Friday, 29 June 2012

AS/A2 history, an examiner writes......

It's round about this time of year that the press, government, anyone over 50, anyone who went to Grammar School, and anyone who votes Conservative, starts to harrumph and tut and mention how, when they were at school, doing the O Levels, exams were really MUCH harder, in fact, you had to be an astrophysicist just to write your name on the paper. Exams now are all easy, they can answer a big fat "yes" in green crayon and get an A*. We all know it's true. GCSE is worth nothing, it's just a big trick we play on kids. And AS/A2, well, just the same. Despite the last report from the universities themselves saying that A-Levels were "largely fit for purpose", the Gove has been frothing and mentioning how they'll be made harder, and, as a sub-text, how much easier it'll be to keep the oiks out of university as a result. If they aren't put off by having to sell their first born Rumpelstiltkin stylee to pay the fees, then the toughening of AS/A2 should do the job and see them all with grotty Fails anyway.

It makes me mad. Exams literally make me mad. As if teaching for them for years wasn't enough, recent penury and a desire to crank my historical brain up a notch has led me to be an examiner this year. I have just emerged from a  tunnel papered in 450 A Level exam scripts, and i'm not pretty. I have been eating exam papers, dreaming them. My nights have been peopled with Robespierres who did not read the Question, and a particularly nasty Garibaldi who compared the wrong two sources and proceeded to chase me down the road wielding a packet of Bourbons. I have those lumps on your fingers you get when you've done too much writing, pen pads of pain, and 10 empty red biros. I have approximately 10 brain cells left. All the others have gone, been squished out of my fingertips and merged with the red pen of death, that writes the levels that will determine the fate of the hapless candidates.

It's been ruddy hard work, in other words. I estimated that each paper took between 10-30 minutes to mark. Some are easier than others, obviously, but most require thought on the part of the examiner, because they show attributes of more than one level, and you must then determine whether they go up or down some points. It's more difficult than you imagine. You may have a run of fairly adequate but uninspired what you imagine to be solid Level 3, but then along comes something good, it's a Level 1. Is it? Then along come a better one, is that? How about that candidate? They did circles as dots on their "i" 's , but they wrote pretty well. And that one, that's utterly illegible. That took me an hour with a magnifying glass. This one answered the wrong question, that one compared the wrong sources. This one ran out of time and wrote "sorry" at the end. The majority of them tried hard ( you know who you are, candidate who basically retold me the film of Marie Antoinette), and nearly all of them are waiting on these results and panicking. I don't yet know what the A grade mark will be, but I know that some of my candidates desrved it. And boy, did they deserve it. To get a Level 1 mark in my particular paper, ( which is one of two they must take that year) a candidate must be exceptional. In short, they must answer 2 questions, one comparing two historical documents from a selection of 5, which can be plucked from any time period and on any topic within that, within the time frame they've studied, and the other asking them to write an essay, refuting or supporting a statement, using all five documents. So, to take an example, the French Revolution 1774- 1795. that's quite a lot to revise, a lot of topics and times that can come up. The actual question this year focused on the Assembly of Notables and the role of the Nobility in bringing about the revolution. The skills required in the essay question are thus:

Recall, select and deploy historical knowledge appropriately, communicating clearly. Demonstrate understanding of the past through explanation, analysis, and substantiated judgements, including but not limited to, causation, consequence, continuity, change, and significance within a historical context, the relationships between key features and characteristics of the period studied. A Level 1 student will give a convincing analysis and argument with developed explanation leading to careful supported and persuasive judgement arising from a consideration of content and provenance. There will be sharply focused use and control of a range of reliable evidence to confirm, qualify and extend the sources. There will be a coherant, organises tructure and accurate and effective communication. Strengths, limitations and utility of all the sources will be evaluated in relation to the interpretation. they will use and cross-refernce points to support or refute, and integrate sources with contextual knowledge that is convincing, with synthesis throughout the argument.

And they must do this, along with two or three other subjects. 

Easy. Honestly, these A levels, anyone can do them. No, really. In fact, i'd LOVE Mr Gove to do one. I'd mark it for him.

But while i'm waiting for Mr Goves' press office to get back to me with the news that he'll agree, here are some tips for the AS/A2 history candidate.

Read the paper and all the questions before you write ANYTHING. You would be surprised by the amount of candidates who fly off pen in hand writing like a  mad thing and comparing the wrong two sources, for which the ceiling mark is NOT GOOD.
Write clearly. I will decipher what you give me regardless, but there's no doubt it helps to be able to read the answer, if only for fluency and enjoyments sake.
Writing coherently and grammar/ spelling DOES matter. That A is out of reach if you write a great argument but can't write Hitler without writing Hilter. Throughout the whole answer. Or if your salient points are lost in half a page of waffle and spelling mistakes.
Writing frames: I know your teacher gave you one to follow, and yes, it does help if you are a candidate the wrong side of weak. But if you have flair, please do show it, and that you cannot do if you are parroting a frame.
Read a book or two beforehand.
Explain, or support, don't assert.
Use, don't describe or impart.

I shall attempt to drum up a decent guide for students and teachers once i've written my examiners report. But for now, I'm falling onto a bottle of wine. And drunk dialling Mr Gove.

If you'd like to see the sort of "easy" A Level Gove and I are talking about, you can see the papers and markschemes here.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Elderflower wine that doesn't smell of cat wee.

It's Elderflower time. And time for wine.

You know elderflowers: you can smell them a mile off. They're on every footpath, every housing estate, every street. Someone in your road will have one. I have two, pretty black elders with pink flowers, but they're mostly just a big green bush or tree, with creamy yellowy white flowers that oftentimes smell disarmingly like cat wee.

In the interests of science and the pressing need to brew my own alcohol that doesn't taste of cat wee, I enlisted the help of friends. Kate "The nose" Walker has a fine snozzle that detects the vaguest hint of cat wee about any elder blossom. Likewise, my friend Tanya "The Brewhouse" Southern is able to spot a likely Elder at 50 foot. But what it comes down to in the end, I think, is the smell that YOU like. After a scientific assessment which involved inviting everyone I know round for a party and getting them to drunkenly sniff bits of my trees, I conclude that no one person has the same sense about a blossom. It's probably a bit like asparagus wee: either you smell it or you don't. I suggest then, picking blossoms that you don't mind the smell of, no matter what your co-picker might say.

You will need to pick 3 pints of blossom per gallon of intended wine, on as sunny a morning as you can find before they start going over.  As I only have 2 demi-johns going free right now (damn you dandelion wine!), I picked 6 pints worth. You are aiming for blossoms that are open, fully flowering but not going over, and to your sense of smell, nice smelling. You need more blossom, less stalk. So snip at the main stalk (elder flowers are umbelliforous) and then snip again to release all the little umbrellas of flowers. You want a full pints worth, but not crushed down, lightly pressed is good. You'll need some scissors. Elder is very sappy, the stalks won't snap.The picture here shows my mix of pink and white elder.

Once you've got them, the process is very similar to dandelion wine. Boil water, rinse. Boil water, cover, leave for 48 hours. Then, add 2lb of sugar per final gallon, and a pint of white grape juice per final gallon. This adds sugar and body to the final wine. Heat the mixture and dissolve the sugar in as much water as is necessary, top up to your final gallon amount. Add your wine yeast and nutrient, according to instructions. Pour into your sterilised demijohns, and plug with your airlock. And Leave. Leave. Leave. No, really, leave. LEAVE IT.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

By your kids' lunchbox shall ye be known.

Last month a survey (by YouGov) revealed that 48% of teachers had seen children come into school hungry. Not just wanting a bag of crisps, hungry. (reported in the Independent, here)  Many parents reading this will be saying to themselves, "Nonsense! How can the teacher tell anyway?". Here is how. Teachers are very aware of how your child is fed. And how they eat. As parents, we all know how you can tell the blood sugar has dipped in your darling by these well trusted signs: lack of concentration, tantrums, sleepiness, whining. It's partly that.  Every teacher loves the mornings, in the main, as the kids (should) have had a breakfast, are awake, and ready to learn. But we can also sense when a child isn't fed enough breakfast by these all too frequent signs. These come from my own experience in both primary and secondary.

If a child is eating a bag of Quavers after being chucked out of the car, that's probably the breakfast.
If a child (we're talking primary here) eats not only their own fruit snack, but the leavings of others, they've not had breakfast. If they stare longingly at the snack bowl all morning until snack time, that's a clue.
If a child drinks their entire water bottle by 9am, and then again, that's either diabetes, or hunger.
If a child eats paper, that's either pica, or hunger.
If a child is given food by their mates, the mates know. 

Similarly, here are some sad lunchboxes i've seen.
One slice of bread. That's all.
A shrivelled satsuma.
A jar of gherkins and a slice of ham. 
Those biscuits you get given in hotels and cafes, wrapped.

Now, it's all too easy to think to yourself that these people are idiots. But often, they are not. They are working or non-working parents in debt, trouble, and poverty. Often, just getting the kids to school is a real effort, and it's one they make because at school, the child is warm ( then the radiators at home can be switched off) and fed. Of course, most of these families will be entitled to free school meals, and let me tell you, thank God for that. It's often the one meal a day they'll get that isn't nourishment poor. But many many children who need school meals don't get them, for a while initially, because of many reasons. The parents English may be poor, the paperwork and benefit entitlement isn't there yet, the wage is high enough to miss out on the meals, yet low enough to leave the family in poverty. That's why the continuation of free school meals for the needy is essential, the roll-out and publicising of them vital. The difference in a child who has eaten well, post lunch, is palpable. Similarly, the child who has eaten poorly at lunch, whether through lack of food or too plentiful a portion of hyping up sugary food, will be the teachers nightmare. So it's a simple case for affordable, available school dinners. By these means, kids get fed, kids get educated, and kids in need are flagged up. Because there is, as every teacher knows, a correlation between kids who eat poorly and kids who wear the same clothes all week, and have shoes with sellotape on. Getting the kids fed also gets them into the system whereby they get help.

And then there's the other end. The fat end. The kid is well dressed, in clothes a good 4 sizes bigger than everyone else. They're loved. Too loved. Here are some lunchboxes i've seen.

Chocolate spread sandwiches, chocolate biscuit, chocolate bar. Sweet drink.
4 rounds of white bread, stuffed with cheese and ham, 2 bags of crisps, chocolate biscuit, token satsuma.  For a 5 year old.
A cold kebab. Yes, really.

The government , this one and the last, worries about childhood obesity, as well they might. It linkes to adult diabetes, early onset diseases of varying ilk, and much cost to the NHS. I live in an area of high childhood obesity, and it's not nice to see kids of 5 waddle as they are dropped off at the school gate by their parents, in cars, looking like human duvets with eyes, squashed into the seats. Yes, the school rules say no  nuts and no fizzy drinks, but it takes a superhuman dinnerlady to wrestle a coke bottle from a screaming Chardonnay-Leanne. And to a certain extent, if the kid eats policed salad all day and then gets driven to the chip shop on the way home what's the point? I've had that kid in my form group. I've seen that kid in my childrens class. I've seen the child who can't physically get on the chair. The solution is not more PE. Fat kids don't like it, and it doesn't work. All it does is destroy their confidence. To my mind, it takes a strong school to enforce a healthy regime, and unfortunately, under this government, it's unlikely that schools will get the back up to do this, Gove having recently released all Free Schools and Academies from the Healthy Eating requirements, ( see here) the free market and possibility to get Burger King into school canteens being more important to him than health. Parents should brace themselves for school dinners in these schools to get worse, and more expensive. Which is shocking. Along we go to the American Way, with Coke sponsoring canteens and McDonalds flogging burgers in schools. And it could be so much better. I can only tell you how much I loved the changes in my own students once the school I taught at banned outside takeaways, students going out for lunch, emptied the snack machines, and revamped the canteen. The students moaned, and one of us had to be on Burger King duty for a while ("No. No. NO. Go back to school"), but they accepted it.

And then, there's the problem end. Any secondary teacher will be able to come up with at least one example of the girl who you catch throwing away her sandwiches, her lunch. The dim one I caught putting them in my bin. Repeatedly. As she shrank. Reported, sorted. The girls flushing their lunches, chucking their lunches, giving away their lunches. Fainting. Yes, I know she's putting some carefully artistically nibbled crusts back into the lunchbox, but she's NOT EATING. At least one case every year for my teaching career.

So, the teacher sees. But what can the teacher do? I had a fruit bowl, i'd sneak the needy apples and so on. I had a cereal bar collection in my drawer, on top of the collection of school shirts from Primark. I donated. I provided a shoulder for the waddling one who feared PE and left carefully placed leaflets for her, word in the ear for the Food Tech teacher and a slow process with Mum. I cranked the wheels of care into motion with the self-starving ones. I fretted. And now as a mum I fret. I argue the toss with daughter and refuse the Rolos until the tangerine is gone. I stuff son's lunchbox with the tuna and rye bread he loves, and allow a sugary yoghurt if the fruit is eaten. I negotiate and hope I don't give them a complex. I cook breakfasts (in my experience, the ten minutes longer it takes to whip up scrambled eggs is well worth it in terms of longer term morning nutrition) and demand they eat them. I know the teachers and dinner lady see it. I'm glad they do.