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Friday, 19 February 2016

Why we all need to be bilingual


Photo credit: Language learning via PhotoPin (License)

What traits come out top when people think about the British? A preoccupation with the weather? Sporting and athletic prowess? An attachment to the Royal Family? Speaking foreign languages is unlikely to feature high on anyone’s list - and with good reason.

In the European Union, a 46% minority speak just one language, including the British. More than nine in ten of the UK population are monolingual, speaking only English. According to the European Commission, we Brits lag some way behind the 19% of Europeans who are bilingual, the 25% who are trilingual and the 10% who speak four or more languages.

Professor Antonella Sorace is director of the Bilingualism Matters centre at the University of Edinburgh, established to promote the benefits of having more than one language. Earlier this month, she delivered a seminar at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, presenting her research team’s findings on how bilingualism and language learning improves the lives of children, adults of working age and retired people far beyond the convenience and pleasure of communicating with others.

Not only are children who speak two languages better at making themselves understood, they also understand others’ points of better and are more able to deal with complex situations. Lifelong language learning reaps lifelong rewards. Several studies have found that learning a language as an adult delays the ageing of the brain. In retired people, it enhances other mental abilities.

It’s hardly surprising that Professor Sorace is an advocate of compulsory language learning in schools and universities for all pupils and students - and she includes those who are studying STEM subjects at higher level. NEC student Aisha saw the benefits of language learning for herself and signed up for an IGCSE in French when she was going through the rigours of training to become a doctor. She had had little opportunity at school to study languages and knew when she began her medical training that she wanted to work with charities like Medicins Sans Frontiers when she had qualified.

Language-learning site Duolingo is a great way to give your brain a linguistic workout and test the waters before committing yourself to an IGCSE or A level. Launched in 2013, it already has more than 100 million users worldwide - and it’s free. Three of the four skills of language learning - listening, speaking and reading - are taught using online gaming techniques, with points earned and lives lost for correct and incorrect answers. There are 21 languages to choose from, including all the major European languages, and Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Russian.

If you already speak French, Spanish, German, Italian or Arabic and want to find out what level you are at now, East Surrey College has gathered together links to a range of online assessments. Now’s the time to take the plunge, whether you want to revive a rusty language you learnt at school years ago or start from scratch with something completely new. Even if you don’t become fluent, it will do your brain a world of good.
 

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Friday, 12 February 2016

Talking about educational opportunity

Ros Morpeth shaking the hand of Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace
Photo credit: Press Association

Yesterday, Prince Charles said he was pleased the valuable work of NEC has been recognised after all this time. We spoke briefly about the English historian Peter Laslett, not only a close associate of NEC’s founder Michael Young but also Prince Charles’ tutor when he was an undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge.

In the Queen’s Birthday Honours last June, I was awarded an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) for services to further education. I was at the investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace receiving my OBE medal.

Prince Charles gave me only one medal yesterday. If I had thousands more, here’s who I’d give them to. There would be a medal for each of the hundreds of people who have worked with NEC over the last 50 years – staff in Cambridge as well as the national network of tutors, course developers, writers, editors and designers who are part of the national NEC community. Every one of them has kept faith with the belief that you can study at home, in prison or in a submarine under the sea just as effectively as you can in a classroom. That’s not always been easy: distance learning and e-learning have their detractors.

There would be a medal for all our learners, the tens of thousands of people who have found the self-discipline to complete courses, pass exams and change their lives. Michael Young called NEC ‘the invisible college of Cambridge’. Adult learners are often invisible too. What their friends, relations and neighbours see is the person holding down a job, the carer, the parent, the partner. Learning is just one of many things NEC students find time for, often when the people they live with are asleep, at work, at school or out enjoying themselves.

When NEC’s first students enrolled in 1963, TV broadcast for only seven and a half hours a day. Colour TV was four years in the future. Now, our students talk to one another on subject forums, in the middle of the night if they like. There’s a world of a difference between distance learning in the mid-20th century and online learning in the second decade of the 21st century.

I see time and time again that the people who need the flexibility NEC offers have changed very little since those early years. Mothers who want to work outside the home, people with ambitions for a new career, prisoners determined to make good use of their time inside: these are the people who were NEC learners when we began. They are our learners all these years later.

Lottie Blunden is a single parent of four and one of a growing number of students enrolling with NEC to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects. Lottie started studying AS level biology with NEC in January 2014. She’s in her first year at university now, studying for a degree in midwifery. When she qualifies, she wants to work in the National Health Service. Getting to university meant starting virtually from scratch with science after a 25-year gap, at the same time as holding down waitressing, admin and cleaning jobs to support her family.

You didn’t have to do a degree to become a midwife in the 1960s. Apart from that, Lottie’s story could be the story of a woman of her grandmother’s generation, with ambitions to develop a career while her children were growing up.

Just four days ago, the Prime Minister announced an overhaul of the prison system. Since Michael Gove became Justice Secretary last summer, he has been an advocate for prison education. NEC’s work with the Prisoners’ Education Trust and St Giles Trust to help prisoners, ex-offenders and those who support them is just one of the many reasons I’m so pleased to see prison education being championed at the highest levels of government.

Although Prince Charles wouldn’t have been aware of it during his two years studying in Cambridge, just a decade earlier, Michael Young and his tutor Peter Laslett had begun to push for an expansion of higher education. They were much preoccupied with questions of social esteem and social justice at undergraduate level, arguments that are still exercising us today. Only this week, the government has suggested university admissions departments target white working class boys alongside ethnic minorities.

Very early yesterday morning, I left Cambridge in the dark for my visit to Buckingham Palace. Today, I walked into NEC’s office in Cambridge, dressed exactly as I was for my visit to London, fascinator in hand. I was greeted by colleagues - and a cake made by Christine, who works on our accounts team. I’ve already said that there aren’t enough medals for all the people I would like to give one to. There isn’t enough cake for everyone to have a slice, either. Between us, though, we have enough ambition to carry on supporting everyone who deserves a second, third or fourth chance at learning.

Ros Morpeth, CEO of NEC
 

Ros and Christine cut the cake which Christine made to celebrate Ros receiving her OBE
Above: Ros and Christine cut the cake which Christine made to celebrate Ros receiving her OBE

 

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Thursday, 11 February 2016

Another chance to take legacy AQA A level exams

2017 calendar with June circled

AQA, one of the UK’s largest awarding organisations of qualifications, has made a welcome announcement following the recent Ofqual consultation over whether there should be a resit opportunity for A level subjects that changed in September 2015.

As well as agreeing that there will in fact be a resit opportunity in 2017 for the outgoing specifications, AQA have also stated that there will be an opportunity to sit the exams for the first time for students that have enrolled on these courses before September 2015.

The official letter from AQA on 4th February sets out the Ofqual guidelines that re-sits only should be held in 2017. AQA go on to state that: ‘However we recognise that students may have enrolled for these courses before September 2015 intending to complete the course of study over several years…’

2017 will be the final opportunity to resit exams for outgoing NEC A levels in:

  • Business Studies
  • Sociology
  • Psychology
  • English Language
  • English Language and Literature
  • English Literature


Student Services Development Manager at NEC Louise Tolhurst is responsible for ensuring that NEC students get the right information about exams, as well as working with our partnership exam centres across the country.

‘I am really pleased to hear that there will be an opportunity for NEC students to resit these exams in 2017,’ she said. ‘It is also great to see that AQA are acknowledging that not all students have the same needs, and that some may have enrolled before the specifications changed with the intention of spreading study over a number of years.

‘Having this flexibility, which is one of the things that appeals to students about distance learning, will give many of our students peace of mind. It will also be a motivator for those who are at risk of not continuing because of the time pressures placed on them.’

If you are an NEC student and want to know how this affects you, please do get in touch with us. You may also find AQA’s timeline of changes useful. You can find this here.
 

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Friday, 05 February 2016

Can you study science A levels by distance learning?

Please note: this post contains information which may now be out of date. Please contact us if you would like to know more. You may also find this more recent post useful.

A series of glass test tubes containing different colored liquids

Sciences at A level are NEC’s most popular subjects and one question we are asked on a regular basis is ‘is it possible to study a science by distance learning?’

The answer: Absolutely yes!

NEC have just launched 3 new Gold Star A levels in Biology, Chemistry and Physics.

One of the reasons we’re often asked if science A levels can be studied at a distance is the practical work. Can you really do this from home?

We’ll answer this in two parts: the core practicals throughout the course and the assessment of practical work.

What are the core practicals?

At A level you’ll be expected to gain knowledge of certain practical procedures and processes. Throughout the course you’ll come across core practicals which are designed to help you achieve this.

In the course the practicals that you need to have knowledge of will be explained in a lot of detail and have accompanying questions to help you to understand the process and operations you’re using. We’ll always give sample results as part of the knowledge you are expected to gain is how to present and analyse these.

On some occasions though, you will have your own results to analyse because where possible, we’ll also show you how you can do the practical in your own home. We’ve put an example below, you might want to give it a try!

A level Chemistry: Making a standard solution

What you’ll learn:

This practical will help you to develop the skill of making a solution of accurately known concentration. Not as straightforward as it sounds, each operation needs to be done in a specific way.

  • How to make a standard solution
  • Taking a correct reading from the meniscus on a liquid surface
  • Calibration of glassware


What you’ll need:

  • Scales accurate to 0.01g- Your kitchen scales might work for this
  • Volumetric flask - You can pick these up on Amazon for around £5
  • Beaker and glass stirrer - you can use a clean cup and teaspoon for this (but only if your substance and solvent are things you would usually find in the kitchen)
  • A substance such as citric acid  or sodium hydrogen carbonate (better known as sodium bicarbonate) or tartaric acid (better known as cream of tartar)
  • A solvent - distilled water is ideal
  • Container for weighing such as a weighing boat or small container (note: it needs to be washable so you cannot use paper)


What you do:

  • Weigh your empty container
  • Add your substance and then weigh again, making a note of the weight
  • Add the substance to your beaker (unless of course, you’ve used your beaker as as your empty container)
  • Add some of your solvent-about a third of the quantity you will need overall
  • Transfer your solution to the volumetric flask
  • Rinse the beaker and anything else you have use for the solid and transfer the washings to the volumetric flask
  • Add solvent to the flask until the lower edge of the meniscus reaches the mark on the neck


You’re done! You should now have enough data to calculate the concentration of the solution you have made.

What about practical exams?

The A level exam is written, with no practical element. Having said this, throughout the exam you will be expected to use your understanding of practical theory to answer questions. You will have gained this knowledge through the core practicals we talked about above.

For some university programmes, like medicine, you will need to demonstrate practical skills as well as knowledge. In addition to the A level, you will be able to gain a practical endorsement to show this. This practical endorsement does not form part of the full A level, but is an additional grade that you can achieve.

Find out more

To learn more about NEC and our full range of flexible distance learning courses, including A levels in Biology, Chemistry and Physics, visit our website or speak to our team. We can also be found on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Keep up with all the latest news and events by subscribing to our newsletter!
 

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Friday, 08 January 2016

What's your New Year's learning resolution?

Margarita’s notebook, where she will record her progress on her New Year’s learning resolution
Above: Margarita’s notebook, where she will record her progress on her New Year’s learning resolution

Happy New Year!

We’re glad to be back after the seasonal break and getting back into gear at NEC HQ. It’s a time for fresh starts, new ideas and sinking your teeth into your to-do list. Many of you may have already thought about the resolutions you want to make for the New Year, as we have been doing at the office. Perhaps you want to visit a place you’ve never been before, take up a new hobby, learn a new skill, get a new job, or simply indulge your curiosity and look up something you’ve been meaning to find out about?

Of course, our natural tendency is to lean towards something to do with education or learning in our own New Year’s resolutions. However, it’s fair to say the New Year is indeed an ideal time to get started if you want to fit more learning into your life. To help get you inspired, here are some ideas from members of the NEC team based at our offices in Cambridge:

Carly is even more driven to succeed with her learning this year, after having achieved a major goal in 2015. She says, “I feel really motivated to stick to my New Year’s learning resolution this year after finishing the Award in Education and Training last year. I'm going to get on with the CMI management course, which I have been putting off for some time now!”

Margarita, who originally hails from Germany (and whose notebook is pictured above), has already made a start on her New Year’s learning resolution, which came about quite spontaneously. “I received this notebook as a Christmas present and it occurred to me to use it to write down English words that are new to me, along with an explanation of their meaning in German. It will be really fun to see how many new words I have learned by next year!”

Stephanie is thinking about brushing up on her language skills too. “One of my new year's resolutions is to fill in the grammar gaps that have been created in my memory since studying languages seriously a few years ago,” she explains. “It's fun to be able to communicate, but I'm beginning to realise that I need a little more than bricks. Somehow I've got to get some mortar back in there. So it's back to the books for me, which I'm really looking forward to. So if any language students are moaning about grammar, I would say it's definitely worth learning it thoroughly the first time round, as the "mortar" will then take a lot longer to crumble away.”

Alison is our third NEC staff member who is also thinking about language-related learning goals, but the language she is interested in is sign language. “I'm thinking about learning British Sign Language, but haven't arranged anything yet,” she says. “I like the idea of learning a language and sign language has always fascinated me. I learnt to sign the alphabet when I was in my teens... I think I need to move on!”

As well as learning a language, Alison is also interested in finding out more about different periods of English history. “My area of ‘specialism’ is the Plantagenet period, especially the Wars of Roses time span,” she explains. “I feel I need to know more about the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans. Luckily, I have ten billion books in the spare room, gathered from various Oxfam and other second-hand book shops, that might help me learn. I just need to find the time to read them...”

Finding time to read is a problem Sophie shares with Alison. “I have a list of books about various topics that have caught my eye or been recommended by friends that I keep saying I’ll get around to reading. The new year would be a good excuse to finally get started.

“I also have a backlog of factual documentaries to catch up on,” she adds. “For instance, Sir David Attenborough has a new natural history programme out about the Great Barrier Reef, and I know it will be available on BBC iPlayer. I just need to get around to watching it. I don’t watch a lot of television any more, but the BBC has a way of making science and natural history programmes that keep you curious. I think that’s a good thing; it encourages people to stay curious and keep learning throughout life.”

What are your New Year’s learning resolutions? Let us know in the comments, or join the discussion on social media by tweeting at us or posting on our Facebook page. You might also find our previous blog about choosing a subject to study useful if you want to narrow down the focus of your learning resolution, and you can even download free course samples from our website as tasters!

Whatever your plans for 2016, we hope you will have the opportunity to enjoy learning something new this year. Let us know how you get on!
 

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