Lowering the student loan repayment salary threshold….

The government is proposing to reduce the salary threshold at which students start to repay their tuition and maintenance loans.

Presently, graduates only start repaying their loans when the start earning £27 000 a year, but this could be cut to £23 000.

Students pay back 9% of their salary above the threshold – so if someone is earnings £28K a year, they only pay back £90 a year, 9% of the £1000 above the current threshold of £27 000.

This move will obviously affect lower earners more, and will cost the average student and additional £400 a year in loan repayments and it is estimated that this will save the treasury over £2 billion a year.

Criticisms of this policy change

This will hit lower earners the hardest, bringing in anyone now earning from £23 000 to £27000. This also means graduates will start paying back sooner, even if this will be a relatively small amount in the early days of repayment.

This won’t affect higher earners as much because they are able to pay back faster and thus pay back less than people who get stuck in the £40-50K bracket of earnings, according to analysts from Money Saving Expert:

Those earning £50K a year are currently set to pay back more than those earning £55K a year – all the proposed changes will do is mean those earning £45K a year will end up paying more than those earning £55K a year.

This is because of the insane 5% interest on increasing student loan amounts. The current average student debt is a staggering £45 000 a year, and with interest on PLAN 2 loans (for students who started from 2021) set at RPI plus 3% (total interest currently around 5%).

Once you factor in interest the total amount repayable ends up being nearer £150 000 over 30 years, which means you won’t pay it off in the repayment period unless you’re a very high income earner.

There is also the fact that the proposal to lower the repayment threshold simply isn’t fair to impose on students who have just had their learning disrupted because of Covid and they are also facing reduced job prospects as a result of the Pandemic.

NB – the idea for lowering the threshold came out of a review in 2019 which also recommended lowering tuition fees to £7500 a year, which would help reduce this debt if implemented at the same time.

Signposting/ relevance to A-level sociology

This is an important update for students studying the education module, relevant to the education policies section of that module.

It’s also worth asking yourself whether it’s worth doing a degree, when you can do an Apprenticeship for free!

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Covid Catch-Up Policies: Are they Sufficient?

Most students in England and Wales missed around 20 weeks of regular in-school contact time due to lock down measures in 2020 and 2021.

The government has introduced a number of policies to try and help students catch up with lost learning, funded with £1.4 billion.

The main official government document outlines several different initiatives which started in 2020 and run through to the end of 2021 and beyond, but are these measures really enough to help students catch up on so much lost learning?

Some of the measure include:

  • The covid catch up and recovery premiums
  • Extra funding for the National Tuition programme
  • £200 million additional funding for summer schools in summer 2021.
  • Extra training and support for teachers
  • Mental health and well being support.

The Covid Catch up Premium

This was £650 million allocated to schools to help them provide catch up lessons in 2021, including running summer schools.

This amounted to £80 per pupil up to year 11 inclusive, £240 for SEND pupils.

If that doesn’t sound like a lot, that’s because it isn’t a lot.

The Covid Recovery Premium

This was an additional £350 million for the 2021-2022 academic year for schools delivering ‘evidenced based approaches’ to helping students catch up. This money is supposed to be targeted and economically disadvantaged and SEND pupils.

£200 million for summer schools

You can read about the government guidance for summer schools here, there’s not much to say about this other than this isn’t a lot of money to go around all schools in England and Wales!

More money for the National Tutoring Programme

An additional £218 million for the National Tutoring Programme which specialises in running additional support classes for small groups of pupils.

The target was for there to be packages of 15 hours extra tuition for the most in-need students on top of all of the extra support already mentioned above.

Other Measures

Besides the above the government also outlines more training support for teachers, mental health and well being funding and holiday food clubs, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that most of these were already planned before Covid and the government are just re-hashing them and ‘labelling’ them as extra support for Covid-recovery?!?

Criticisms of these government measures

  • There is wide spread condemnation among teaching unions and other commentators that £1.4 billion is no where near enough money to make up for lost learning. This figure is also pitifully small compared to the amounts being spent on education catch up by other similar European counties. The UK is spending £50 a head, The Netherlands are spending £2500 a head.
  • Like with other forms of ‘compensatory education’ these measures are a sticking plaster. They do nothing to tackle wider inequalities in the UK and which is the root cause of poorer pupils having fallen further behind as a result of the pandemic compared to pupils from wealthier backgrounds.
  • I’m not convincing that everything in the covid-recovery plan is actually new, I’m sure a lot of it was already planned before the pandemic, and has been rebranding as part of covid-recovery policy!

Signposting

This post has been written primarily for students of A-level sociology and should serve as a useful update for education policies, which are taught as part of the education module.

Aspects of these policies are also a contemporary example of compensatory education, as some of the funding is aimed at disadvantaged pupils.

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The New T Levels

T Levels are vocational A-levels for 16-19 year olds focussed on general career areas. They run over two years and are mainly taught in colleges and including 45 days on the job training.

They have been developed in collaboration with businesses and are designed to give students the knowledge and skills they need for work or further study. One T-level qualification is equivalent in UCAS points to three A-levels.

The introduction of T-Levels represent a significant effort by the UK government to improve both the standard and status of Vocational Education In England and Wales.

There are several T-Levels currently available, with more to be released for first teaching in September 2022 and they are very broad in scope, with qualifications being offered in such areas as:

  • agriculture, land management and production
  • building services engineering for construction
  • catering
  • craft and design
  • education and childcare (now available)
  • finance
  • hair, beauty and aesthetics
  • legal
  • management and administration
  • media, broadcast and production
  • science

A full list of T Level Qualifications, 2021

T Levels are designed to give students a third option of study after GCSE, alongside Apprenticeships and A-levels, in fact they seem designed to fit mid way between the two, being more academic than apprenticeships (more classroom based learning) and more hands-on than A-levels.

Design and Delivery

The content of each T-level varies a lot, and there is a lot of content in each – the Digital Production T level specification, designed by Pearsons has a 100 page specification, for example.

The content will be delivered primarily by FE colleges, but also local employers will have to get involved for the 45 days work experience component.

Interestingly there are no national requirements to get onto T Levels, the government has left it to individual colleges to decide on entry requirements.

Each T-level has three components:

  • General competencies – English, Maths and Digital Literacy
  • A Core component – focussing on Business related content/ legal issues which are common across several different T-levels
  • A subject specific component – specific to whatever the T level is!

Assessment

This might vary from T level to T level but the ones I have reviewed have a mixture of assessment by examination, coursework and project work.

For more information the government web site on T-Levels is a good starting point.

T Levels: Positive Evaluations so far

  • T Levels seem to be a good compromise between purely academic A-levels and Apprenticeships which are much more on the job and much less academic.
  • The fact that businesses have had a say in designing the specifications means students should leave college at 18 better prepared for work, which could be good for the economy.
  • The ones I’ve looked at seem to have rigorous specifications and assessment, which should give these new vocational qualifications status.
  • They offer students more flexibility than either and apprenticeship or pure A-levels when they finish – either to work or to university.
  • The fact that there are components common to several T Levels means it’s easier for colleges to deliver them.

Personally I’m more inclined to see T-Levels as a net positive, but there are some potential problems…

T-Levels: Potential Problems

  • These are asking students to specialise from a very young age, at the age of 16, and once they’re a few months in they are pretty much ‘locked into’ that path.
  • There might be something of a shortage of employers willing to provide training places for 45 days, or three months.
  • There could be a shortage of teachers in colleges capable of delivering some of the subject specific knowledge. For example, one of the T-levels has modules in ‘data science’ – most data scientists are working in industry, they aren’t going to take a 50% pay cut to go teach in a college.
  • Many industries move very quickly. It could be challenging keeping teachers in college updated with the relevant knowledge and training to deliver appropriate content in some of these career areas.
  • Some of them probably won’t be very popular – Human Resources in particular springs to mind!

Signposting

This is a useful update for students studying the compulsory module in Education, usually taught in the first year of A-level Sociology.

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Why has the Achievement Gap Between Private and State Schools Increased?

Possible explanations include less disruption to schooling, more parental pressure and higher prior attainment

Teachers in private schools awarded 70% of A-level entries A or A* grades in 2021, compared to just 45% for all exam entries across both state and private schools.

And the proportion of top grades awarded to candidates from private schools increased at a faster rate than for state schools – the A/ A* rate rose by 9% in 2021 compared to 2020 in private schools, but only by 6% elsewhere.

Why have private school candidates improved at a faster rate than state school candidates?

This article from The Guardian suggests that there are three possible reasons for the rapid improvement of private school pupils.

  • Private school students’ learning may have been less disrupted by school closures and forced isolation for individual students than was the case with state schools – private schools generally have smaller class sizes than state schools and so it would be easier for teachers to manage online learning and classroom learning at the same time.
  • Middle class parents may have been better able to home-school their children during school closures due to their higher levels of cultural capital.
  • Teachers in private schools may have been under more pressure from paying parents to inflate their children’s grades – this may not even be conscious, but parents are paying for a service, and if the teachers don’t deliver when they have the opportunity to do so (when THEY determine the grades, not the examiners), this could make the parents question what they are spending their money on?!?
  • The difference might also be due to the higher prior levels of learning among privately schooled students – state school students simply may have got further behind because of year 1 of disruption the year before, and this is an accumulative affect.

Relevance to A-Level Sociology

This update has clear links to the sociology of education, especially the topic on social class and educational achievement, fitting in quite nicely as supporting evidence for how material and cultural capital advantages students from wealthier backgrounds.

It should also be of interest to any state school student who generally likes to feel enraged by social injustice.

Why are so many Nigerian schoolchildren being kidnapped?

More than 600 students have been abducted from schools in the North West of Nigeria since December 2020.

The latest Mass kidnapping was in late February 2021, when over 300 girls were kidnapped from a secondary school, although they were released after a relatively short period of time afterwards.

This rather grim trend is clearly relevant to the Global Development topic within A-level sociology, especially the education topic.

Why are so many girls in Northern Nigeria being abducted?

The roots of this practice can be traced back to Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group originally founded by Mohammed Yusuf (since deceased) – the name of the group literally means ‘Western Education is Banned’ and in 2014 this was the group who gained global notoriety when they abducted 300 schoolgirls, leading to the ‘Bring Back our Girls Campaign’.

Since then Boko Haram has gone through various shifts and split in two, and probably has less power now than it did back in 2014, however, they seem to have set something of a trend with their kidnapping of girls tactics.

Since then, thousands of children have been kidnapped, but now it is not politically motivated as it was with Boko Haram, there are just rogue gangs who are now kidnapping literally for the ransom money.

There are alleged cases of organised gangs being not only paid off by local officials for returning kidnapped girls, but not even being punished, but being pardoned, and this has only attracted more people to do likewise.

It seems that dire poverty in Northern Nigeria is driving people to do this, and it’s also driving the army to not be too bothered about tracking down kidnapped children.

There’s lots of links to A-level sociology here – obviously this is a tricky barrier to development – this is happening because of poverty, local political corruption, geography – it’s very sparse in the North of Nigeria, making kidnapping an easy crime to commit.

Clearly this is going to prevent development because of the disruption to education – it’s not only the kids actually getting abducted, but it’s also children being taken out of school by parents for fear of them being abducted.

And as with so many things in development, the solutions here are not that obvious!

Also note the links to Right Realist theories of Crime – namely rational choice theory!

Find out more…

This BBC News article summarises the latest trends.

How has Coronavirus Affected the UK?

What are the short and long term affects of Coronavirus for the UK’s social and economic development?

in this post I focus on how Coronavirus has affected health (obviously) education, work and employment, as well economic growth prospects.

There are many more consequences I could focus on, but all of the above are specifically on the Global Development module specification as aspects of development for students of A-level sociology to consider.

How has Coronavirus impacted health in the UK?

NB – forgive me if the stats below date pretty quickly, this is a rapidly evolving situation, and I can’t update every post daily!

At time of writing the total number of covid related deaths in the UK has just surpassed 100 000, in the 11 months since recording of covid-deaths began in March 2020.

You can find out the latest figures at this government site.

The Office for National statistics allows you to look at the latest figures for covid-19 infections and covid-19 related deaths, without any of the ‘panic’ aspects (and without the distractions of flashing adverts) of the mainstream media.

The covid-related death rate is three times higher among men working in elementary and service occupations (the working classes) compared to those working in professional and managerial occupations (the upper middle classes)

There has been a reduction in the quality of care for those with other chronic-conditions, because of a combination of the NHS having to cope with covid-cases, and people being reluctant to seek treatment because of the pandemic.

This is an interesting article from the BBC which outlines the possible long term negative effects on mental health of dealing with Covid – including increased anxiety and OCD (hand washing!), loneliness, a sense of meaningless and uncertainty (anomie?) and depression – not least because of so many people having to deal with loss of someone they know among that 100, 000 death toll.

This research adds to above finding that there were statistically fewer people who started cancer treatment in 2020 compared to 2019, probably because of lower test rates due to covid-19.

How has Coronavirus impacted education in the UK?

Lockdown measures meant that students missed several months of in-school education in 202.

This report by the Nuffield Foundation suggests that pupils started school in September 3 months behind as a result of lockdown in 2020. There is also evidence that poorer students suffered more as they were less able to access online learning provision.

Exams were also cancelled in 2020, but GCSE and A-level pupils received better grades than students in previous years, because of the reliance of Teacher Predicted Grades. It remains to be seen whether this will be the case in 2021.

How has Coronavirus impacted work and employment in the UK?

The effects have varied enormously be sector. The service sectors have been hardest hit, with accommodation and food services suffering a 25% downturn by GDP because of the lockdown rules imposed in response to the pandemic.

Education has also taken quite a hit, but I guess the switch to online learning has lessened the impact here.

The impact has generally been a lot less (somewhat obviously) on sectors where it’s easier to work from home, on professional occupations and on rural occupations.

How has Coronavirus impacted economic growth the in the UK?

The UK has seen a projected decline in GDP growth in 2021 of – 12.9%, which is going to take years to recover from and an expected increase in unemployment going forwards into 2021-2024 – with unemployment figures double that what we’d anticipated for these years.

Also note the debt figures shown in the bottom rows – almost £400 bn borrowed in 2020-21 to cover the cost of dealing with the Pandemic. Not exactly small change!

And then the debt repayments as a percentage of our GDP increase from 5% to 15% – meaning the government is going to be spending 20% more for at least the next five years (and probably longer) to pay for the Pandemic!

This probably means cuts to welfare and public services sometime in 2021 or 2022 – given that the government is neoliberal and will be reluctant to raise taxes, also something which is difficult to do when the economy is struggling.

Selected Sources

HM Gov (November 2020) – Analysis of the Health, Economic and Social Consequences of Covid-19

UK Gov – an enquiry into the impact of covid-19 on education

ONS – Coronavirus impact of covid-19 on Higher Education

‘GCSEs and A-Levels scrapped’ – but I wouldn’t relax just yet!

So on Wednesday the government announced that exams in England and Wales are to be scrapped in favour of ‘assessed grades’.

But does this may not necessarily mean you’ll be able to chillax for the next 6 months!

Given that this government has a track record of being reactive rather than pro-active in responding to Covid-19 – lurching from one inadequate response to another and U-turning dramatically where education is concerned, I wouldn’t bet on GCSE and A-level grades just being put entirely in the hands of teachers just yet.

Sure, that’s the message, but I’d be amazed if this scenario doesn’t develop further over the next few weeks with the education department putting in place some kind of centralised dictate that all schools and colleges must subject their students to some kind of controlled assessment which are basically just like the regular GCSEs and A-levels.

And the nature of the assessment will be set centrally, by the exam boards, who otherwise will just be laying around idle for another year (no exams means nothing to do) – I mean presumably if the government are paying these boards’ wages surely they’re going to get them to bodge something together in the next few weeks.

There will probably be some degree of flexibility over when students can sit said assessments, and probably some kind of sampling and standardisation procedure put in place, but I can’t imagine that the department for education is just going to ‘let schools get on with it’.

I mean, they haven’t done that with lockdown in general, why on earth are they going to give schools an easier-ride now and ‘trust teachers’, they only did that last year under an extreme public backlash, so it’s highly unlikely they’re just going to allow teachers the freedom to just ‘carry on and teach and assess’ as they see fit all the way through to June!

Practice Portuguese: The Best Place to Learn European Portuguese Online

I can highly recommend Practice Portuguese as the best place to European Portuguese online.

Many of the most commonly used platforms and downloadable apps for learning the language, such as Duolingo focus on Brazilian Portuguese as there are many more people seeking to learn the Latin American version compared to the European version.

HOWEVER, there are significant differences between the two, especially in terms of pronunciation – so if you learn ‘Brazilian Portuguese in Portugal then you run the risk of not being able to understand what people are saying to you and not being able to make yourself understood.

Hence if you are a newly arrived resident in Portugal or are thinking of moving to Portugal in the near future (which I recommend btw!) then you’re better off using a dedicated European Portuguese learning platform such as Practice Portuguese, which is what I use!

Course Structure

Trust me, as a professional teacher I don’t recommend any old online learning platform – but I’m happy to direct people to this site because it’s so well thought-out for those new to the language:

When starting out, you’re directed to a number of clear modules, with progress indicators, starting with ‘the basics’ and the gradually getting more complex.

There are lot more modules after this, I just don’t want to put in too many screenshots!

Videos and Podcasts for Learning Portuguese

Another feature I really like about the site is the collection of videos and podcasts which are available, again nicely organised and easy to navigate…

Being new to the language I cannot emphasise enough how useful being able to hear the language is, and being able to practice along is fundamental to gaining confidence in using it.

They even have videos focussing on gaining residency, which you’ll know is very useful if you’ve every tried dealing with Portuguese bureaucracy – attempting to speak the language goes a long way!

Discussion threads

Finally there’s a nice forum in which you can pose questions for people to answer, or just browse previous questions – which is a nice link to the lived experience of living in Portugal which you won’t get with some of the larger learning sites.

Practice Portuguese Final Thoughts

Overall I’m really enjoying using the site, it’s a very accessible way of learning European Portuguese.

I also really like the fact that it’s a relatively small scale, niche service run by two very friendly guys: Rui and Joel, which is much like what I do with this blog here!

I can recommend Practice Portuguese both professionally and personally!

The Gyaan Centre:

The Gyaan Centre is a new school for girls soon to be opened in Rajasthan, India.

Rajasthan is one of the most conservative states in India, with women and girls still being limited to very traditional roles – many girls are still married off early and then their only prospect is to be tied to their husband and household as wives and mothers.

This is reflected in Rajasthan’s extremely low female literacy rate, which is currently under 60%.

However, thanks to the new Gyaan Centre, 400 girls a year will now be provided with the opportunity to receive an education.

The Gyaan Centre, school for girls in Rajasthan, India

This isn’t a typical school, because the founders realised they would have to work within local norms in order for the school to stand any chance of success, so it isn’t just offering a ‘standard’ academic style of education of its pupils.

It is also going to be offering training in local crafts such as dyeing yoga matts to the mothers and aunts of its pupils and have a craft market aimed at the tourists who frequent the local area (or at least did before Covid-19, but no one could have predicted that!)

This is an interesting example of how a development project has to be rooted in local culture in order to stand a chance of being a success (assuming it will be of course!) rather than just being imposed by the West, and thus being irrelevant.

It’s also a nice reminder of how students shouldn’t generalise about the level of development in any country, especially one such as India with a population of one billion people.

While India has seen rapid economic development over the past decades, gender equality lags behind, and in certain regions, such as Rajasthan it is particularly poor, hence the need for targeted local development projects such as this.

You can find out more about the school by reading this Guardian article.

This information should be of interest to any student studying the Global Development topic in A-level sociology, relevant to both gender and education.

Researching in Classrooms

The classic method for researching in classrooms is non-participant observation, the method used by OFSTED inspectors. However, there are other methods available to the researcher who wishes to conduct research on actual lessons within schools.

Classrooms are closed environments with very clear rules of behaviour and typically containing around 20-30 students, one teacher and maybe one learning assistant, and lessons usually lasting from 40 minutes to an hour.

The obvious choice of research method for using in a classroom is that of non-participant observation, where the researcher takes on the role of the OFSTED inspector.

The fact that there are so many students in one place, and potentially hundreds of micro-interactions in even just a 40-minute lesson gives the observational researcher plenty to focus on, so classrooms are perhaps some of the most data rich environments within education.

Arguably the most useful way of collecting observational data would be for the researcher to have an idea about what they are looking for in advance – possibly how many times teachers praise which pupils, or how many times disruptive behaviour takes place, and how the teacher responds, rather than trying to watch everything, which would be difficult.

And students will probably be used to OFSTED inspections, or other staff in the school dropping in to observe lessons occasionally, thus it should be relatively easy for a researcher to blend into the background and observe without being too obtrusive.

The fact that classrooms are usually organised in a standardised way (they tend to be similar sizes, with only a few possible variations on desk layouts) also means the researcher has a good basis for reliability – any differences he observes in teacher or student behaviour across classrooms or schools is probably because of the teachers or pupils themselves, not differences in the environments they are in (at least to an extent!).

There are, however, some limitations with researching in classrooms.

Gaining access could be a problem – not all teachers are going to be willing to have a researcher observing them. They may regard their classroom as their environment and think they have little to gain from an outsider observing them – although if a researcher is a teacher themselves, they could maybe offer some useful feedback about teaching strategies applied by teachers.

Teachers will probably act differently when observed – if you think back to OFSTED inspections, teachers usually ‘up their game’ and make sure to be more inclusive and encouraging, this is likely to happen when anyone observes.

Similarly, pupils may behave differently – they may be more reluctant to contribute because of a researcher being present, or disruptive students may act up even more.

Classrooms are very unique, controlled environments, with only two roles (teachers and students) and clear norms. Teachers and students alike will not be themselves in these highly unusual situations.

Finally, researchers wouldn’t be able to dig deeper and ask probing questions when part of a lesson, unless they took on the role of participant observer by becoming an learning assistant, but even then they would be limited to what they could ask if they didn’t want to disrupt the lesson flow.

It’s not all about direct non-participant observation

Researchers might choose a more participatory approach to researching in classrooms, by training to be a learning assistant or even a teacher, and doing much longer term, unstructured observational research with students.

This would enable them to get to really know the students within a lesson, and make it very easy to to ask deeper questions outside of lessons.

The problem with this would be that they would then be part of the educational establishment and students may not wish to open up to them precisely because of that reason.

A further option would be to put up cameras and observe from a distance, but this might come up against some resistance from both teachers and students, and it would be more difficult to ask follow up questions if reviewing the recordings some time after the actual lesson took place.

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