October 2020. Lockdown for University Students, School Exams 2021, UK Three Tier System

Thursday October 22nd, 2020

Welcome to your October update. Most pupils will be on half-term now – but chances are for lots of you it will be unlike any half-term break we’ve had before. With many pupils staying on at school because of COVID travel restrictions, it must feel very different for families across the world. So in this issue, we’ll try to strike a balance between important education and coronavirus updates and a more light-hearted take on the latest news in the sector.

The UK’s three-tier system

Ковид в АнглииThe government is placing different restrictions on areas across England as their COVID-19 rates increase or decrease. The Local COVID Alert Levels – (medium, high and very high) – are implemented based on local infection rates.

As of Saturday 17th October, 5% of England’s population – 2.8 million people – were under Tier 3 rules. London is among the regions moved to the higher lockdown rules (Tier 2) along with areas including York, Essex and Barrow-in-Furness. The BBC has launched an interactive map that lists local restrictions by UK postcode. Just enter the postcode at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-54373904 and it will list the current rules for socialising, shopping, working, etc. in that region.

Pre-Christmas lockdown for university students?

Ministers are proposing that universities in England implement a two-week lockdown from 8th to 22nd December. The government’s idea, which is still in its early stages of development, is that during this period all teaching should be carried out online to minimise contact and opportunities for the virus to spread. The objective would be for all students to be able to return home for Christmas from 22nd December should they choose to (and dependent on their home countries’ COVID rules).

One of the issues with this plan is that it overlooks universities’ varying end-of-term dates. For example, Oxbridge lectures and tutorials will have finished by 8th December, and therefore the proposal could ultimately increase the risk of transmission. With no formal teaching and fewer study-based distractions, students may be more likely to socialise during the fortnight, and then transport hubs nationwide would be inundated as more than a million students head for home on the same day.

Read more here.

2021 exams – three weeks later than usual

Ministers have confirmed that GCSEs, AS and A Level exams will go ahead next summer, but with a three-week delay to allow for extra teaching time. There are calls for more clarity and a wider choice of topics in papers to allow for the fact that many pupils may have missed sections of the syllabus due to the need to self isolate. Because although many independent schools have introduced private testing to keep schools open and students in class wherever possible – in state-run schools many pupils have been unable to get a test and lost valuable teaching time whilst they’re forced to quarantine at home until a test is available.

Read more here about Headteachers’ concerns. Take a look at an interesting challenge from a new campaign group urging ministers to ‘Rethink Assessment’ and give the GCSE and A Level system a major overhaul.

Why creative subjects aren’t just good for the soul

Photo by Anthony Shkraba from PexelsRecent features in The Times and The Telegraph have looked at music and art respectively and the roles these more creative subjects can play in helping children be successful. It’s not so much about raising the next Mozart or Picasso – more that encouraging the skills, connections and different sort of discipline that music and art demand can improve children’s recall ability, their concentration and build their confidence.

One of the theories is that when you’re creating art, the act of putting pen, pencil, pastel, paint, etc. to paper continually reaffirms your ability to make decisions. Tutors, authors and illustrators all agree that drawing helps children engage more in the world around them because they’re considering how to replicate or represent it on paper (or in any medium). From a cognitive perspective, this process is about communicating something in a way not dissimilar to language. And because it exercises the right hand side of a child’s brain, it can be relaxing and absorbing. Many parents report that art has a calming effect on their child because they’re fully engaged and focused at a slower, more thoughtful pace.

Those in the know (such as headteacher at the Sunny Art Centre in central London, Yinjie Sun) agree that art can encourage children to see and think about things differently, and strive to communicate this through their art. Which can help them in other ways beyond the studio. Yinjie Sun says:

“Studying the fine arts will encourage children to think outside of the box and hone their problem-solving skills by encouraging them to find new and creative ways to solve issues at hand.” I love this sentiment from an art student at Central Saint Martins, which supports that idea: “You don’t even have to be perfect at drawing. It’s about what you think that nobody else thinks that matters.”

For families considering an independent education in the UK, a “bulging art portfolio” can also help children shine in some of the UK’s best independent schools’ common entrance exams, which very often include a drawing test as well as a discussion about a pupil’s favourite artists. So, regular gallery trips are recommended too. Culture Whisper, a team dedicated to sharing insider info on London’s cultural scene, has collated some of the capital’s best exhibitions for autumn 2020 – though do be mindful of increased COVID-related constraints as London enters Tier 2 restrictions.

Improved recall – music to your ears?

Photo by cottonbro from PexelsAccording to a study by neuroscientists in Chile, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience and reported on by The Times, learning to play a musical instrument helps children develop better attention and memory recall.

Whilst music lessons may not improve cognitive skills or link directly to better grades, tests showed that areas of the brain involved in attention control and auditory encoding were more active in musically trained children. And these functions are known to be associated with better reading abilities, resilience, greater creativity and an overall improved quality of life.

Half the children (all aged 10 to 13) involved in the study met four musical criteria: they played an instrument, had two years of music lessons under their belts, practised for at least two hours each week and played in an orchestra or ensemble of some sort. The other 20 children had only musical experience gained from the national curriculum on their musical CV and formed the ‘control group’ for this study, led by violinist and neuroscientist Leonie Kausel.

Children looked at an image and heard a short melody. They could choose to focus on one, both or neither, but all were asked to recall both two seconds later with a series of yes/no questions. Although there was no difference in reaction time between the two groups, the musically trained cohort’s memory recall was markedly better than their counterparts’.

Brain regions involved in the task deal with auditory processing and establishing connections between sound and movement as well as goal-oriented and cognitively demanding tasks.

Dr Kausel believes that the children’s musical training increased the “functional activity” of their brain networks – with the outcome being a noticeably improved ability to retain and rapidly recall (auditory) information.

I’m fascinated by these findings and am reminded of a primary school teacher I know who claps rhythms to her class and asks them to clap the same rhythm back to her. Unless it is a particular five-clap rhythm that stands for ‘clap, clap, don’t clap back’ in a sort of complicated variation on the classic ‘Simon Says’ game! It’s borrowed, I think, from music theory in graded exams, which tests students on their ability to recognise, memorise and replicate rhythms. The effect it has on her class is impressive. Their focus and attention is immediately on her and the competitive element (don’t clap back the five-clap rhythm!) adds a touch of jeopardy that the six and seven year olds seem to thrive on. You only have to try the game yourself to see how much focus it demands. If such a simple act makes multi-tasking impossible – imagine the mindfulness that playing a musical instrument can promote. It must be good for our mental health, as well as all the associated memory and concentration benefits these researchers have identified.

Tatler School Awards announced for 2020

Tatler magazine has been keeping readers up-to-date with lifestyle, fashion and society events since its inaugural edition in 1901. Its annual awards for independent schools cover seven categories, and this year’s winners were announced in a virtual ceremony earlier this month.

Cottesmore School in West Sussex was named Best Preparatory School – with Surrey-based Reigate Grammar bagging the Best Public School title.

Benenden School in Kent, which numbers Queen Anne amongst its illustrious alumni, won the Best Food Award for its mouth-watering menus and meals.

Categories also included Best Heads, Lifetime Achievement and Unsung Hero Awards.