February 2020. Choosing GCSE and A Level subjects. Technology at Schools.

Tuesday February 11th, 2020

Welcome to your February update. As parents of pupils in Years 9 and 11 will know, it’s a busy time of year. As the deadline for choosing which GCSE and A Level subjects to study looms, it can feel quite stressful for all the family, so we share a few tips below. Also in this month’s blog, we’ll be exploring technology in schools and discussing the benefits and pitfalls of a technologically connected age as far as education is concerned.

At an education crossroads: selecting GCSEs…

Year 9 pupils across the land are choosing which subjects they want to study for the next two years. It feels like – and it is – a big decision. Sometimes independent schools are able to offer more choice due to greater resource. They may not have the issue of timetable clashes that state schools suffer, and they may offer a wider range of subjects (such as additional modern languages) than their government-run counterparts. This can feel like a mixed blessing come February. The more choice you have, the more daunting the selection can be sometimes.

I like the idea of considering a Venn diagram, with circles encompassing subjects you really enjoy, subjects you’re good at and subjects that will set you up to study for the career path you have in mind. Of course not everyone has that trajectory mapped out in their mind at this tender age – but if you can encourage your child to consider a selection of the subjects he or she likes best and those he or she excels at, then, combined with the compulsory ‘core’ subjects of English, maths, science, a modern language and a humanity, plus PE, it’s likely they’ll have a good breadth of subjects that means they’ll enjoy their studies, succeed in them and set themselves up for specialising more come Year 11. Check out last February’s blog for a more detailed summary of GCSE options and obligatory subjects.

‘Newer’ GCSEs such as computer science and design & technology, both of which have been updated in the last five years, can offer a good overview or introduction to these more practical subjects. But there are concerns that what they cover may not be the most relevant for today’s 15 and 16 year olds. Most believe learning to program in different computer languages is less useful to them than understanding cyber security or the impact of social media on mental wellbeing. More on that later…

…and A Levels

Subjects ALevelChoosing A Levels seems very serious. But in some senses it feels like a more natural progression. By age 16 or so, it’s likely your child has a clearer idea of what they like, what they’re good at and where and what they want to be. Whereas breadth and range is the name of the game at GCSE, now it might make sense to narrow the scope. It depends on your ultimate goal, but prospective medics or vets will need to focus on separate sciences, whilst linguists will likely opt for at least two modern languages, possibly combined with classics, Latin or a business or politics type of option. We talked in a previous blog though, about the trend and increasing opportunities for multiple careers and unusual combinations. So, to a certain extent it still makes sense to be guided by what you like and what you’re good at. There’s no point being miserable for two years – and if you don’t enjoy your subject choice now – do you really want to make a career out of it?  Your child will no doubt have had chance to discuss ideas and options with teachers and hear from former pupils about different subjects, but if you’d like impartial advice based on an in-depth knowledge of the top UK independent schools, do get in touch. We can work with you and your child to work out the best subject match for their skills and aspirations.

Technology in schools

It’s a controversial but crucial topic. We’ll briefly explore the potential and pitfalls, and see how UK independent schools are well-placed to manage both aspects in order to provide their pupils with the best possible education.

The hardware

Technology at schoolIndependent schools can afford the best hardware, from touch-screen technology to hand-held devices for all pupils throughout their education. But they also recognise the dangers inherent in being too reliant on devices, especially in a pupil’s early years. Because research suggests an over-reliance on technology is detrimental to the way the neural networks in the brain develop.

Associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine, Aric Sigman, says too much screen time too soon affects a child’s “ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them [and] to build a large vocabulary.”

More so than ever before, children need to learn to adapt in readiness for life and work. It sets them up for success in a fast-paced technological world far better than a reliance on one type of technology that will probably be obsolete by the time they graduate and enter the word of work. Maximising neural capacity enables children to adapt and apply learning. External stimuli and human interaction are crucial to achieving this at the tender age of 0 to 3. You can read more about that here.

But researchers say it’s not just our early years that dictate our brain’s development. According to scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health, the human brain continues to mature until age 25. They believe Millennials’ brains are developing differently from their parents’, because of their almost constant interaction with technology. Their concern is that this might make it harder for young people to communicate, concentrate, process information and remember events. More on that here.

It’s no secret that the tech giants of Silicon Valley prefer to send their kids to Montessori schools in the US (those that focus on children’s emotional and social as well as intellectual wellbeing rather than relying on technology). What the most successful and well-known ‘techies’ share are traits of persistence, determination, resilience – characteristics that independent school alumni show in abundance. It’s not the technology per se that fosters these traits, although used well it can channel them. By developing those traits, students can be their best in whatever career path they choose.

Read more here about why tech tycoons don’t entirely trust the technology where their children are concerned!

Staying safe and connected 

Social Media DangersThe systems, processes and platforms schools use to teach and share information, and the ways in which pupils are encouraged to research and learn, are a crucial and ever-changing part of the educational landscape. Who among us remembers having to hand-write degree assignments that we researched by reading journals in the library?! No round-the-clock internet access for graduates of the Gen X era!

In all seriousness though, one of the several dichotomies of technology is that it enables us to share so much so quickly; the flip side of course being how to keep users safe. The down side of being able to share in real time is all too obvious in social media. The independent schools I work alongside take the pastoral care side of online safety extremely seriously. They work with pupils and parents to ensure students have a really good grasp of the potential dangers of the digital world. Whether that’s staying safe online, protecting hardware from cyber attacks or understanding the delicate relationship between social media and mental health.

Still on the subject of sharing, developing technologies can improve systems for setting, marking, sharing and submitting assignments. Cloud-based systems enable teachers, tutors, parents and pupils to mark up amends or comments on the same version of a document – or even adapt a lesson plan or project to a specific child’s needs. It’s fast, individualised and efficient and prepares students for the ways in which many companies will share, create and approve info internally. Using technology to create more efficient processes that improve outcomes is surely a win-win situation.

Educational technologiesI recently joined 34,000 delegates at the UK’s largest conference looking at the ‘education technology landscape’. It’s attended by all the biggies: Microsoft and Google (I met with their reps who talked about how they’re developing their learning management systems), Minecraft and Spotify, amongst 800 other leading companies, as well as over a hundred new EdTech startups, and it attracts education specialists from almost 150 countries across the world. It’s an exciting, uplifting, inspiring event. I always leave feeling motivated by the way technology, done well, can shape the future of education and help children thrive in all aspects of their learning. Read more at: www.bettshow.com/

So, in conclusion, I would say that UK independent schools have the resources and skill to channel all of this knowledge and awareness into the way they integrate technology into their teaching. They have the time, funds and flexibility (that state schools sadly lack) to adapt their syllabus to their students’ needs and use technology effectively, whilst teaching pupils about its huge potential and its possible pitfalls.