Tag Archives: education


If you are a year 12 student about to move into year 13 you will probably be making a UCAS application to universities in the Autumn once you get back to your school or college. You will therefore soon be nailing down your final choice of five universities and familiarizing yourself with the UCAS online ‘apply system’ (https://www.ucas.com/ucas/undergraduate/apply-and-track).


Now we are at the end of July, of next year’s university applicants will have had at least a week and possibly as much as a month or more since the end of the last school term. With a month or so to go before the start of their final academic year before university, it is time to start thinking about how to productively spend the rest of the summer in order to have the best possible chance of making a strong university application.


Time to think: what can I do to help support my application and to add to my personal statement. Think about:


  1. Work Experience – are you intending to apply for a degree that will lead you to a specific career? If so, have you ever had any experience of that career? If you want to be a lawyer, doctor, pharmacist, physiotherapist, architect or accountant – can you get some experience in this field during August and throughout the academic year? I bet you can!
  2. Go and visit – the university or department you want to go to may have an open day in the next month or so (find out at http://www.opendays.com/) but even if they don’t this is a great time to go and visit the university or even just the town or city where you will be living.
  3. Read and research – whatever you want to study at university, you need to be able to convince an admissions tutor that you are able to study that subject at undergraduate level. You will need more than just your A level/IB/Higher (or whatever) knowledge to do this convincingly. Start reading a broadsheet newspaper everyday, subscribe to a popular journal such as The Economist, The New Scientist or The Student BMJ and pick up some back issues from your local library or online. What about a book or two in the field you want to study? Use google to recommend some popular literature and read for an hour or so a day. You’ll learn a huge amount about your subject to write about or discuss at interview and it will give you a real confidence boost before you make your application.


The final deadlines may feel a long way off, but they will be upon us very soon:

15 October 2015 – Oxford, Cambridge, Medicine, Dentistry

15 January 2016 – All other applications


What makes a good education?

I was asked last year to write something brief about what I thought was a good education.  I was under time pressure and had a word limit.  This was what I came up with.


A good education begins at home in the very early years of life. In fact, the role of the home (usually, but not always, our parents) is vital to the provision and access to a good education. Our parents/guardians are our first teachers and the only teachers who are with us throughout our entire childhood and development.


At school a ‘good’ education can be defined in many different ways, but fundamentally, children need to be provided with the skills that will allow them to access a life in modern society (numeracy, literacy, social responsibility, understanding and tolerance of others in the world). However, they must also be given the opportunity to explore, learn for themselves, perhaps through their own mistakes, develop their own specific interests and ideas and to form relationships with others.


I value highly and place a huge importance on achieving the highest grades possible in whatever examination series a student is participating in and in particular the ‘terminal’ GCSE and A level exams we have in the UK. This is not because I think the exam system is necessarily a good one, but because I believe in the power of exam result to open doors and create opportunities.  It is on the outcome of public examinations that our young people individuals are judged when it comes to university education and the job market.  The outcomes of the results in these examinations stay with them throughout their lives and careers. Clearly the better a candidate appears to be on paper, the more opportunities will present themselves.


I believe that there are two broad aspects essential to a student achieving their full potential. The first is a quality teaching and learning experience delivered by empowered and credible teachers who can inspire the best possible academic success from their students.


The second is in providing a holistic approach to the education of a young person. This is a very broad statement. Maslow’s hierarchy offers a good starting point, but I would add that education is about positive life experiences and encouraging students to have a desire and passion for learning beyond the subjects they have specified an interest in. Our ‘science’ students should be inspired to consider and understand the arts; humanities students ought to understand or have access to principals of theories such as evolution and relativity. Furthermore, I believe that if a student has a quality ‘holistic’ and ‘extra-curricular’ experience, they will be more successful academically and in life. They will have broader horizons and more able to understand and appreciate others. Schools and colleges clearly have a role to play in giving young people access to opportunities that provide an education (with a small ‘e’).


How do you decide which medical school to apply to?

Students in their AS year with good GCSE results, a love of science and a passion for caring for and working with others will be considering making an application to medical school.  I tend to think that the passing of the October 15th UCAS deadline for the A2 students fires the starting gun for those in AS who want to apply the following year.  365 days to make a difference to their applications.  UCAS reported recently that in 2013, for the 7,515 places offered to medical candidates last year, 84,395 applicants applied.  That is roughly a 1:11 ratio.  Competition is fierce.


Is a degree from one place the same as a degree from another?

One important consideration is deciding which medical school to apply to.  But, how important a decision is this actually?  Unlike most other degrees there is a national standard, set by the GMC (General Medical Council) and applied to medical school degrees.  This ensures that as far as possible, all doctors educated in the UK are trained to the same standards (www.gmc-uk.org/education/undergraduate/tomorrows_doctors.asp).  There are obvious reasons why this makes sense, a scenario whereby doctors in the UK are trained differently at different institutions would quickly lead to problems.  However, were you to take almost any other degree you may find that your degree from one university is quite different to that you may have received at another – depending on the specialisms of the professors, location, resources and many other factors.  A good example would be in biology, where many universities close to the coast will emphasise marine biology and ecology for obvious reasons whereas this is less practical in other places.


What type of candidate are the different schools looking for?

So a degree in medicine is the same wherever you go, right?  Well to an extent, yes, but there are still some important factors to consider.  First of all, your priority when applying is to get in somewhere and different universities emphasise different attributes when it comes to the application process.  Some place the highest regard on academic performance; some will only interview candidates with a particular UKCAT (United Kingdom Clinical Aptitude Test) score; others prefer the BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test) and make it their most important diagnostic; some need you to have secured a minimum number of hours of relevant work experience before you can be considered; for many the interview is key, others don’t even interview every candidate.  It is therefore important to consider your own strengths and attributes, match those to the entrance criteria of the medical schools and apply to those that suit your strengths.  There is no harm in contacting the admissions tutors at the medical schools to have a conversation about what they prefer to see in their applicants.  In fact I recommend that you do this.


Know your competition

Another thing to consider is the competition.  Most would-be doctors have a pragmatic approach to their applications – they don’t mind where they go, they just want to get in and begin training.  However, some universities, rightly or wrongly, attract more applications than others.  Oxford and Cambridge have a certain prestige attached and offer a particular lifestyle that appeals to many.  UCL and Imperial College in London have world-renowned reputations and of course, along with King’s College, Queen Mary’s and St George’s have the attraction of being in London and the lifestyle associated with living in the capital.  This increases the number of applicants and therefore the competition at these places.  It doesn’t make them better medical schools necessarily, but it does mean they can set their bar very high.


How is the course delivered?

Although medical schools are required to meet the GMC standards, they vary in the way they deliver their courses.  You will hear phrases like “problem-based learning,” “clinical training,” “pre-clinical training” and you should make sure you fully understand what they all mean.  At some medical schools you will meet patients “on day one”; at others you may spend a long time studying physiology and anatomy before encountering your first patient or making your first diagnosis.  There are pros and cons to each approach.  Students with strong clinical skills may feel they lack some of the scientific rigour and understanding of their colleagues with stronger scientific backgrounds, who in turn lack some of the communication skills, ability to empathise and other crucial skills essential to become a good doctor.


Where do you want to live?

If you don’t want to live in London don’t apply to UCL!  If you live in Newcastle and don’t want to be far from home, don’t apply to Plymouth University Peninsula! This sounds so obvious, but it is probably the most commonly ignored piece of advice I give to university applicants each year.  People presume that they can sacrifice quality of life for (perceived) quality of degree.  “I hate the idea of living in a big city like London, but UCL/King’s/Imperial has such a good reputation.”  This makes no sense to me.  It takes a long time to qualify as a doctor, that means you will be living in the town or city you choose now for five, six, maybe more, years.  I’m all for taking risks – life is about experiences, any chose you make has an element of risk, but take a calculated risk. Go and visit, explore and picture yourself there.  Decide on the criteria that are important to you and carefully select four universities that match those criteria.  Of course criterion number one is likely to be “can I get in?” but what are numbers two, three and four?



At the beginning of this academic year I led a training event for the whole teaching staff.  It was a positive and upbeat meeting with the team in positive spirits following some great A level and GCSE results.


I decided to focus the session on the teachers themselves to ensure they each felt a part if the success of the College as a whole.  I wanted teachers to know that they make a difference and that their contribution was valued.  I also wanted to challenge some old attitudes and so focused the day on three themes:
  • The impact of the teacher in the classroom
  • No labels
  • Remove expectations
The impact of the teacher
Looking at the impact of the teacher allowed me to discuss the research of John Hattie.  As a starting point to presenting his research, I looked at his own feedback on the importance of the teacher in the classroom.


The teacher can have a huge positive impact on learning (although also a negative one if teaching is not good).  Hattie presents this idea as “know thy impact.”  I wanted the teachers to make sure they understood their importance, but also that they take responsibility for the learning in the classroom.  This animation which illustrates (literally!) Hattie’s eight ‘mindframes’ was a great aid to the introduction of this idea.


No labels
The idea of not labelling students is not a new one.  There is some debate as to what constitutes a label.  Does setting or streaming in schools apply labels to the students inadvertently for example?  But this was not the focus of my session.  Essentially this session was about Assessment For Learning.


AFL is also nothing new, but how much do teachers actually do it on a day-to-day basis?   I know that especially in sixth form teaching there can be a tendency to give a student a grade for a piece of work and then offer no further feedback to the student.  The grade then becomes a label.  For some students who only “need a B to go to university” if they get their B grade awarded repeatedly by the teacher, they have little incentive to improve and have reached a self-imposed ceiling that the teacher is doing nothing to remove.  Equally, there is nothing more demoralising for an A level student who feels they are working hard than to repeatedly receive no feedback other than a single letter “D” “E” or maybe “U” on every piece of work.


Here is Paul Black discussing AFL and the difference between routine feedback and “high-stakes” end-of-school, summative assessment.



Remove expectations
Related to labelling and and appropriate assessment, this is different to raising expectations.  Every teacher should have high expectations for every student.  By remove expectations, I don’t mean “expect nothing”, I mean “expect anything!”  Let’s imagine every learner has the capacity to learn more and to always improve.  I once had the privilege to meet one of my heros – Carl Lewis.  During the talk he was giving he made the remark “not everyone can be the fastest, but everyone can get faster.”  This makes perfect sense in education too.  Expect that every student, no matter what their current level, can always get better.


Zimbardo (he of the famous and controversial prison experiment), here discusses research carried out when teachers are given false “high expectations” of a group of students.  They inadvertently give preferential treatment to that group and the group in turn improve at a faster rate than those the teachers are told to have ‘low expectations” of.  There is no criticism of the teachers, just an interesting observation on how students’ expectations of themselves and teachers’ expectations of learners can influence the quality of learning.



I stumbled across this very good blog from “Faculty Focus”


It outlines an age old problem – what actually is the role of the teacher, and what do we mean by the terms “teaching” and “learning.”  A topic can only be said to have been taught when the learners have learned what is being taught.  Now, I want to make a confession here.  It’s about stalagmites and stalactites.  I’ve never learned which is which.  Many people have tried to teach me.  I’ve been taught various lessons about which ones “hang on tight” and are held with “all their might” but I can never remember which is which.  OK so before writing this article I googled it and now, I think, I know, but otherwise, I hadn’t learned it and so technically I had never been taught this despite attending several lessons during which the teacher would have claimed to have taught me the difference.

A rather silly example, but the distinction between teaching and learning is a subtle one.  In the blog I reference here, the writer alludes to a student who makes the claim that “the teacher didn’t teach us anything, we had to learn it all for ourselves.”  An immediate conclusion to jump to here is that the teacher is at fault.  The teacher is paid to teach and so the students in the classroom should not be expected to have to learn for themselves.  In fact it would be easy to see how that teacher would end up being disciplined by a superior saying “I pay you to teach! Why are you letting these poor students do all the work for themselves?”  But you’d have to be careful here.  The superior may have a very good point.  If the students are learning nothing from their teacher, he or she is in dereliction of his or her responsibilities as an educationalist and not fulfilling his or her most basic of job descriptions.

However there is a fine line here, because “learning” should not be a passive process.  Learning is hard work.  Learning requires us to make mistakes and take wrong turns before coming up with the right solution or the right outcome.  I’ve heard this described as “the pit.”  A dark place in which the student feels like they’re getting nowhere, only to finally and successfully climb out of the pit once the topic has been learned.  The teacher’s role is to facilitate this process.  The teacher is the facilitator of learning in any classroom or with any student or group of students.  They create the environment and the circumstances in which their students are able to learn.

This does not necessarily mean that they “tell” the students about a topic or that they act as a source of information for the student (although it may do).  A very good teacher will provide the tools and the materials and the environment and the circumstances and the support in which, with their guidance, learners are able to solve problems, create images, develop understanding, think critically, make comments (or whatever) and the learner may FEEL like they “learned it themselves.”  The student would be correct, they did “learn it for themselves,” because what other type of learning is there?  You can’t learn something for someone else and no one else can learn for you.

Key strategies in this process are:

  • Engaging learners
  • Giving appropriate and timely feedback
  • Encouraging independent learning
  • Challenging learners

So my point is that a good teacher would ensure that his or her students learned EVERYTHING for themselves and what looks like good teaching could be nothing more than good provision of information or a good resource or a good technique.  Staff in schools with “teaching and learning” responsibilities in reality just have “learning” responsibilities.  You can’t have teaching without learning, if nothing has been learned nothing has been taught.  So if you want to know if you’re a good teacher, make sure you check what has been learned by your students.  If they’ve learned it, you’ve taught it.  Congratulations!


Students beginning their A2 year of A level or their final year of IB will no doubt be beginning to prepare their university applications this week if they haven’t already started. As schools and colleges go back, so upper sixth/A2 groups are encouraged to register for the UCAS system and to start taking some decisions about university. There is lots of advice available and lots of advice to give about this process, but here is my tip for the week…
Choose your five universities wisely! 
This means that you should select five institutions that you would like to study at. It sounds obvious, but you are no longer required to rank you list in order of preference. In fact this practise ended decades ago. So your choices should be of five institutions or courses that you would definitely like to go to and you should ensure you’d be happy at any of the five. This is more difficult than you might think and the temptation is to rank them in your head in order of preference anyway.
This is dangerous, because it means that you end up with a ‘fifth choice’.  Fifth! Who cares about fifth!? Two places outside of the medals in an Olympic event and not even a champions league place (if you get the football reference). The problem is that your ‘fifth choice’ is likely to also have the lowest entry requirements and therefore, if you miss your firm choice offer it could well be the place you end up.  Experience tells me that on results day students who have made their insurance offers are disappointed that they now have to go somewhere they never really thought they would end up and they never really wanted to go anyway!
Now, I hope that every gets their grades for their firm choice institution, but the reality is that many people don’t.
So consider this.  You are lucky enough to have five offers from five universities which are:
University 1 – AAB
University 2 – AAB
University 3 – AAB
University 4 – AAB
University 5 – BBB
You then have to pick two. Your firm choice and your insurance choice (note they are not called first choice and second choice – that is deliberate). If you want to have a genuine insurance policy,  University 5 HAS to be your insurance choice, even if you would rather go to any of the others. So… You had better make sure you want to go there!
A trap students often fall into is to pick a ‘fifth choice’ that has substantially lower entry requirements than the other places you apply.  Imagine the scenario above, but where university 5 had entry requirements of DDE. If you miss your grades by a fraction (say you get ABB) you may well end up going to university 5 and you may feel under-sold.
More often than not this ends up as a wasted choice in any case. Why? Because if you end up with more than two offers, imagine this scenario:
University 1 – AAB
University 2 – AAB
University 3 – ABB
University 4 – BBB
University 5 – DDE
You’re not likely to pick university 5. You didn’t want to go there any way and so wouldn’t you rather have another university to choose from than this essentially dead choice?
And so, my tip for the day and for the week is – CHOOSE WISELY! Pick an range of universities that are within your academic range and skill set. Don’t over-sell yourself and don’t under-sell yourself.
Good luck!


In his article in the guardian on Friday http://gu.com/p/4xxbm, Peter Wilby made a good case for the abolition of the GCSE as a qualification in England and it has to be said he makes a compelling case.  Before I go further, let me say that I largely agree with everything he writes.  The GCSE is no longer fit for purpose, mainly because it no longer has an obvious purpose!
As Wilby discusses, once upon-a-time, when pupils left school at age 16 and only 10% or so of those leavers went on to study A levels, there was a clear need for a qualification that assessed the general skills and academic achievements of the school leaving population.  Employers had to be able to discern between applicants for jobs and apprenticeships.  I believe that GCSEs did this well, especially within the grade boundaries A (or later A*) to C.
However, as the number of pupils who remain in education rose and rose over the years to a point in time now, where post 16 education is compulsory, the need for a stand-alone, high-risk qualification at 16 seems entirely unnecessary.  Surely if we were designing the education system from scratch to include compulsory education to 18 we wouldn’t stick in a huge exam session just two years prior to this.  What would be the purpose?  Yes students should have their progress assessed at this point, but not in this way and why would 16 be more important than 15 or 17 on the road to whatever final qualification the individual gains at 18.  Furthermore, increasingly I find through my own teaching that the GCSE has ceased to be a particularly good preparation for A level.  Those who have done GCSE sciences don’t seem to have a good grasp of some fundamental material that would allow them to access the A level material in my subject (biology).
I happen to believe that the university system in England and the A levels that allow entry to it should be retained and have many strong features.  It would be on the back of these two institutions that I would build our education system.  Wilby wrote about removing the “full stop” of the GCSE and replacing it with a “semi-colon.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Why not a series of semi-colons throughout ones educational experience until one is ready to leave the system.
It would be easy to imagine a system in which the educational experience from the age of 11 (or 10, or 12 or 14 or whatever age we decide it is more appropriate) that, year on year, gives our young people a deeper and narrower educational experience leading up to university entrance and incorporating the A level.  Students should be assessed regularly and should have to achieve a minimum standard in order to progress to the next level, but we would no longer have the “this is the most important thing you will ever do” exams at age 16.  There should also be a range of attractive, useful options for students to leave this system in order to pursue other equally valid, perhaps broader, perhaps more vocational routes.  In fact I wish there were more of these at present in order that more pupils had more opportunities to fulfil their potential.
Another brave move would be to remove the age-based cohort system altogether and to have pupils progress through the educational system at a rate that best suits them and so that they reach the next level when they are ready, not just because they reach a certain age.  For a refreshing take on this and other matters, take a look at Ken Robinson’s RSA animate lecture http://youtu.be/zDZFcDGpL4U
Why shouldn’t a student be elevated through the system if they are good enough?  This happens in the work place and in almost all other areas of life.  The best candidates in the work-place are promoted over the less good ones and their age or number of years at the company is usually not a factor.
Under the last Labour government there was a move towards a 14-19 agenda, but the GCSE was retained – it will be a brave government that remove it.  14-19 makes sense.  There are some LEAs in England that operate a “middle/upper school” system so that children move schools at year 9 (age 13/14), in fact I briefly taught in an excellent one – King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds.
Unfortunately, the thing that may save the GCSE in the end could be simply a matter of practicalities and infrastructure.  The ever-complex system of schooling in England (comprehensives, grammars, free schools, academies, independent schools, FE colleges, middle schools, upper schools, public schools etc etc) means that it suits the running of our educational establishments to retain the status quo.  If we remove the GCSE, and education is compulsory until 18, why have a school that says goodbye to its pupils at 16?  But those schools exist and in great numbers.  They don’t have space to expand and we certainly can’t close them down.  Should their pupils not have anything to show for their five years at their high school?  GCSEs still make sense to a degree in this context.
So, as a product of the GCSE system (2A*, 6A, 1B in 1995 if you were wondering – fairly humble by today’s standards), I would have to conclude that they are probably here to stay unless a government of the future is prepared to spend a lot of time and money coming up with something better and then implementing it in the face of waves of objection, vested interest and unhappiness.  That would be a brave government indeed.