AQA GCSE: Physics Without Physics

Last week England's largest exam board issued a Physics GCSE paper, aimed at our brightest youngsters, that required no mathematical calculations. Last year's GCSE Physics papers prompted the Qualifications and Curricculum Authority (QCA) to rule that Physics papers were not sufficiently challenging, but AQA has sunk to a new low.

The paper was the P3 Higher Tier one, so a series of conceptual deductions, calculations, simple algebra and graph interpretation would have been expected, but thousands of pupils were surprised by the disappearance from the exam of the bulk of what they had struggled to learn.

The anonymous quote about the three levels of Physics has finally become complete, officially:
There are three levels of Physics courses: Physics with calculus, Physics without calculus and Physics without Physics.
A paper made up from simplistic sequencing and qualitative statement questions is not suitable for bright or even average students, who were disappointed that they were not to be properly tested after all their rigorous preparation.

We need a new generation of scientists and engineers, but they will not be challenged or tempted by the new and 'accessable' Physics Without Physics GCSE courses on offer.

Who are these courses now aimed at? The maths-phobic or the future core of a technological society?
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NUS Now Favours a Graduate Tax

The National Union of Students (NUS) has long campaigned for a university education completely funded by the state and for a return of the system of grants to cover living expenses, so the announcement of their future funding proposals comes as a bit of a shock.

Wes Streeting, the NUS president, had been under pressure to suggest an alternative to the current system of loans to pay for the fees, which start to be paid back when a graduate passes an earning threshold. He describes the proposals an 'not a simple graduate tax', and he is right - it is not simple.

Instead of a flat rate, the NUS plan has a sliding scale of tax, ranging from 0.3% to 3% depending on earnings. Wes says that this is needed to ensure that those who benefit most from their education pay back most.
There is also a system to encourage companies to pay some of the debt for employees.

I think that he has missed the meaning of 'percent', in that a single flat rate ensures that those earning more pay more. The sliding scale is a nakedly redistributive tax measure. In the NUS's words, though, it is 'progressive'.

The main motivation for the NUS funding suggestions is the pressure from the top research universities to raise the maximum fees charge from 3000 to at least 5000 pounds per year. These universities offer more of the expensive laboratory based courses than the newer institutions and are struggling to fund them. One solution is to recruit even more foreign students, who pay a much larger market rate for their studies, but local students are missing out on places.

Wes Streeting does not want an education market, but with more demand for top courses than places, something has to be done. But why should someone with two Es at A Level, studying an endemanding course at a undistinguished local college pay the same as someone studying Engineering at Cambridge?

A well educated and motivated graduate will benefit from their education, although it is their character and abilities as much as their qualifications that determines their level of career success. With the existing income tax system the Treasure already shares in the success of the best and most employable graduates. If you earn more then you pay more tax.

What is the reason for a punitive graduate tax that seeks to milk those deemed to have a privileged education, who will already be paying a higher rate of tax than others?

Coming from student political hacks, one might suggest it is just the standard class envy of the jealous young socialist. A detail from the NUS proposals that supports this guess is the limit on paying for the cost of your education if you can afford it. Wealthy families who would be happy to completely fund a course will be prevented from paying more than a small percentage, since it is these graduates who will be paying way over the odds for twenty years and funding those on lightweight courses who will never be taxed enough to cover the cost of their education.

It is nice to see the NUS abandoning one of its cherished policies, but this proposal offers more light on the proposers than on future university funding structures.

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Ofsted to Control Home Educators

The government intends to extend its close control of day-to-day activities of schools to include inspecting the education provided by home educating parents.

As wth much of government policy, the pretext given is reasonable - to make sure that children not going to school are given the same protection due from the Every Child Matters agenda. Some ministers seem to suspect that home education can be a cover for child abuse or forced marriage, even there is little evidence this is the case, and the main abuse story right now is the conviction of a worker at an Ofsted inspected nursery school.

But does this fear require an Ofsted inspection, with all the political encumberances and demands? School inspections long ago changed from a supportive overview from education experts to a dogma ridden tool of control.

Parents are entitled to educate their children however they wish, without state interference. They even have the right to make a complete hash of it, as many do from my experience of trying to teach their offspring when they have outgrown their home studies.

Ofsted will pressurise and threaten parents as they do with schools, and the role will inevitable evolve to demand specific activities and curricula. Several European countries have already banned home schooling, and inspections would be the first step to declaring that the rights of children to a decent education are being violated.

Councils are already responsible for ensuring that children taken out of schools are receiving an education - the switch to using Ofsted will be the beginning of the end of the right for parents to educate their children as they see fit.

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College Building Programme Saga Continues

The LSC, the government funding body for Sixth Form Colleges, has written to college principles this week to admit that they have messed up again.

In April this year, they wrote to say that the few successful projects from the mishandled multi-billion pound college rebuilding programme would be selected and announced on June 3rd (today). The main criterion they had hoped to use was a readiness to start building within weeks, assuming that most projects would fail to jump this hurdle. Now the LSC admits that they had seriously underestimated the numbers that would succeed, and will not be able to make a decision this month:
“Many more colleges have put forward a case for their projects to be considered as 'shovel ready' than expected, and so unfortunately we are not in a position to ask the Council on 3 June to approve individual projects.”
Most of these project have started to build already or could do so by September, so this is already cutting it a bit fine for instructing the contractors.

So, to further cull projects, the suggestion is now to pressurise colleges to cut corners on their plans:
“The challenge for colleges will therefore be to radically reduce the cost and the scope and sourcing of the funding of their projects. Revisions to the scope of projects could include rethinking or deferring whole projects, or components of projects, in favour of a contribution to costs incurred to date and/or funds for refurbishment. We will only consider funding complete re-builds where they are absolutely necessary, which should be in only a few cases.”
And although not wanting to rush anyone into any rash changes:
“We will expect all colleges on the short list to come back with revised bids and plans by the end of the month …”
The other selection criteria suggested will favour urban regeneration and poor inner-city areas, so there seems little chance for my college's project to get the nod. It is a complete rebuild in a provincial Sussex town, and although we currently squeeze 1500 students into what was, half a century ago, built as a 600 pupil boys' high school, I don't see us getting very far up the list.

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Who Gets Education in the Cabinet Reshuffle?

With the Labour Party likely to get massacred in Thursday's European and county elections, the Prime Minister is expected to radically overhaul his cabinet.

The good news seems to be that the Ministry for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) will be rid of Ed Balls, who as Secretary of State has presided over the college funding debacle and its 2.5 billion pound black hole. The bad news is that it sounds like this financial genius is heading for the Treasury as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Another worry is that we will get our seventh Labour minister in charge of education in twelve years (test yourself, can you name them all?) It could be argued that Balls, and the others failed to get to grips with such a large department's activities, not just because he was only ever interested in promotion, but because no-one stays in post for long enough to understand the job.

And looking around at the Parliamentary Labour Party, it is hard to see who could do the job, hasn't done it already before moving quickly on and has avoided making injudicious expenses claims.

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