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Friday, 15 September 2017

A-LEVELS Vs. FOUNDATION PROGRAMMES



On Monday of this week, I participated in a conference on A-levels conducted by Cambridge International Examinations, with whom we work for all our external examinations. It was well attended and I was able to discuss issues of mutual interest with fellow Heads from institutions such as Taylor's and Sunway. We also benefited from the experience of Dr. Ben Schmidt, the regional Head of Cambridge exams in the SE Asia region, who spoke about the competition A-levels face from alternatives. One of our KYUEM governors, Dato' Richard Small, was the keynote speaker and gave us all a great deal to think about in a stimulating and engaging speech. KYUEM featured in a video presentation about Cambridge exams in Malaysia. This was filmed earlier in the year. You can view the clip here.

Of course, our most obvious competitor in terms of assessment is the International Baccalaureate (IB) which many schools use instead of the various A-level syllabuses. British universities say they make no distinction between the two systems: an IB candidate stands the same chance of acceptance as an A-level student. Having taught or worked in schools that offer both systems, I am more than happy to concede the point. We may be talking about apples and oranges here, but they are equally nutritious and pleasant to consume. It's a matter of individual choice - nothing more. The fact that KYUEM chooses the A-level option is based on our history and experience, the knowledge and expertise of our staff and the fact that we believe it's a natural progression for students who have taken SPM or IGCSE thus far.

The situation changes, however, when we look at the growing importance of university foundation courses. In case you are unfamiliar with these, they all broadly offer the same thing: students study for one year, after which, if they are successful, they proceed to an undergraduate degree course, usually of three years' duration. In Malaysia, the foundation programmes that most concern us are those offered by local campuses of overseas universities or medical schools affiliated to foreign institutions. Consider these two scenarios:

1) A young person completes IGCSE or SPM. S/he chooses to come to KYUEM for 24 months, takes AS exams after one year and A-levels after two. If successful, s/he is accepted on a Bachelor's degree programme in the UK, the US, Australia or at a satellite campus here in Malaysia.

2) The same student attends a satellite campus in Malaysia immediately upon completion of SPM or IGCSE. S/he takes part in a 1-year foundation programme and proceeds immediately to a recognised degree course. One whole year of study has, in principle, been saved.

The reality is somewhat different. Firstly, the satellite campuses would prefer to take students with good A-levels because they have already demonstrated their intellectual ability and now have an internationally-recognised qualification to support that claim. Students on a foundation programme have typically failed to get into a demanding college such as KYUEM. So, here we have a situation where a potentially weaker student is entering a shorter programme of study. This makes very little sense. Moreover, at colleges such as ours, a graduation requirement is to get an internationally-accepted certificate of English language competency (in our case, a high band score in IELTS). All too frequently, foundation programmes accept students with low band scores in the hope that their linguistic ability will improve alongside the training they will receive in that first year of study.

This is asking a lot of students, I think. Not surprisingly, the record around the world for drop out rates from foundation programmes is high. Equally worrying, the number of students who finish the course, but are not considered ready to embark on the full degree programme is much higher than their peers in an A-level college. Even if you don't proceed to university, possession of AS and A2 certificates is an achievement the world recognises. Completion of a foundation programme is not an internationally bench-marked qualification.

I suppose my bigger point here is that if you are intending to take a serious degree programme from a major, world-class university, you stand a far better chance of achieving your aim with a bunch of good A-level grades. Foundation courses may look attractive in terms of the time saved, but in reality, in education as in life, there is no such thing as a quick fix.

One final point on this subject: university campuses in Malaysia are run as businesses and they need to maximise their student throughput (the old cliche of "bums on seats"). This may well be why students who fail to get into KY can be accepted for foundation programmes. The bottom line has to be this: if you are good enough to come to us, the intellectual rigour of an A-level programme considerably outweighs the apparent time saved on a foundation course. I would suggest that such programmes are considered only as an option if you fail to be accepted by a college such as ours. Don't be misled by the shortness of the alternative programme.

Two bits of excellent news with which to end this week's blog. According to Cambridge University's own website, KYUEM received the highest number of acceptances this year in the whole of Malaysia. Secondly, I can now report that 98.5% of our students have obtained good university places for September 2017. It has been, yet again, a record year.

Friday, 8 September 2017

AN IDEAL UNIVERSITY APPLICANT

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.

Albert Einstein

Einstein was not rated very highly by his school teachers. Neither did he show much brilliance, initially, at university. Of course, we now consider him to be one of the foremost intellects of the twentieth century. It might be assumed that his gifts were so exceptional and advanced that his educators were not able to spot them. Simply because he was so ahead of his time, they just couldn't keep up with him.

I think you can make a case for saying that, but I prefer to look at it from a different angle. As educators, we can only work within the parameters of what is considered acceptable by society. If we find such a student at KY, but realise that he is incapable of demonstrating his abilities via an examination, for example, there is not much we can do about it. Thankfully, in my time here, we have not seen such a person. Nonetheless, the Einstein quote I offer you today resonates with us at KY. This is the time of year when our seniors are preparing their university applications. Our teachers are writing references and submitting predicted grades. Individuals are approaching me or my colleagues for help in crafting personal statements. It is at times like this that we need to ensure everyone is being represented fairly and in the best possible light, according to his or her academic abilities. 

Usually, everything turns out well, but occasionally, we get a shock. We might get a student who is confidently predicted to do exceptionally well, but who gets surprisingly few offers. Why have the universities to which s/he applied not seen the merit that we all know is there? In other words, why has the assumption been made that this is a fish who wants to climb a tree?

There are, I believe, certain undisputed facts about applying to Russell Group or Ivy League universities. Chief among these is that the intellect of the applicant is assumed to be of the highest order - it's a given, if you like. I remember asking a representative of LSE a few years ago what was the hardest part of his job. "That's easy," he said. "Having to turn down applicants who are expected to get three A* grades."

So, if we take academic excellence for granted, what else must there be in the mix? The fact that a personal statement is well written should be an obvious requirement. But what about the actual content? We are now getting down to the nub of the problem. Students who simply list their academic achievements and little else, are not giving the universities very much to go on. A well rounded student must also show ample evidence of extracurricular activity in sport or cultural pursuits. S/he should have held some kind of office to show elements of responsibility and potential leadership.

I also think there is one last piece in the jigsaw puzzle: a personal statement should show passion. Nothing impresses me more than to read about young people's idealism and their burning desire to make the world a better place. I truly believe that the combination of excellent predicted grades, sound references and a personal statement that shows a passionate belief in the subject to be studied, all increase the chances of getting good offers.

I wish our seniors currently submitting their university applications all the luck in the world.

Monday, 28 August 2017

ENSURING FAIR PLAY

Cheating in examinations has a long and undistinguished history. This week, it has emerged that certain teachers in three of the UK's most expensive fee-paying schools have informed students beforehand about questions in forthcoming exams. You can read about the issue here.

These examinations were not A-levels but an equivalent Cambridge exam set for students in such schools in Britain. They are created, marked and endorsed by CIE - the same organisation used at KYUEM for AS and A2 tests. Needless to say, CIE has rapidly condemned the practice and invalidated all the exams involved. Students have not been blamed, but the teachers in each case have, rightly, lost their jobs. It is a very serious matter indeed.

Serious, but as I say, not unknown. Today's technology includes Bluetooth ear pieces, spectacles with built-in cameras and even Internet-connected ball-point pens, all of which can be used to deceive invigilators or examination moderators. What makes the case in the UK so awful is that students were blameless - the villains were their teachers.

When I was a boy, we used to intone the phrase "cheats never prosper," and while I sincerely hope this is still as true today, we can never afford to relax our guard. At KYUEM, CIE exam papers are securely locked in a storage location that would be the envy of Fort Knox and only the Examinations Officer has access to them. Relevant individual papers are only issued on the day and time of the exam itself. They are carefully counted in and out according to a tried and tested procedure that brooks no error or opportunity for irregularity. A couple of years ago, a CIE Inspector who visited us during the main AS and A2 exam period, was so impressed with our way of doing things, that we were commended in his report and he took pictures of what he had seen.

What do you do if you spot a cheat? In the case of teachers doing it, the answer is simple. As shown in the article quoted, they are summarily dismissed. When it is a student, the issue might not be so straightforward. Some years ago, when I was working in Abu Dhabi, the college authorities decreed that any student caught cheating would be banned from any national tertiary institute for life. This sounds like a pretty effective deterrent, but in fact, it had no effect at all. Teachers (mostly expatriates) who saw evidence of cheating, were reluctant to report it because it would mean blighting the entire future of a young person. The best way, as CIE requires us to do, is to investigate the issue and declare the exam (or maybe just the single paper) invalid.

I think the most blatant, and, I suppose, in its own devious way, impressive form of cheating I ever saw was when working for the military in Saudi Arabia. Students had to take a final test consisting of 100 multiple choice questions: a, b, c, or d on their answer papers. One student was selected  because of his ability to provide the correct answers for everyone else in the exam room. He sat in the middle of the front row (where all could see him) and leaned his cheek on his left hand while filling in the answers with his right. His left index finger was extended if the correct answer was a, his second finger for b, his third for c and his little finger for d. It took four different tests for us to catch on, but we then declared all the previous ones invalid and everyone took a new set with extra invigilators present to check on who was doing what with his fingers!

I have only been aware of one teacher who resorted to cheating in my 40 years in this job. One of my colleagues in a school overseas heard the students talking as they were leaving for the weekend. They were saying that their Physics teacher had pre-warned them about all the questions in an upcoming internal examination.  My colleague informed the Head of Department and a group of us went to the school over the weekend and removed the appropriate Physics papers, which we destroyed. The Head of Physics then rewrote the entire paper, the rest of us helped photocopy it and the new copies were safely locked away in the exam room before the weekend was over. Students were shocked when they opened their Physics papers on the Monday morning to find they were nothing like the ones that their teacher had prepared them for. The teacher never knew what we had done, and his contract was not renewed at the end of the year.

I'm delighted to say we don't have any such teachers at KY, but the fact that people with such dubious ethics have been employed by some of the most prestigious and expensive schools in the world is reprehensible. Clear evidence for diligence at all times and the application of the best security procedures is a paramount requirement. Rest assured, we will continue to uphold the highest standards here at all times.

Monday, 21 August 2017

2017 CIE RESULTS



It was Mark Twain who once penetratingly observed that there were “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” As the dust settles on this year's A-level results, statistics loom large in the questions being asked about university places in the UK in 2017. 

To start with, there is the perennial question of whether the exams are too tough or too easy. This one crops up annually, particularly because in recent years, the number of top grades has been falling in the UK. It is a matter of some pride to us at KYUEM that ours have consistently been rising, year on year. The situation in 2017 is not so clear cut. Yes, our grades are up again, but then so are those in the UK. What is new this year, is the fact that UK university applications are down, something I mentioned in last week's post.

Today's Daily Telegraph in the UK presents a clear picture of what is going on. It's worth taking a look at, and you can read it here. Many young people who haven't achieved their desired grades are getting offers much sooner than they expected; the clearing process, generally, is working overtime to place them. Overall, I think this is good for us in Malaysia. People who might not have gained a place in a Russell Group University in the past, now stand a very good chance of getting there this year. My one worry is that if standards of entry are allowed to fall, then what effect will this have on the standards of exit? The article suggests that universities are more concerned with keeping their numbers up rather than maintaining excellence. The crude term for this is caring more about "bums on seats" than the actual quality of applicant.

This is probably not a real cause for concern - yet. Nonetheless, any drop in entry standards may well lead, longer term, to the reputation of the university going down. I am fond of saying that when it comes to international university league tables, Britain punches well above its weight. However, this assumes that standards will continue to increase, or at least be maintained. Lowering of entry requirements doesn't necessarily lead to a fall in the standing of degree programmes, but this could happen, and we need to be on our guard.

Last week, I showed you a summary of our A2 results for students who left us in June of this year. Today, I would like to conclude by showing you our AS results from the July 2016 intake (better than last year in yellow; worse in purple):

  • 87% of students obtained a - b grades (66% in 2016) +
  • 62% of students obtained three a grades (55% in 2016) +
  • 46% of students obtained straight a grades (48% in 2016) -
These are almost as impressive as our A2 results, and augur well for May/June, 2018.  I look forward to seeing our seniors make excellent progress through the year.

Monday, 14 August 2017

CHOOSING A-LEVELS WISELY


There is an interesting article in the UK press this week (link is here) about how some A-level students in the UK are being short-changed because of poor subject choices.  We are aware of the unsuitability of two of them (Law and Business Studies) because we get feedback direct from the universities themselves. It is pointless offering an A-level subject that is poorly regarded by the best tertiary institutions and we are well aware that as far as Law is concerned, they much prefer History or English Literature, coupled with Maths and something else. We have even had students accepted on legal degree courses with three A-levels in pure science, but Law itself as an A-level subject is definitely not liked.

Our experience is much the same with Business Studies. We have staff who are experienced in teaching it, but our yardstick university visitors always turn up their collective noses when the subject is mentioned. They would far prefer Economics in its place.

The odd one out here is Accounting. KYUEM has a small but significant Accounting department and many of our students choose it as an A-level choice without being noticeably penalised as a result. In fact, many of our students go on to become accountants or study Accounting & Finance at University, in part thanks to getting a good grade in the subject at A2.

I think the reason for the apparent contradiction is mainly cultural. Some years ago, I was employed by the London Chamber of Commerce & Industry (LCCI) as Regional Business Manager for pre-university examinations in the Middle East and southern Europe. These exams are now part of the mighty Pearson group which includes Edexcel A-levels and IGCSE. LCCI exams in accounting were very popular in many parts of the region I served, as well as in SE Asia. And yet, back in the UK, numbers even then were falling. Today, Accounting is not well served by the major exam boards in Britain (Cambridge, Edexcel and AQA) while it retains its popularity here in Malaysia.

I would go further: I strongly suspect that at the University application stage, a British student taking Accounting A2 will be looked upon far less favourably than his Malaysian counterpart. The exam boards know that Accounting is popular here and so give it due deference; the same is true with Universities. The opposite is true for UK applicants.

Subject popularity waxes and wanes. All over Britain, foreign languages are in decline, whereas some years ago they were a mainstay of many campuses (and hence, of A-levels). Today, many British schools offer only one or two languages at A-level (French being almost always the only one you can rely on). There has been a modest growth in Mandarin in recent years, but the numbers (and the teachers) are small. Sociology A-level was quite common when I was a young teacher but these days you seldom hear of it. Wood and Metalwork have morphed into Design Technology (again, not popular with the Russell Group) while Art and Music struggle to survive at A-level.

Our core subjects offered at KYUEM are based on their suitability and acceptance by major University groups. If they fall out of favour, we cannot afford to keep them going just for the sake of tradition or sentiment. I see no reason why our current broad curriculum will not keep going for many years to come, but we always need to be vigilant to ensure it remains relevant and highly suited to our young peoples' needs.

Lastly this week, I have to make a quick mention of our recent A-level results.  Consider the following:

90% of students obtained A* - B grades (the same as last year)
74% of students obtained A* - A grades (3% up on last year)
30% of students obtained 4 A grades (5% up on last year)
62% of students obtained at least 3 A's (2% up on last year)
27% of students obtained at least 3 A*'s (2% up on last year)

I'm sure you all join with me in wholeheartedly congratulating the fantastic achievements of our A-level students.


Tuesday, 8 August 2017

EARNING RESPECT


 

I have just read a paper from the US about how medical students who dress and behave professionally get better diagnoses from their patients and are more well-respected for the job they do. You can read the abstract of it here.

In the UK education press this week, there was an article written by a British University Professor in Dentistry, who was observing his students interacting with patients for the first time. He noticed that some of them were inappropriately dressed (leopard print leggings), used their smart phones in front of patients to check symptoms and diagnoses (thank you Google) or addressed patients in an informal, even disrespectful way. A 70-year old woman will not like it when a trainee in his/her 20s addresses her by her first name, or worse, a shortened form of it. Older people often find over familiarity patronising in the extreme.

This has led me to consider the relationship between professionalism and respect. One of my old teachers, many, many years ago, said that respect was never an automatic right - it had to be earned. One of the ways in which you earn respect from others is by having respect for yourself. This is something I have always believed is part of the teaching/learning continuum. Teachers at KY respect students who turn up for class on time, dressed appropriately. Lateness and sloppy or casual attire will win you few friends here. I recall the famous old saying: "you never get a second chance to make a first impression."

How you interact with others affects everyone around you. I'm equally unimpressed when I hear a teacher disrespecting a student, a guest or a colleague (thankfully, a rare occurrence at KY, but not entirely unheard of). It may show itself in your speech, your dress, your attitude - even by the expression on your face. Whatever form it takes, it significantly diminishes the individual concerned.

Sometimes KY students object to our dress code, get upset when asked to put away their mobile phones, or are sent to me for persistent lateness. Their annoyance is misplaced. Not only is their education being compromised, but their standing as human beings is affected, too. I ask them what that they think might happen if they dressed or behaved in the same way while at work or being paid for what they do. Most of the time, they get the point.

In The Water Babies, Charles Kingsley's classic children's book of the 19th century, there were two female characters who set the moral tone for readers: "Mrs. Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By," and "Mrs. Be-Done-By-As-You-Did." As you can imagine, the former was delightful, the latter pretty horrific. They say that courtesy costs nothing and I hope everyone here remains aware of that. 

Finally, and on an entirely different topic, we are all eagerly waiting the release of CIE results this coming Thursday. The tension in college is palpable!

Friday, 4 August 2017

CONTINUOUS PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

 


Today, I am delighted to welcome Mrs. Diana Osagie back to KYUEM. As a Lead Inspector for OFSTED, the UK's official monitoring body for education, she is a very experienced evaluator of schools, curricula, teaching and learning. Last semester, we were fortunate enough to have her here working with our Senior and Middle Leadership Teams on various aspects of school leadership and management.

Today, she returns to us again. This time, the focus is on teaching. She will be working with subject departments, as well as conducting coaching sessions for individuals between now and Friday, August 11.

Work of this nature is essential for all schools, but particularly with like ours which has such a valued reputation to keep. I have remarked in the past that as far as academic success is concerned, our biggest enemy is complacency and we must guard against it at all times. One way of doing so is to ensure our staff get a regular and healthy dose of Continuous Professional Development (CPD).

Some years ago in the UAE, I was recruiting experienced teachers who might like to consider a move into teacher training. One very promising candidate was asked what his future goals were; what he considered he needed to learn next. He replied that he had been teaching for more than 20 years and there was nothing left for him to learn - he'd seen it all. Needless to say, I did not hire him.

Diana brings a fresh eye to bear on how we do our jobs here. She is an experienced Head Teacher herself and now tours the UK as well as overseas, helping schools to improve their standards and to keep abreast of all that is new and exciting in quality education.

This means that next week some of your sons' and daughters' lessons will be disrupted: they may have a class cancelled so that their teacher can attend one of Diana's sessions. We will keep such disruption to the minimum and all teachers have been well warned of their individual time slots so that they can set private study tasks for any students who miss a class. The loss of one or two lessons must be offset against the learning and insight the teachers will undoubtedly gain. Everyone has been included and everyone gets an opportunity to learn from the visit. Diana starts tomorrow, Saturday, with a catch-up session for our senior staff. On Sunday, she will give an overview of the week's work to everyone and then join the teachers for lunch in the cafeteria.

All next week, mornings will be set aside for departmental work - all the members of a given department (or two) will attend focused input sessions. In the afternoons, Heads of Department have been asked to nominate at least two teachers who will take part in coaching sessions with Diana. For her, it will be a tiring week, but for us, the benefits are considerable.

And of course, we will all be keeping a weather eye open for CIE AS and A2 results, which are due out next Thursday, August 10th.  I hope to be able to fill you in with some statistics on these in my blog post next week.

Until then, I wish everyone a pleasant weekend.