  represent something else. You can use similes, metaphors and images to convey a character’s inner feelings. Both of these tips are taken from NEC’s Creative Writing course.

We hope you find these tips useful for developing your writing skills. If you’d like to enrol on one of our Creative Writing courses, phone our Course Advice Team on 0800 389 2839.

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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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