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"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

Quantum mechanics

Written by Sophie Shawdon | Sunday 30 August 2009

Finally, a way of undoing all the mistakes society has made: climate change, the recession, and that Ms. Katona’s fifteen minutes of fame have been indefinitely extended. Perhaps the potentials of this idea need some further investigation...

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GCSE reform

Written by Sophie Shawdon | Friday 28 August 2009

Another year, another set of record-breaking GCSE results, another row over GCSEs. I took mine last year, and it did get boring hearing adults constantly badger on about how my A*s mean nothing and that I might as well have spent my study leave lying on a beach somewhere for all the difference it would have made.

But it is true that GCSEs need reforming. They’re over twenty years old, in which time schools have built up a bank of past papers and a wealth of experience with which they can cater their teaching more towards the exams. This isn’t crafty teaching but faults with the system: with mocks, end of year exams and GCSEs themselves, there’s no time for pupils to explore subjects beyond what is going to be on the paper. Besides, GCSE grades are currently all there is to show for those two years’ work, and in-depth knowledge and good exam technique can’t be differentiated just by marks. Besides, technique is quicker to teach.

The grade boundaries also need to change. Having 98.4% students passing their exams is impressive, but what does it mean? To pass, students must gain grade E or above. An A*-C is ‘good’. In last year’s Edexcel maths exam 36/100 got a C; 9 an E. Get roughly one out of three answers right and you’re ‘good’ at maths; get less than one in ten right and you’ll still pass. Something’s not quite right.

With the government’s plans to raise the compulsory level of education to 18, there is also the question of whether we need GCSEs at all. At the moment they help potential employers and Sixth Forms differentiate between students, everyone does A-Levels or vocational qualifications then employers will use those to differentiate; and if entrance exams work up to Year 11, then why not after it?


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A healthy debate

Written by Sophie Shawdon | Thursday 20 August 2009

Second only to zombies, the topic du jour it seems is lambasting the NHS. A new study brings some suitably shocking statistics for those who’ve already sorted their contingency plan for an invasion of the undead and aren’t overly concerned with Kerry Katona’s mental health. Apparently not only do NHS workers take more sick days than the average public sector worker and smoke just as much, but more than a quarter have absences due to ‘stress, depression and anxiety’.

Yes, the figures aren’t promising and are worth some consideration, but in reality they’re far from shocking, and most are in fact related to the job. Work in a hospital? Congratulations, your chances of getting an infection have significantly increased. While the Telegraph says picking up infections from patients wouldn’t explain all the absences, the runny noses and common colds the rest of us can work through will worsen the condition of the already sick. Far better to take a sickie and not risk it.

Saying the smoking figures should be lower because those working in hospitals have seen the effects first hand is failing to acknowledge that we all know someone who’s had cancer, we’ve all seen the effects and it hasn’t stopped one in five of us. Why should they be any different?

And the high stress and anxiety levels also come with the job. Every sympathy with that bad day in the office, but you don’t have people putting their life in your hands, you’re not handing out life-changing diagnoses, and you’re not dealing with people who are upset through sickness and bereavement – all valid reasons for a calming cigarette.

In the end, perhaps not so shocking. If these statistics extracted those in front line services from bureaucrats there might be a story. As it is, it is another missed opportunity to tackle the many necessary debates that need to be had on the future of healthcare in this country.

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Soft' A-Levels

Written by Sophie Shawdon | Wednesday 19 August 2009

The Conservatives’ new exam shake-up plans are all very well and good for gaining support from a public where the general consensus is that exams just aren’t the same as they were in the good old days (and who mostly haven’t sat an exam in over a decade and never will again) but in practice will only cause more problems. Schools pushing pupils into ‘soft’ A-Levels to inflate their league table position will push pupils towards whatever raises their scores, be it maths or media studies. Worse, the plans may pressure pupils into taking ‘hard’ subjects simply because they believe it’s what’s expected of them, rather than because they enjoy them. Ironically this will see further grade inflation with weaker students taking up these subjects, pushing those stronger candidates who would have taken the subject regardless further into the top grades.

Besides, while PPE at Oxford may suit Mr. Cameron, he fails to realise that not everyone is suited to, nor wants, the kind of classical education he got. The world works because people, rather than being united by desires of further education and a multi-million pound job, are good at and want different things. I note that none of the top unis are offering me a degree in plumbing (nor do I want one). Need I worry? No: my plumber, Tom, who did not go to Oxbridge or study quantum mechanics, but who is a proud possessor of several vocational qualifications (a big Conservative no-no), knows pipes like the back of his hand. Yes, we need trained scientists and doctors, but we also need people in those ‘less academic’ trades. Besides, we’ve got enough unemployed graduates as it is.

One last word on the ‘hard’/’soft’ debate: does academically undemanding translate as easy? Cameron seems to think so – so, if the results of the next general election swing in their favour, I would like to make them getting the legislation through conditional on one thing: that every single Conservative party member get an A in A-Level Dance. And then post the results on YouTube.

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