Archives for March 2011

Revision: how to keep sane at exam time!

Jo Lamiri Jo Lamiri | 16:18 UK time, Thursday, 31 March 2011


Exams. Although it can be torture for many, some people enjoy the challenge. Whatever your take on exams, there’s no doubt they often cause angst way before you hear those immortal words: “Turn over the exam paper!”. The problem is one of revision. How much, how often, how detailed, how...? For many of us who left school decades ago, revision is a hit and miss affair generally – and, in any case, as with most things educational, the methods and advice given out nowadays could be completely different. 

One thing’s for sure. Even if you’re feeling nervous about how your child will acquit himself, it’s crucial that your sense of impending doom isn’t transmitted to your child. Try to keep a sense of perspective, too: if they’ve revised for three evenings on the trot, let them go out on the fourth. It’s also counter-productive to expect teens to cram for hours; they are as distractible as much younger children and after about 45 minutes the brain loses its ability to retain information.

Teenage girl studying @ Elenathewise -


Common sense should also prevail. Breaking revision down into bite-sized chunks is vital to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Adopting a methodical approach is another essential tool – a scatter approach will leave your teen feeling that he hasn’t got a real grip on the subject.

There are, however, certain tips that seem to hold true. Revising facts – dates, formulae, vocab – just before bed is a good idea as the brain absorbs information during sleep. Getting plenty of sleep and really good nutrition goes without saying: a meal of oily fish such as mackerel or salmon just before an exam, will ensure plenty of omegas! Drinking lots of water will also facilitate the brain to be effective. If they’re sporty, encourage them to keep on playing rugby or go swimming during revision time as exercise is good for blood flow to the brain and will give them a mental rest.

Revision guides have their place too and there are good online sites such as BBC Bitesize. Find out which exam board and syllabus your school is following before buying or your teen may end learning the wrong things or becoming confused. Friends can help too: especially with languages and vocabulary,as they can test each other. You can think you know something but it’s always valuable for someone to test you. (You can reward them with pizza if they do well!)

Some teens insist on revising in front of the TV, often with their iPod plugged in at the same time. Too much extraneous noise can be a distraction but for many people, some background music  is helpful – and, after all, the world of work is rarely silent.

Another good idea is to try to work out what type of learner your child is. Many schools will run questionnaires to identify whether they’re visual, aural, verbal or kinaesthetic – or a combination. Once you know this, you can tailor revision to suit the learner

A visual learner will work well with colour-coded flashcards and notes stuck up around the house. Try to come up with word tricks and mnemonics to help those who don’t have a naturally good memory. Aural learners may benefit from recording facts on an audio file then playing it or you can read out information and test them. The most fun is if you have a kinaesthetic learner, as I do. She will lie on my bed with her legs straight up in the air, doing various yoga-like positions, or walking round the room. Shame she has to sit still for the exam. 

Jo Lamiri is a freelance writer.

A closer look at league tables

Sarah Kingsley Sarah Kingsley | 16:00 UK time, Monday, 28 March 2011


I have mixed feelings about school performance league tables. I’m not one for trawling through pages of statistics and tend to glaze over when presented with too many comparison charts. Fortunately, when choosing a secondary school for my son, I discovered the BBC education site which explains primary school league tables and secondary school league tables in a clear, straightforward way.

However, just when I thought I was getting to grips with it all, additional information has been included in this year’s secondary school league tables. Previously the benchmark was five GCSEs including Maths and English, but now the tables measure schools' performance by the proportion of children who obtain the new English Baccalaureate. The ‘E-Bac’ will be awarded to those children who achieve GCSEs in English, Maths, a Science, a foreign language and a Humanities subject such as History or Geography, with the objective of encouraging schools to offer a broader academic curriculum.

Together @ pressmaster -

That’s not all. Parents can now use the Department for Education’s website to create their own performance tables that rank local schools or compare them with others. Also for the first time, the government has published data on how much each school in England spent in 2009-10, including spend per pupil. 

I’m all for transparency, but do parents really need to get bogged down by so many facts and figures? And what about children who attend schools which aren’t performing well in the tables? A recent report reveals that half of secondary school pupils in England and Wales are being let down by a system that focuses on brighter children and fails to prepare others for the world of work. If this is the case, many parents may be less interested in league table results and more interested in how a school will prepare their child for getting a job. On the other hand, evidence shows that the abolition of league tables in Wales has resulted in a drop in standards, which suggests that an element of competition and accountability is important. 

Whichever way you look at it, it’s worth remembering that league tables don’t always tell the full story. For example, they don’t show the pupils’ IQs, backgrounds, support at home, and the breadth of education available at each school. In addition, you need to look at how a school performs over several years to get a consistent picture. 

If a child isn’t academic, then league tables aren’t necessarily going to help find the best school for that child. To judge a school purely on its position in the league tables is over-simplistic, particularly now that the CVA (contextual value added) measure, which compares pupils’ progress against that of other children from similar backgrounds, is being phased out.   

League tables have their place as one of the tools parents can use when choosing a school. But figures can be misinterpreted – some schools are partially selective for example, or there may be a large percentage of children receiving private tuition. There are other things to consider too when choosing a school: the enthusiasm of the head and the teachers, the breadth of subjects available, the facilities, discipline, the involvement of parents and even the distance from your home. Above all, is it a school best suited to your child?

Children should certainly be encouraged to fulfil their potential, and perhaps a few schools were guilty of putting pupils forward for less challenging GCSEs in order to boost their figures in the tables. However, not all children are suited to a purely academic education. Although league tables can be useful and Ofsted reports can give a more detailed picture, nothing beats a visit to a school, a chat with the head, teachers, parents and students. It might not be very scientific, but sometimes a gut feeling is as important as facts and figures.

Sarah Kingsley is a freelance writer and a member of the BBC Parent Panel.


Keeping your child active

Joel Shaljean Joel Shaljean | 20:28 UK time, Friday, 25 March 2011


Having had 12 years as a PE teacher and 10 of those years as Dad to three (very boy) boys, I wonder whether the sport we provide in state schools really does what it should be doing? When we think about school sport and the impact it can have on your child, it's clear that we face an enormous task to make sure that our children lead active and healthy lifestyles - even if certain games consoles do present a plausible picture of meaningful physical activity, as their main selling point.

If you think that just sending your child off to school with their PE kit packed and pressed nicely in their bag is enough, then please think again. Brian Glover's magnificent performance as an unforgiving, hard-nosed PE teacher in the 1969 film Kes might press buttons for what we experienced in school ourselves. The fact is that PE lessons have evolved hugely since then.

Sports balls @ Orlando Florin Rosu -

Children are now offered an infinitely broader and higher quality, range of activities to experience compared to the 'jumpers for goalposts' mentality, which seemed prevalent when I was in primary school (erm 30-ish years ago). In the last decade, there has been massive investment in PE and School Sport .  A fierce debate has raged for some time as to whether there would be equally massive cuts to funding. Whilst there have been cuts, the existing, hugely successful, framework has been retained by the Coalition Government after a public outcry.

If you haven't already heard your children talking about doing rocketball, high five netball, quicksticks, speedstacks, multi-skills, futsal, SAQ, tag rugby or even the popular essentially dance, then you may well do sometime soon. More children are taking part in sport within school than ever before – this is progress. With sport being seen as a more attractive proposition to our children, due to the breadth of opportunity available, all should be rosy...surely? Well, yes it should but let me sound a note of caution for parents...

In making PE lessons high quality learning experiences we also need to ensure that there is (oddly enough) sufficient physical activity taking place. There is the possibility that a 50-60 minute PE lesson results in maybe only 5-10 minutes of actual physical exercise. Let me explain: there are health and safety issues, kit checks, not to mention demonstrations and stretching exercises that all have to be gone through, before the lesson itself can kick off.

So how do we get them more active? Well, you can check a number of things. If your school has a Healthy Schools status, they should have a physical activity policy. This policy should outline what is in place, outside of PE lessons, to help children live an active, healthy lifestyle.

Daily Physical Activity (DPA)  is something that lots of schools do well. A variety of approaches are out there: Take Ten, Wake and Shake, Huff and Puff, Skip 2b Fit and Activate, to name a few. The benefits of DPA are clear for all to see. Obviously, if you are doing 10-15 minutes every day of aerobic exercise in the classroom, assembly hall, playing field, playground or anywhere else, then really that's a guaranteed extra hour of actual physical activity, to complement the learning and skill acquisition they are getting through their PE lessons.

The brain works better in the classroom when it has been activated through exercise. There is plenty of research to suggest that classroom performance is improved when there has been increased exercising.

DPA releases natural anti-depressants into our blood stream. When you think that 10% of children will have experienced a mental health disorder by the time they reach 16, then DPA becomes ever more significant. It makes it easier for both children and adults who suffer from mood, anxiety, or attention disorders to concentrate and absorb new material, which aids the learning process (as reported by the US Sport Information Resource Center 2009).

So whether they are skipping, dancing, doing aerobics, action rhyming, or going for a brisk walk/jog, make sure they are doing something additional to their PE lessons in school.

So there we go and I didn’t even mention combating obesity once! Oh alright then, consider this: In a programme in the US, Phil Lawler reduced the obesity levels in Naperville, Illinois to 3% from the national average of a massive 33% by introducing a new approach to regular DPA. 

Let us know your thoughts.

Joel Shaljean is deputy head teacher at a secondary school.

About a boy named Tom - a parent's experience (for Down's syndrome awareness week)

Sue Prisk Sue Prisk | 14:38 UK time, Wednesday, 23 March 2011


Just over 15 years ago, I gave birth to our gorgeous little son, Tom, who also happened to have Down's syndrome. The medical facts were explained to us by our consultant, in the delivery suite. She ended saying ‘put simply he is half of you and half of your husband, with a little bit extra!’ In other words, everything that we are able to do, Tom was likely to be able to do (within reason) but he would take longer to get there! For me, this was without doubt, one of the best things she said, as it gave us a positive vision and hope for Tom’s future which, we know, is not always everyone’s experience.

Our journey to date has been a wonderful mixture of fun, laughter and joy, along with the odd period of frustration! We have found the Down’s Syndrome Association (DSA), has been a useful source of advice along the way. Due to developmental delay, we made the decision to hold Tom back a year before starting nursery/primary school, which also enabled us to get his statement completed.

Tom kayaking @ Sue Prisk

Tom kayaking in 2006 - challenging people's perception

Tom thrived at his local primary school (an inclusive mainstream school), along with his two sisters. He was able to access the curriculum with the help of his learning support assistant but most of all, he benefited from a great peer group, many clubs and social opportunities.

For his secondary school we made the decision to go with a small state school specifically for children with moderate learning difficulties. This wasn’t as straightforward as we anticipated as the school we liked was ‘out of borough’. However after many discussions with our local education authority, the school was approved for Tom as the ‘best fit’ for the educational needs set out within his statement.

Without doubt, this was the right decision for Tom and he has continued to thrive and is always ready at the front door at school time - an indication that he loves it. A good place to find help as regards education is Down Syndrome Education International

The greatest perceived difficulty so far has been the growing ‘social gap’ between Tom and his primary school peers. I was concerned about his teenage years being lonely and his self-esteem diminishing. 

I had been aware for some time, that DSActive was working with a number of football club foundations throughout the UK. It seemed like this might be an opportunity for us to bridge the gap by way of inclusion through sport and we went to one or two sessions in South West London.

Then a year ago, I had a letter from the Down's Syndrome Association, inviting Tom to a new weekly tennis session, specifically for children with Down's Syndrome and their siblings. We went for the first time in January 2010 and have been going weekly ever since. It is a partnership between Fulham Football Club Foundation, the Tennis Foundation and the DSA and it has been invaluable, the benefits immeasurable. You can view a short film clip of the sessions on the LTA site. This is the first project of its kind and there are hopes that this model might be replicated in other parts of the UK.    

The tennis sessions have put a new structure in the week, provided a safe and encouraging environment which has bolstered Tom’s self-esteem. Tom’s ability to concentrate, listen and follow instruction has increased. The children are confident of their abilities but also at ease with their disability. Interestingly, I think it is because this initiative is specifically for children with Down's syndrome that the children are so positive, because they’re with others who have this too.

Additionally, as a parent, this has given me a network/friendship group – meeting with people who have similar life experiences and sharing ideas, concerns and information has been invaluable. It’s also provided a great new social group for the parents, children and young people with Down's syndrome and their siblings, helping to bridge the ‘social gap'. It has given everyone involved  the opportunity to build friendships, hopefully for life.  

We have recently been very encouraged by William Loughnane’s story - who knows what the future may hold for Tom too! The last 15 years have been a fascinating journey for me - a journey which I had not anticipated, but a journey which I would not want to change in any way.

Sue Prisk is a full-time mother and carer.

For more information on Down's Syndrome, look at this DSA page.

Check out BBC Ouch! 

Drama - a chance to explore some important issues

Amanda Hope Amanda Hope | 18:13 UK time, Saturday, 19 March 2011


As a drama teacher, I’m often asked by parents: “What do you actually do in Drama? In my day we didn’t have it as a subject, I mean it’s good for their confidence, but…what do they do?" 

In simple terms, the Drama lesson provides an opportunity for pupils to explore their world. Yes, it builds confidence, but educationally it is unique in allowing students to question and experience what they feel, challenging their preconceptions more than just theoretically. It is academic and experiential. Drama is a specialist subject and should be taught that way. Academically Drama lessons should challenge the intellect and arouse curiosity and reflection about the complex issues of our world.

Theatre concept with white plastic masks @ Elnur -

In 2008, Labour announced a funding plan to ensure all children should have access to quality cultural activity with its “Find Your Talent “scheme, while announcing that by 2011 there would be a cut of about 60% in the number of drama teachers. Since then, the coalition government has brought in huge cuts to the Arts.

Remarkably, Drama still does not have a separate subject status in our national curriculum, it is contained within the speaking and listening requirements for English. How Drama is timetabled is therefore largely dependant on its status within individual schools. Ideally it should be a double lesson a week as part of the curriculum, until it becomes a GCSE choice. 

GCSE Drama and GCE (A level) Theatre Studies are extremely popular. Sixty percent of GCSE Drama is practical. For performance candidates this is devised, improvised or text based work, with directing or design options for students who love the subject but are not necessarily inclined to perform. Forty percent is on coursework or a written examination that asks students to evaluate their practical experience covered in class.

Drama is not an easy option. Top universities are demanding AAB to study it at degree level. Drama is a hugely popular choice at universities, studying drama is one thing but training to be a professional actor is altogether different. The top drama schools are not interested in your child’s grades, nor should they be, they want talent, passion and single mindedness. Check out the Stage for advice on to how to get into acting. 

Drama can be used to explore many important issues. Last week my Year 9’s (13 + yrs) sat in darkness and told each other what it felt like to sit in a prison cell, imprisoned for having stood up for their beliefs, they were exploring human rights. 

Initially, to engage with their own feelings of injustice, I pretended that use of their mobile phones would be banned. Furious at the idea, their personal outrage enabled them to begin to understand where the courage of people like Mandela, Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi came from. They then acted out imagined testimonies of why they had been imprisoned. 

After the last student spoke, they were silent, moved, and thoughtful. But also ignited and energised. They had begun to create their own piece of drama based on their own truths, their own experience. They had tasted the transformative power of theatre, fully inclusive, with even the less confident finding their voice.

Amanda Hope is a drama teacher at a secondary school.

Parents' evening survival guide

Sarah Kingsley Sarah Kingsley | 17:03 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011


I was heavily pregnant when I attended my first parents’ evening (or parents’ consultations as they are sometimes called) and spent most of the 10 minutes trying to perch on a chair that was designed for a four year old. In fact, it took me many more parents’ evenings before I discovered how to make the most of the limited time, so I thought I would pass on a few tips.

Schools are required to hold at least one parents’ evening a year to enable parents to keep up-to-date with their child’s progress and forge good relationships with the school. At primary school, it’s a fairly relaxed, after school/early evening session, when you meet the class teacher and look at your child’s work books, usually without your child.

Teacher and parent in classroom @ mangostock -

It’s good to jot down questions beforehand, particularly if you have specific concerns. Try to keep focussed – there isn’t enough time for small talk! I have spent many parents’ evenings chatting too much about issues such as the quality of school dinners or the frequency of PE lessons. It’s best to discuss these general questions with the head or deputy head. However, you can make a follow-up appointment with the class teacher if you need more time to discuss your child’s work or development.

It’s natural to want to know how your child is doing compared to others – and don’t be embarrassed to ask. Keep in mind that children develop at different rates, particularly at this stage. My daughter is at primary school and I want to know if she’s generally happy and sociable, what she enjoys most, where she needs extra support and what I can do to help at home.

At secondary school the process is more complicated. Some schools request that your child attends too, others prefer parents only. Most give you the opportunity to spend 5-10 minutes with each subject teacher, which can result in a long evening and a lot of queuing (depending on how your child’s school structures the evening). Don’t forget to see the form tutor – he/she is likely to know your child best. 

It’s worth talking to your child beforehand to see if he/she has any concerns or questions. If you have recently received a school report, go through it together and make a note of any issues – it’s easy to forget on the evening.

Some teachers are more forthcoming with information than others. My tip: be politely persistent (but not confrontational!), if you aren’t getting the information you want. However, be prepared for constructive criticism too and if there are areas for improvement, ask how progress can be made. Your child’s targets may also be discussed during the evening. Try to follow these up and monitor how your child is progressing during the year. Many schools encourage email contact too, so it’s easy to keep in touch with the teachers.

If you dread the prospect of another parents’ evening scrum, it may help to know that research shows children do better when parents are interested and involved in their child’s education. It can sometimes be hard to find the time, but attending sends out a positive message to our children and their school. 

Sarah Kingsley is a freelance writer and a member of the BBC Parent Panel.


Helping children who stammer

Alison Whyte Alison Whyte | 16:45 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011


The excitement around the film The King’s Speech seems a world away to children with stammers, who are struggling to be heard in school.  

Many young children stumble over words, but most go on to speak fluently. Stammering is a debilitating speech impediment which can damage a child’s confidence. It tends to run in families, it mainly affects boys and some research suggests a glitch in the neural wiring of the brain. Some children repeat words or consonants, others have a block, when no sound comes out. Some stamp their feet, twitch or contort their faces or bodies.

My 19-year-old son Max has stammered since he was five. He was lucky to be referred to the Michael Palin Centre, which is the only specialist centre in the UK offering therapy to children who stammer. They gave him techniques to help him become more fluent and we learned how to help him feel less stressed and more confident.

Teenage boy talking on mobile phone @ goldenangel - fotolia

Around five in every 100 children stammer, but research carried out by the centre showed that many teachers don’t know how to deal with it. Some children they interviewed said they were treated as though they had learning difficulties at school. Many said they felt ignored, overlooked, embarrassed or frustrated. 

The Centre has developed a Stammering Information Programme to educate teaching staff about stammering. The British Stammering Association is also developing a new resource for parents which they plan to launch in the autumn. 

We contacted Max’s primary school so that teachers, teaching assistants and dinner ladies knew about his stammer. Max was given a ‘statement’, but we were never aware that he received any special help. 

For Max, the transfer to secondary school was very stressful - meeting new students, having several different teachers and trying to assert himself in the playground presented huge challenges. Children are experts at hiding their stammers, they often avoid speaking in class or clown around at the back, so it’s important to tell all the teachers about your child’s stammer. 

The Michael Palin centre advised us to inform the school and we always asked how Max was coping with his stammer during parent’s evenings. Teachers need to know that making presentations and speaking to groups are especially scary for stammering children. 

Max found that teachers all took a different approach. The key thing is to talk to your child about how things are going at school and to contact the school, if you have any concerns. 

There are some things parents can do to help – try to reduce stress at home because being tired or under pressure, makes the stammer worse. Listen attentively and maintain good eye contact.  Don’t interrupt and don’t try to finish his sentences. 

Like other parents of children who stammer, we were convinced we’d done something wrong. Parents don’t cause children to stammer, but there are lots of things we can do to help. And the earlier we put them into practice the greater the chance of recovery.  

Alison Whyte is a freelance journalist.

Boundaries - kids will always test them

Claire Winter Claire Winter | 17:50 UK time, Saturday, 12 March 2011


Setting boundaries is really important and I know that children test them to see where they fit in the world. Whatever the latest parenting fashion is, most experts will tell you that children feel more secure if they know what behaviour is acceptable and what is not. The BBC parenting site has some good advice about this. 

Young children need boundaries to keep them safe; don’t talk to strangers; take care crossing roads, etc. When children grow into adults, boundaries make them nicer people to be around. Without them, they will find adult life much harder.

mother and daughter @ Rob -

So in principle, I am completely up for setting firm boundaries for my own children (eldest is 8 and twins nearly 4) but in reality, it is not that easy. I am really struggling with this issue at the moment. It feels like my kids are really pushing them in our house. It is always at key times of the day, dinner time, bedtime and when we leave the house in the morning.

I do get cross when my children completely ignore what I say or don’t the eat the lovingly home cooked food they have been given for dinner. My biggest bug bear is when they won’t put their shoes and coat on to go the school run, after being asked three or four times. I often raise my voice to get them to listen to me. 

When I was recounting these basic parenting gripes to a good friend, she gave me a good piece of advice she had picked up from attending a parenting course. “When the parent has lost control, the child has gained it.”

Essentially, my children weren’t consciously being badly behaved they had just got involved in a really good game: hiding behind the sofa with their teddy bears was much more fun than getting to school and nursery on time. They didn’t know that we had to be at school for a certain time. It should be my responsibility to set the boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour and to enforce what I say, without losing my temper.

The only way I can get this to work, when I feel under pressure, is to do everything the night before. I lay out the clothes that the younger ones are going to wear, make their packed lunches and sometimes even set the breakfast table. It is important that they all know what is expected of them. If I state clearly what I need them to do early on in the morning, they are much more likely to do it. But when the phone rings and I am also stacking the dishwasher at the same time, things can go off the rails. Multi-tasking and boundary setting at the same time, is not always easy. 

There are many proponents of positive parenting, who stress that is important to remember to praise our kids for behaving well, instead of criticising them for bad behaviour. This is a great way to enforce the boundaries you have already set. Praise and cuddles often work far better than the ‘naughty step’. Although, taking kids away from a situation when they are being disruptive can be effective too.

When our kids get older, boundaries can also help prevent risky teenage behaviour, such as underage sex, drinking and drug taking. If we teach our children boundaries, they can learn to set their own.

Boundaries and discipline, do go hand in hand. It seems that a successful technique is to pick your battles and not be overly strict. In Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, they dedicate a whole chapter to teen rebellion. According to their research, the best parent and teen relationships are those where parents enforce a few basic rules successfully. The children who have very permissive parents or hundreds of rules to follow, are most likely to lie about what they do.

Boundary setting is not about controlling our kids, it's about helping them learn how to stay within certain limits and not to stray outside for their own safety. Following the crowd is not always the right option and hopefully through firm, loving parenting we can help our children make positive choices for themselves.

Claire Winter is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Science and Engineering - a Week of Discovery, a World of Difference

Kate Bellingham Kate Bellingham | 17:00 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011


The highlight of my week comes at 3.15 on a Friday. I sit in the dining room at my daughter’s primary school, waiting for 20 excited 10 and 11 year olds to rush in and say ‘what are we doing today?’ I run the school STEM club (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), and my aim is to make the topics fun and accessible. We’ve done towers from spaghetti and marshmallows, origami dodecahedrons, and experiments from ‘Bang Goes the Theory’

I might not be a ‘typical’ mum, as an engineer and a maths teacher (and a TV presenter) but, as parents, we can all share that thrill of our child making a new discovery or creating something and saying ‘look what I did!’ Added to that thrill is the knowledge we are giving them a great preparation for their future, where confidence and ability in science and maths will open doors to an ever wider range of opportunities.

plasma ball @ monkey business -

National Science and Engineering Week runs from 11 – 20 March.  Most schools will be taking part, but there are lots of things to do as a family too. You can find out from the website what’s going on near you.  

I’ll be at the Big Bang Fair in London when it all kicks off -  judging and presenting awards with Brian Cox on Friday 11, then taking my own children along to join in the fun on Saturday.  But it doesn’t just happen one week a year. There are numerous permanent science and discovery centres around the country. 

As parents, we are hugely important to how our children perceive science, maths and engineering. OK, we might joke that we have no influence over them at all, but research shows that, even if a child is doing well in science, they are much more likely to keep it up with an influencer who helps them envisage taking these subjects further. If you’re not sure how to do that, there’s useful advice on Future Morph.

Science and maths are among the so-called 'facilitating' subjects that are good to take at A level if your child thinks they want to go to university, but doesn't know what they want to do. These subjects keep the doors open to the widest range of courses and are well regarded by employers too.

Many people, parents as well as children, feel they don’t know a scientist or an engineer. They just don’t come across them like they would, say, a teacher or a doctor. ‘Hidden scientists’ will be coming online mid March with volunteers ‘pinning’ information about themselves and their work on a map of the UK. 

But what often matters most is simply what we say. You know those ‘why’ questions you get asked, and you are so tempted to just say ‘cos it does’ or even ‘magic!’.  I’ve always tried to answer ‘that’s an interesting question – let’s see if we can find out.’ 

You know I said the highlight of the week was when they arrive at STEM club? Actually, I’m wrong, it’s at 4.30 when they all skip out to the collecting adults chattering about what they’ve been finding out and begging to try it at home.  

Kate Bellingham is a former Tomorrow's World presenter.

Check out the latest science news on BBC News Science and Environment.

Find out about Science on the BBC.

Delicate balancing act of being a parent

Joanna Youngs Joanna Youngs | 16:00 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011


I’m not easily swayed by what the media has to say about parenting, but it’s hard not to read a survey or watch a report and not compare the findings to your own situation. And if there’s evidence to back something up, then it’s even harder to ignore what’s laid out in front of you.

‘Parents Under Pressure’ (Monday evening, BBC Two) shed light on one aspect of parenting I hadn’t really given much thought to – that older children might actually need your time and attention more than younger children.

Presenter Sophie Raworth

I have one daughter, who’s three, and I’d been assuming - along with presenter Sophie Raworth - that the crucial time for spending time with your children was when they're under 5, not when they become more independent, able young people. Although, having said that, some friends with older kids have mentioned that pre-schoolers are a doddle in comparison. During the past year, several people have given me a wry smile or a knowing look followed by the words: ‘the bigger they get, the bigger the problems’. 

Time and attention were the two things that three teenage sisters featured in the programme (twins of 13 and their 15-year-old sibling) wanted more than anything. I’m not sure why, but it surprised me. I would have thought having more freedom might have been top of the list, but just having mum around when they got in from school, to share their news with and listen to them - to be physically and emotionally in their midst - was what they craved. 

The delight in their eyes when their mum was around gave me pause for thought. I’m only working on an occasional basis at the moment - fitting in assignments around looking after my daughter, who currently attends nursery for five short sessions a week. If I work much longer hours in the future, what effect will it have on her? Will there be a negative impact on her behaviour? Will she still be happy going to after-school clubs? Will she resent me as she progresses through primary and secondary school, if I’m not there for her as much as she (or I) would like? Will she be just fine and tell me not to fuss? It’s hard to know, so perhaps I should just wait for the future to unfold and take it from there. 

The mum of the three girls featured in the programme ended up quitting her job and getting one that fitted in with the school day. The whole work-life balance with regards to the family side of things, was too out of kilter for her. She recalled being so stressed out that she ended up crying in her bedroom after a long day at work, and her daughters remember an utterly miserable atmosphere pervading their home.

I suppose what matters is being able to recognise that all is not well and something has to change - being prepared to seek help or re-prioritise what is important to your family unit. Sometimes these changes can reap huge rewards for both parent and child. 

In another part of the programme, the focus was on the important partnership between parent and school – and how this can enhance family life. One young boy and his mum tried out a scheme which originated in the States. It’s called FAST (Families and Schools Together) and aims to engage children and parents in activities together. Parents attend a weekly session and have the opportunity to share their thoughts with other mums and dads, ask for advice - but most importantly have fun with their children. The scheme’s aimed at families in disadvantaged areas, but the whole ethos could be adopted by any family. 

One activity involved cooking together, another involved role reversal. In the latter, the little boy told his mum what they were going to do and she had to listen and follow his lead for 15 minutes. No guidance, interruptions or distractions. Not as easy as you think.

I know from being around my daughter, that it’s one thing to just ‘play’ – but to switch off any thoughts whizzing round in your head and really focus 100% for a designated period of time can be harder than you imagine. Try throwing into the mix having more than one child, a full-time job, perhaps being a single parent, not having much family support where you live, other things that are more common today than in the past – and then really connecting with your child on a one-to-one basis, for a set amount of time each day, can be a big challenge.  

If there’s one main topic that came out of the programme, it was the emphasis on this quality time – listening, responding and bonding with your child. Children are pretty resilient and adapt well, and it was a relief to have this view bolstered up. But (and no great surprise here), if parents are really feeling the strain, then the kids will too – so something has to give. It’s a point worth reiterating.  

Joanna Youngs is a member of the BBC parent panel.

Read Sophie Raworth's article on the BBC News Magazine site.

Waiting game is over

Fiona Holmer Fiona Holmer | 15:26 UK time, Saturday, 5 March 2011


Logging on to a computer or opening the mail has never been so nerve-wracking. More than half a million Year 6 children and their families all around the country, found out this week if they had been offered a place in their first choice of secondary school

I have been through it four times and although you know what to expect, it doesn’t get any easier. It’s the build-up in the school playground, from the end of Year 5 onwards that is often hard to handle. Much as you try to avoid the mention of secondary schools, all too frequently it seems to creep into conversations.

man and girl in home office with computer smiling @ Monkey Business - Fotolia

It’s a long process, deciding on a school. The hurdles include visiting the schools, deciding which order to put them on the application form and then possibly, entrance exams to prepare for, if you opt for a selective school in the bunch. Trying to cajole or bribe your son or daughter into doing one more verbal and non-verbal practice paper, before they can go off and play seems like climbing Everest at times.

Involving them in the decision-making process is vital, if you want to avoid conflict later. With my eldest son, we were keen for him to try for one of the local grammar schools. He missed the place by a couple of marks, having not handed in his workings out with his answer sheet. As far as he was concerned this was a cause for celebration, as he ended up at a very good comprehensive which he had preferred all along. It turned out to be the right place for him even if we had been uncertain about it to start with.

Keep in mind that you are initially only committing to five years at the school as some students opt to move for 6th Form anyway, for a variety of reasons.

This year, according to a survey done by the Guardian in 12 local authorities, 15.8% of children were not offered a place at their first choice of school this year, down 1% on last year. Parents are playing it safe by putting the most popular school at the top of the list, even if the likelihood of their child getting in is very slim. 

If you feel you stand a chance, you can always appeal. Work out what grounds you are appealing on, check with your local authority what the deadline is for appealing and what the procedure involves. You can find out more about the process from the BBC Parents site. Be prepared for things to go either way and try to manage your child’s and your own expectations - easier said than done.

Also, if your child has not got in to their first choice school, you can ask to be put on their waiting list. From our first visit in Year 5, my daughter had set her heart on this a selective school but did not quite make the grade in Year 6.

She decided she wanted to stay on the waiting list and took up the place at her third choice of school. She was making reasonable progress there, but not being fully challenged.  Half way through Year 8 a place came up in her first choice school as someone had moved away. The downside was she had to sit exams in English, Science and Maths at no notice. We felt we owed it to her to give her a second chance. To our surprise she got the place and has not looked back.

If your child has not been offered their first choice of school, remember there is always room for some slippage between now and September. Perhaps someone might move unexpectedly or suddenly get offered their first choice and this has a domino effect.

Whichever school your child goes to this autumn, help them to stay positive about it and point out the new and exciting challenges it has to offer.

Fiona Holmer works on the BBC Parents Blog.

World Book Day with a Scots twist

Flora Napier Flora Napier | 18:36 UK time, Thursday, 3 March 2011


To mark World Book Day on 3rd March, the children in my son’s class were challenged to create a new eco-themed Mr Man. And so, the slightly overzealous Mr Recycle came into being! Great fun all round - and no doubt similar projects will have taken place in schools nationwide, not to mention countless events in libraries, bookshops and other cultural watering holes.

The first thing that popped into my own head when the eco- Mr Man letter came home from school was 'Mister Mank'. Mr Mank is a bottle-bank dwelling Scots creation hailing from Blethertoun Braes, a book of manky mingin rhymes in Scots.

brother and sister reading books on the floor @ Julian Rovagnati - Fotolia

Current research shows that Scots is still widely spoken, to varying degrees, across Scotland. However, years of it being banned in schools, and in many cases at home, has sidelined the language. 

When I was growing up, Scots was strictly for the playground (and Burns Day celebrations). In the intervening years and most noticeably in the last decade or so, recognition and respect for the Scots language has gone through something of a resurgence.

Rather than facing the belt (or at least a richt guid tellin' aff), nowadays Scottish children are actively encouraged to use Scots in the classroom. This important cultural shift has the full support of the Scottish parliament, Scottish educational agencies and many teachers, academics and celebrated writers such as Alexander McCall Smith and Scots’ Makar Liz Lochhead. Studies have clearly shown that when schools validate the languages and dialects children use in their home lives it has positive and empowering results.

There is a growing wealth of wonderful Scots language resources around. Teachers can dip into teaching materials written with particular local dialects in mind and the Scottish government have sponsored an ongoing school programme which brings Scots into the classroom.

Small independent publishing companies publish both original Scots children’s books and translations from English. Organisations like the Scottish Storytelling Centre regularly run Scots events. 

My own kids love being read pretty much anything, but have a particular fondness for Scots books. I personally love listening to the richness of the language, from Katie’s Coo (read to each of them on my knee when they were barely old enough to chew the cardboard), to the adventures of Wee Grumphie and Hee Haw (aka Piglet and Eeyore). Even more enjoyable than reading Winnie the Pooh in Scots is watching my partner struggle to get through a page, without collapsing in guffaws. 

It occurred to me, writing this, that it would be gey braw if my weans' school celebrated World Book Day next year with a Scots themed project. But, just as reading is not just for World Book Day, Scots should not just for Burns Day and other 'special' occasions. As indicated in the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence guidelines, Scots should be woven into the school day and embraced for its richness and as part of our Scottish heritage.

Flora Napier works for BBC Learning Scotland.

Making sense of maths

Sarah Kingsley Sarah Kingsley | 12:46 UK time, Tuesday, 1 March 2011


I always struggled with maths as a child. Even as an adult, splitting a restaurant bill amongst friends stretched my mental capabilities. I managed to muddle on, avoiding maths whenever possible, until a few years ago when my son asked for homework help with percentages and fractions.  

Not only had I forgotten the little that I did learn, the way maths is taught today can seem baffling, even to adults who sailed through it at school. Number lines, number bonds, pictograms, histograms – it’s like a different language. I took one look at my son’s homework and realised it was time to face my maths demons head on. The next day I enrolled on a course designed to help parents understand how numeracy is taught in schools. 

maths @ Andrzej Tokarski - fotolia

Many parents are exasperated by how maths is taught nowadays. Some methods can seem longwinded and confusing to us. However, having completed the course, I now realise how important it is to understand fully the basics of maths. When I was at school we tended to learn by rote, which just about worked for me until I was 10. Then, as maths became more complicated, I got left behind because I never really got to grips with the basics. 

During the course I also discovered a more practical approach to learning maths. Most of us are more likely to remember things, if we can see how they can be applied in real life situations, such as using ratio and proportion to adapt quantities for a recipe or area and circumference to calculate the amount of carpet needed for a bedroom. The course also explained how to develop a range of strategies to solve problems. This helps develop a deeper understanding of numeracy rather than just learning by rote. 

All in all, it added up to a beneficial experience for me and, consequently, my children. It has given me the confidence to talk about numbers with my eight year old daughter, help with maths homework, encourage her to understand what maths is about and why it’s important. Instead of avoiding numbers, we play number games such as Rummikub and Shut the box. I let her pay for groceries and check the change (unless there is a huge queue behind us!). She enjoys weighing ingredients for a recipe, measuring different items around the house, spotting 2 and 3-D shapes when we are out such as cylinders, pyramids or cubes. Hopefully, this is a more interesting and practical way to engender a love of maths than doing repetitive work books at home (although, these can help – in small doses). 

I do believe that if children are confident with maths from a young age, the chances are that they will continue to enjoy it as they progress through school. If your maths is a bit rusty, there are plenty of ways to improve your skills to help you keep up with your children – and you can benefit too. The BBC Skillswise or BBC Learning websites feature work sheets, quizzes and games designed to help adults with maths. Your local authority or library will also have details of courses in your area or, if like me you didn’t achieve a maths qualification at school, find out about the Skills for Life numeracy course. 

I never thought I’d say this, but I actually like maths now. What’s more, I can even split a restaurant bill – without a calculator!

Sarah Kingsley is a freelance writer and a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

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