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Sector news, 28 November - 2 December 2011

Computer lessons are out of date, admits government The Guardian, 28 November 2011

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has warned that computer lessons in schools are out of date and too easy. Classes in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) are “insufficiently rigorous” and need to be reformed. The warning was issued as part of the government’s response to an independent review into how the UK can become the world’s leading hub for video games and visual effects companies. The original review which had been published in February included leading figures in those industries calling for the state of ICT in schools to be urgently tackled, and warned that the country would not remain globally competitive in those worlds if it wasn’t done. The UK video games sector is worth more than £2bn in global sales a year, which is more than the film or music industries. The review called for computer science to be part of the national curriculum, and a review of the state of computing in schools. The number of students taking computing A level fell for the eighth successive year this year.

University applications from UK-born students fall 15% The Guardian, 28 November 2011

The number of students born in the UK who have applied to start university in 2012 has fallen by 15 per cent, according to official figures from the university admissions service. The fall follows a bit rise in applications last year to beat the 2012 fees increase, which see many universities putting their fees up to £9,000 a year. The latest statistics from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (ACAS) show 133,357 applicants have applied from within the UK, compared with 157,116 this time last year. Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the lecturers' union the University and College Union, said the figures were very worrying. Les Ebdon, the chair of Million+, which represents some of the new universities, said he was concerned at the drop in the numbers of mature students. The fall in the number of applicatns aged 25-39 has fallen by more than 20 per cent, and the fall is 25 per cent for the over 40s.

Chalk: is it harmful to health? The Guardian, 28 November 2011

This story reports on a study from the National Environment Engineering Research Institute in Nehru Marg, India, about whether chalk dust entering the air and being inhaled by students and teachers is harmful to health. The report found that teachers have the greatest direct risk of inhaling particles because of their closeness to the board and frequent opening of the mouth during teaching, but other particles could remain suspended in the air for some time and settle on the body parts of teachers and pupils. The report found chalk dust could be harmful to allergic persons and may cause lacrimation and breathing troubles in the long run.

Children ‘over-reliant on calculators’ in maths lessons The Telegraph, 29 November 2011

A MP is to ask the government to introduce strict curbs on the use of calculators in primary schools into the forthcoming overhaul of the National Curriculum. Elizabeth Truss, Conservative MP for South West Norfolk, said pupils were becoming unable to perform even the most basic sums in their heads because of exposure to calculators at a young age. She said they would lag behind pupils in other countries which curbed the use of calculators. The National Curriculum has a section on calculator methods for pupils aged seven to 11. League tables published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development last year placed UK teenagers 28th in the developed world for maths skills. Singapore, which has virtually no calculator use for 10 year olds was second.

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Offa releases details of revised access agreements Times Higher, 1 December

Proposals by 25 universities and colleges to cut their tuition fees so they can bid for 20,000 cut-price undergraduate places in 2012-13 have been approved by the Office for Fair Access. Despite that, it has led to only a small fall in the sector average of £90 to £8,071. The institutions, which were mostly post-1992 universities, had asked to be allowed to reduce their fees to qualify for the “core and margin” scheme which is only available to those charging fees of £7,500 or less. Offa has also approved new access agreements for 10 further education colleges that are now planning to charge more than £6,000 for some directly-funded higher education places. All must now tell students who had already applied for places of any changes by 7 December.

PQA would 'stress' students in A-level timetable squeeze Times Higher, 1 December

Sixth formers taking A levels would be put under a lot more pressure if plans to allow them to apply for university places after receiving their results went ahead. Simon Lebus, group chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, said if the exam timetable was compressed to allow students to apply post-qualifications it wouold mean they might have to take three exams in a day. He said the three-week “make your mind up window" proposed by Ucas could also discriminate against risk-averse students from poorer backgrounds.

Elite fear fall in applications will hit access effort Times Higher, 1 December

Russell Group universities fear that state school student numbers could fall as more young people chose to study locally to save money as the higher fees are introduced. Speaking anonymously to the Times Higher, a source at a Russell Group university said there were concerns about the number of state school applicants, and a potential decline in social mobility.

Basic-skills reform will focus on least able TES, 2 December

Funding for literacy and numeracy, which represents about a quarter of the skills budget, is to be reformed amid claims that colleges and training providers are failing to help adults with the greatest problems. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that the billions invested in Skills for Life since 2003 had made no impact on lower-level literacy and that there had been a slight decline in numeracy. It said more than one in seven adults lack functional literacy; for numeracy, the figure is close to one in four. There had been a large improvement in literacy for level 2 and above, so BIS felt colleges and training providers had focused their efforts on adults who needed the least help to gain a qualification. A proposed pilot scheme would instead give greater rewards to providers working with students who start with a lower skills base. NIACE had warned last year that providers were tempted to focus most on those who could most easily get a qualification.

Other points for FE in the chancellor’s autumn statement included:

1 per cent cap on pay rises which is likely to squeeze college budgets and affect FE pay.

A Youth Contract offering an extra 250,000 places in work experience or training.

Science, technology, engineering and maths qualifications to be scrutinised by an employer “kite-mark” scheme.

£50 million to help teenagers out of work or education into jobs, apprenticeships or courses.

A share of £600 million for 16-19 free schools specialising in maths.

Ofsted wants to let students and employers rate colleges TES, 2 December

The TES says it has learnt that Ofsted is developing plans for an FE-specific site similar to the Parent View website, where parents can rate their child’s school online. Ofsted apparently wants employers and students to take part, with the results made available for other interested parties to see.

Ofsted’s other key proposals for the new FE inspection framework are:

Early inspections available if colleges pay.

The separate "capacity to improve" grade would cease to exist.

Greater focus on lesson observations.

Outcomes for learners to be rated with a single grade, instead of up to seven contributory grades.

Inspectors would look in greater detail at progression to higher-level courses and sustainable employment.