Author Archives: Rick 1

2022 GCSE exam content changes : from the modest to the severe


As anticipated the exam Boards such as Edexcel and AQA have published their “advance information” changes to assessment content for the 2022 exams including GCSE. If you recall, the purpose is to offset the difficulties pupils have endured due to the Covid disruptions. The indication is this is just for 2022.

I myself would have kept the content pretty much the same but made the questions easier by making them more on-syllabus, and less obtuse and wordy; but anyway we now have the Boards’ pretty specific topic list of what will or won’t be assessed, and I have taken a quick look at my specialities for Edexcel Maths and AQA Triple and Combined Science (see also web links at the end of the article which cover all subjects). I am sure teachers will be explaining these to pupils and parents alike, but here is my immediate take, initially on Higher.

Towards the end of this document, I also include a little on grade boundaries, formulae sheets and Mock exams and finish with some overall conclusions and take-aways. Also I have included an update on topic-targeted mocks I’ve created.

But let’s start with what is in (the “main focus areas”) and what is out.

Maths Edexcel

For Higher Pearson Edexcel Maths, the amount of content reduction is very low, so most topics are still in there – about 90 topics are listed as “main focus areas” i.e. are “in”. It looks like a few difficult ones like Quadratic Sequence, Completing the Square, Congruence, Volume of cone and sphere, Proofs, and Iteration are excluded from assessment now.

Sometimes there is some ambiguity: compound interest is mentioned in the formula sheet but not in the list of included assessed topics so perhaps will be needed for growth, decay, depreciation; while for Angles the easier parallel line topic seems excluded while the more difficult polygon and circle theorem topics are included.  

Mostly the topic list is precise enough to revise from but not so specific so as to tell you the question – this is as it should be.  But sometimes the description is so specific that you can almost anticipate the question – such as capture recapture, and equation of a tangent to a circle.  

Overall the Maths changes are fair. About 90% of topics remain included. Any exclusions are spread fairly evenly across the main headings of Algebra, Geometry etc.

Ideally (like science below) a list of exclusions (as well as inclusions) would have been stated by Pearson, but hopefully my pointers above will help and no doubt teachers will firm up on these in due course. The implied exclusions will reduce revision time slightly, but note the preamble does ask teachers to teach the full content anyway.  

Science AQA

For AQA science the picture is different from Edexcel Maths; from modest exclusions for Chemistry to almost the opposite for Biology i.e. very few Biology inclusions (Bizarre, I know!). Let me explain.

First Triple. For Chemistry the content at first sight seems to remain largely untouched. There are only two minor “not to be assessed” exclusions listed – nanoparticles and (strangely considering their importance) greenhouse gases.

There are a large number of topic headings listed as “main focus areas of assessment” such as Periodic Table (section 4.1.2). So far so good.

But then you think, what about 4.1.1?   This is the all-important atomic and electronic structure section – which helps you understand 4.1.2 Periodic table – yet is not listed in the inclusions. Similarly, section 4.8 is not mentioned at all – Chemical analyses such as Chromatography and Flame tests – and yet the core Practical involving Flame tests IS included.

(And although I have not looked at Foundation in detail, strangely there are MORE listed topics in Foundation than Higher; so while atomic structure is not listed in Higher, it is included in Foundation. My take on that is this: in Higher there won’t be a specific question on, for example, atomic structure; but pupils would be advised to learn it anyway because it informs so many other parts of the syllabus from Periodic table onwards. I wonder if the Examiners have thought the communication of this through! I think maybe teachers will agree with me and err on the side of caution and continue to teach fundamental topics like this anyway)

I think there is some clarification needed on what needs to be revised. In the preamble to the lists (for all Sciences) the Board indicates that topics not specifically listed as “in assessment” may still be included in “low tariff or linked questions” which confirms my view that pupils should still revise most of the syllabus to be on the safe side.  

On balance I think the list of Chemistry “in topics” does indeed help and is sometimes very specific , like section 4.10.4 (Haber process/NPK fertilisers – so there’s almost certainly a question on this- and it links to another inclusion on Reversible reactions) ; although sometimes less specific (like 4.4.3 Electrolysis). I think they are trying to pinpoint the particular questions likely to be asked.  For all the sciences the devil may be in the detail: the specific numbered subsections may sometimes give the game away.  Myself and teachers will no doubt be trying to second guess these questions!

Note that for Chemistry and all Sciences the Board emphasise that the type of question will not change and the general scientific methods including maths skills and practical experiment interpretation are still needed. The specific core practical list (a bit reduced ) is well pinpointed and I strongly recommend pupils revise the short videos available on these; high chance of specific questions on these practicals.

 For Physics the list of inclusions is narrowed down considerably to essentially Particle Model, Energy, Forces, Momentum, Pressure, Waves and Space.

And unlike Chemistry above, the list of “exclusions from assessment”  is very long and specific. So out go most of Electricity, most or all of Radioactivity and Atomic Structure, and Magnetism altogether. And yet there is some ambiguity to resolve. Section 4.2.4 energy transfer is included and this includes Power, Current and Voltage i.e. electrics; and yet the basics of that, namely amps, potential and circuits from 4.2.1 to 4.2.3 are specifically excluded.

Some of these exclusions are topics which have been a staple for pupils at school since Year 7 and before and it seems actually unfair on pupils to exclude the basics of electricity and magnetism which for some would have been easier than let’s say Space. I suppose you can’t have it both ways: since broad education is meant to be more important per se than the exams themselves, in a sense it does not matter if they are examined on a topic. On the other hand, to “waste” five years work with just a few month’s notice may annoy many pupils, who having already finished the topic by now and would be quite happy to be examined upon them.  

For Biology triple, like Physics there are considerable reductions; the inclusions are narrowed down to Cell Structure, tissues, organ systems, diseases, antibodies, nervous systems, hormones, reproduction, parts of ecosystem.

There are a long list of exclusions, for instance the whole of staples like Evolution won’t be assessed. And again there are ambiguities: nothing from the large section on Section 4 Bioenergetics is included; and yet only a small part ( Taking Exercise) is specifically excluded. Bioenergetics describes the core biology fundamentals of Photosynthesis and Respiration and pupils have learned these no doubt from year 7 and they have featured in almost every past paper. To not test pupils on this seems perverse.  But since very little has been specifically excluded from section 4, should pupils after all revise it anyway? My take is that there won’t be a specific question on section 4 Bioenergetics, but it would be prudent to still revise as it infuses the remainder of the syllabus and there may be a “linked” or low tariff” question on this core topic.

Similarly, 4.5.2 Nervous System is a main focus area, but from it 4.5.1 (structure function), 4.5.2 (brain) and 4.5.3 (eye) are excluded. This is useful as it leaves only 4.5.4 (temperature), implying a specific question. But it would be unwise to ignore the introductory 4.5.1 as it informs 4.5.4.

The list of required Biology practicals, as for other sciences, is reduced but still very specific. So the staple Quadrat and Mass of Potato chips practicals are included as ever and the fact they have survived points very clearly to a question this year (as almost every year) and their video should be watched, understood and learned.

In Combined Science (Higher) the picture is similar as for Triple;

Combined Chemistry lists several very specific inclusions, similar Included content to Triple Chemistry,  and almost zero exclusions mentioned.  

For Combined Physics a focus on Energy and particles as with Triple, but this time including Radiation and Motor Effect and EM Waves (so Combined has more extensive content than Triple!) And again ambiguity: series and parallel circuits are excluded as an assessment topic, yet the required practical on these is Included. Similarly 6.7.2 the Motor Effect – which has its roots in magnetic fields –   is included, yet 6.7.1 the basics of magnetism is excluded.

For Combined Biology, a very short specific list of inclusions and very long list of exclusions. The list of inclusions is slightly different to Triple, for instance Photosynthesis is included.

Discussion on science lists.

There is some ambiguity to be resolved, by the AQA Board or perhaps by teachers. If something is neither included in assessment, nor specifically excluded from assessment, should it still be revised, to be safe, in case “linked or low tariff” questions arise? I think in some cases a topic can be eliminated altogether, but in others it would pay to revise just in case; so some detailed analysis will be required to make that call. If the Exam Boards’ “exclusion lists” are taken too literally, some precious revision may be missed which in fact may contribute to “linked” questions.

For English, if a set book is excluded that presumably can safely be put aside. But for chemistry, if “atomic structure” is not to be assessed, then it would be a mistake to simply not revise it, because it informs so much of the surviving other topics.  

Grade Boundaries
The Boards have indicated that boundaries will be set somewhere between normal, and the last two years.

Mock exams
Many schools have already penciled in exams for after half term in late February 2022. The dilemma for teachers is, shall we complete the syllabus testing as normal to encourage a full learning experience; or shall we adjust them to exclude the “not being assessed” topics, in order to avoid wasted revision time? No doubt teachers will be crawling through the fine detail of today’s lists, just like I have done above!

Formula sheets
For Physics, as before the formulae are extensive. For Maths, intriguingly, some of the few formulae which were given last time are not this time (for spheres and cones) confirming their probable absence from assessment. While formulae like quadratic formulae and sin and cosine rule are included now, indicating their probable inclusion in assessment.

In conclusion

The Boards have rightly kept their promise to publish by February 7th

The timing of the announcement seems about right; earlier, and some topics would not have been taught at all; later and some revision time would have been wasted.

The Exam Boards in their announcements and preambles have stressed they still want as much of the content to be taught and revised as possible. But with their list of exclusions, inevitably the precious, finite teaching and revision time will not be devoted to topics on the “not to be assessed”  lists.  This is useful , as long as care is taken when dropping topics.  

Maths is relatively untouched compared to the sciences and revision should still cover around 90% of topics. The basics are all still there and the exclusions are often niche standalones.  

Chemistry has very few specific exclusions, and a broad list of main inclusions, but gaps in this list indicate some additional topics will not be assessed.

Physics and Biology have long lists of exclusions and short lists of inclusions. The topics have been considerably reduced.  In my opinion reduced too much – some fundamentals have been eliminated.    

But for the Sciences the sub-section numbers listed from the specification which do survive as “included” can often give very specific pointers to the content of the question

A key phrase in the Sciences preamble is “Topics not explicitly given in any (main focus) list may (still nevertheless) appear in low tariff questions or via ‘linked’ questions, (but) topics not assessed (at all) either directly or through ‘linked’ content have been listed as “not to be assessed”.

Hence there is some ambiguity to be resolved in Science in terms of what topics to revise – there are three categories: first, about 70% are essential to revise; and then (15%) topics not listed as key focus areas, yet are fundamentals so may crop up in linked or low tariff questions, and so should probably be revised anyway; and finally (15%) those definitely excluded from assessment – only these can be truly de-prioritised.   

The type of science question is not altered i.e. could still include unusual applications, maths calculations, and practicals: the core practicals listed are very specific and may indicate precise questions – so have high revision priority.

I think the above lists will be communicated and ambiguities resolved for pupils in the coming weeks. If any parent or pupils have questions please don’t hesitate to ask your teachers, or myself as I believe I can help.  


Pearson Edexcel web link to changes in 2022 assessment

AQA web link to changes in 2022 assessment

Update March 7th 2022

I have created Mock exams featuring two or more questions on every one of the Paper 1 , 2 and 3 Higher and Foundation maths Pearson Edexcel inclusion lists. Their specific topic list for each paper is very useful, for instance: in Higher Maths the highly niche topic of Capture Recapture appears only in paper 2 and likewise Frequency Polygon only Paper 3, and a quick refresh just before those exam dates would pay dividends.

I also created topic targeted Mocks for AQA Triple and, separately Combined science, and together with Maths these proved very useful to pupils in their actual Mocks especially as I added my own explanatory notes over and above the sometimes rather bare official mark schemes. I also managed to get some of the very latest exam Board questions in too.

I have also begun to research the 2022 topic lists for the specialist qualifications like Further Maths, iGCSE, and OCR FSMQ and also the Edexcel Sciences.

Writing a business course to help prisoners become entrepreneurs

An unusual request came my way, to construct a slide pack drawn from the GCSE Business syllabus but focused on helping prisoners in English jail get started as business entrepreneurs on release. A fellow consultant gave me seven business themes, such as Marketing and Finance, provided by the IOEE Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneurs, to work up into coherent multi-media lessons (and he would do the in-house training).

It was a fascinating exercise and to tackle it I had to imagine how someone with a difficult background could turn a start-up into a successful business – what sort of skills and abilities they would need, how they would obtain finance, form stakeholder relations, how they would negotiate deals – and of course which business laws are important. As well as teaching the basics, for instance financial reporting and calculations, the marketing mix, ownership options, advertising and market research techniques, organisation structure and quality and customer satisfaction.

I created a slidepack for each theme and starter, plenary and interactive quiz. In the slides I included many short case studies and enhanced these with on-line links to videos and articles. This aspect was fascinating, because with the package to be used in prison I was given a web address restriction of one source only – the BBC. But I discovered a host of great short stories on line within the BBC’s CEO secrets, their Business pages, the Dragons’s Den, and of course Bitesize.

These videos varied from business lessons from well know celebrities like Baroness Karen Brady, Levi Roots, Lord Alan Sugar to the rags to riches, start up to multinationals like Deliveroo and Brewdog; the charming story of rapper Labrinth taking two teenagers to an East End market stall to learn the art of selling; the man who converted his grandma’s jam recipe to an international business; the inspiring stories of start-ups surviving and thriving in the Pandemic and opening zero-waste Green businesses.

A selection of stills from the video links

I put a lot more time into these than the financial reward justified but as a philanthropic work it was justified and with a little alteration I’ve made the package suitable for any Business Studies student – for instance I’ve already used them to teach a Chinese business student – and made them available in my TES shop.

When I first started tutoring with simple Maths I didn’t realise the interesting avenues down which it would take me!

UKMT Maths Challenge – benefits for pupils and tutors

UKMT is the United Kingdom Maths Trust which on foundation in 1996 brought together a trio of similar pre-existing Maths challenges at three different age groups, the Junior, Intermediate and Senior tests. Dr. Tony Gardiner is the name most associated with driving these competitions forward and now tens of thousands of pupils a year take part in the three competitions, which cover Years 8 and below, Year 11 and below, and Year 13 and below.

The format is very similar in each – 25 questions of increasing difficulty each with 5 multiple choice answer options. Clearly the standard of questions increases through the age groups but not in the way you might think. I have studied the Intermediate and Senior papers in particular and the syllabuses do not vary greatly, rather it is largely the same topics, but with more challenging questions. You will see in the appendix my research,
that I have collated from past UKMT papers, the GCSE and A-Level individual topics that students need as a minimum to know to have a good chance of success in the UKMT competitions..

In order of most frequent first, Geometry, Number, Algebra, Trigonometry, Statistics, Probability (counting outcomes) and finally Ratio are the topics featured. You might think that calculus is included in the Senior challenge, but no, as I say, it sticks largely to GCSE topics but with more challenging questions, and set in a particular style which after a while becomes familiar. Both competitions challenge pupils in two ways especially; working at speed and doing problem solving, which is something the UKMT wishes to encourage.

The benefits to pupils are of the following kind. Most obviously, more exposure to subjects which will feature in their GCSE and A Level exams – for instance Pythagoras and Similarity feature extensively.   Second, learning to work fast in terms of reading a problem, understanding what to do and executing the solution all within a few minutes (and without a calculator, thus developing mental arithmetic skills). Third, managing an exam – how should I proceed if my answer is not listed, when guessing a wrong answer may carry penalties, and which if any questions should be missed out? Fourth, the problems help you to think in a different way about Maths, imaginatively. out of the box if you like. And lastly, especially for those who are successful, it can add to your UCAS personal statement.

Just entering shows ambition, and there are further possible rewards for high scores, such as Gold,Silver,Bronze, Kangaroo (I’ll let you research that one!), and a national olympiad. There is also a team competition, which I am pleased to say my old school Newcastle Royal Grammar School won a few years back. 

Do you have to be really good at school Maths for high scores? Well it helps of course, but the questions do encourage intuition and feeling for Maths rather than (just ) rewarding technical revision.

Shown below are some typical geometry questions, then number questions, from each of the three age group competitions, showing yes the progression and but also continuity. You will see that knowing some Maths formulae and definitions is a minimum essential – but that alone does not guarantee success, as intuition and for instance ability to quickly sketch, plan solutions, create equations or compile tables is needed too.

Typical medium difficulty UKMT Geometry questions

Typical medium difficulty UKMT Number questions

How do you enter? Well, the school usually helps with the administration. Remember the Junior, Intermediate and Senior competitions are typically in April, February and November respectively, with deadlines for entries a few weeks before each. A practice really is needed!

For tutors the benefit of helping pupils is that most tutors will have to stretch themselves to accurately and quickly answer the difficult questions; often there is more than one way to approach them and the challenge is to see the relative benefits of different methods; and learn to think in different ways about Maths problems beyond the confines of conventional exam requirements. My own approach to coaching UKMT is to start by going through topic by topic and set questions relevant to that subject from both UKMT and also GCSE past papers; and once any shortfalls are ironed out I begin to set full papers at first without time limits and finally within time constraints. Although model answers are available, they are sometimes a bit wordy, and I try to write out the solutions myself to force me to think through the problem and anticipate how a pupil may best understand an answer. I give tips on both managing the exam and also question-specific explanations and tips – for instance I point out that certain types of question such as circle/square combinations occur year after year.

In summary UKMT is a great initiative which encourages good Maths practices and techniques and I enjoy greatly helping pupils to become familiar with the challenging papers. More information is available through UKMT’s website

Appendix 1. List of Maths topics you need to know for Intermediate and Senior UKMT

EPQ Extended project tips

The Extended Project (EPQ) which students can take in Years 12/13 is an opportunity to gain extra UCAS points, perhaps half a grade, and also to develop a whole new set of skills, both academic and future career related.

As a tutor I have been privileged to work recently on a fascinating EPQ and I hope played a good role in supervising and advising a student on a project related to the physics of rocket launch propulsion.

It is clear when you read the EPQ specification and marking system that approaching a half of the marks are awarded for the process of planning and executing the project, rather than purely marking the technical content. And so I bring some of my business and project management skills, as well as the academic aspect, into the mix for the student.

In choosing the title the student should do preliminary research on a topic that fascinates them and it is feasible to research and agree it with a nominated school supervisor. Begin to map out some objectives you wish to achieve and arrange them in the SMART form (specific, measurable, agreed, realistic, time-bound). The title may change a little as you go along don’t worry.

Set up a good document management system for articles you have found in the library or on the internet. Make sure you are always working on an up to date copy of your master not an out of date one. Keep notes of not just the technical content but also of the process steps you take such as how you take decisions about what to include or reject, how you avoid plagarism, how you are proceeding versus your objectives, and what you are learning; you have to complete Process Logs and these contribute to marks.

Use project management techniques such as Gant charts and stage gate control to ensure you plan out your work and use these to try and hit deadlines. Again useful to include in Process Logs.

Look at examples of projects to see how to establish a list of contents at the front, organise your paragraphs well and put a lot of work into the conclusion. A typical EPQ is 5,000 words and 25 pages. Keep structured references as you go along such as author name, article name, date. A good way of ensuring a validated paper is through Google Scholar.

You will find yourself on a technical project inevitably working way beyond A-Level syllabus. This is great!. It is introducing you to University level research and theory, and it will be a fantastic addition to your UCAS personal statement.

Do not worry if you realise that the more you uncover about your topic, the more questions emerge and you may feel your work is superficial – it is not! The writers of published Papers have years to do this, it is their job, and at the age of 17 you only have a few months on your project while focussing on A-Levels as a priority.

In summary you have to put in some extra work, but it may coincide with summer holidays anyway, and there are so many benefits ranging from UCAS points, through learning research and writing techniques in advance of a possible University dissertation, to expanding your academic and real-life knowledge.

Coronavirus, school and tutoring

Possible developments and updates

November 14th. It is now time to end this particular blog or else it will go on forever!. Schools did indeed return in September and in my view teachers and their representatives, and pupils and parents have all done a great job in keeping the show on the road, at the time of writing, in difficult circumstances At this stage exams in England are going ahead, delayed a little to June or July, but it seems inevitable some changes such as reduced syllabus or exam questions options will be introduced. What is clear is that one aspect of education has changed forever, namely the use of on-line technology, which surely will be a permanent part of the mix even when things return to normal.

August 17th. At this stage its is likely that schools will return in September but still not certain, with Case numbers creeping up. But the real story is A- Level results and the move to stick with Teacher grades. Comparing these to previous year actual outcomes versus predictions indicates significant grade inflation will therefore take place. The infamous algorithm actually did its’ job in bringing the broad sweep of grades back to where they should be. However: two problems. First, when applying correction factors, the algorithm produced some ridiculous individual results such as fails when no exam was taken. And second, it seemed to favour smaller class sizes, which are more common in private than state schools.

July 7th Various announcements have been made that schools will indeed go back full time in September for all Years which is good news. The emphasis will be on hygiene, from washing hands to cleaning surfaces, and minimising contact through staggered timetables, one way systems etc. Rather than a strict 2m rule throughout school, though avoiding 1m still seems required. This will be difficult, but the alternative of further virtual schooling may be worse. I think it will happen, but with nuances like cutting back on aspects of the syllabus content, shorter exams and perhaps still some virtual learning (after all, some of it has been very fruitful)

One aspect of the lockdown not much talked about is the loss for Year 11 and 13 of the “going into school to get results” day, and the leaving events like Proms, and so many end-of-school holiday trips have been cancelled. It is so sad for that generation.

June 19 Primary Schools have been back since June 1, years 1 and 6 at least. Years 10 and 12 have just begun to return, a few 2-hour lessons per week on face to face, mostly focussing on core subjects. Its is a slow start but we’re getting there. Some schools are really pushing on-line work rigorously, others less so. One school I am in touch with are setting exams at end of June for Year 10’s, not far off mock GCSE standard that’s good. I can see that the on-line novelty will wear off and we need to find a way of getting children back to school, safely of course but with an attitude of “we’re gonna do this”. If not for this school year then certainly in September. I think year 10 parents are the most worried the GCSE’s will be affected and why demand for Year 10 tuition remains very high.

For year 11’s (the forgotten year) two things are happening. First, yes we know their predicted grades will be formulated into actual grades in August. Some surveys have suggested they will be half a grade higher than last year. Perhaps the final examiners will bring them back down a touch but it seems reasonable. The issue for me is that children need four go’s at really learning a topic but Year 11’s missed out on the final pre exam revision push.

So that means that the if they take a topic forward to A Level they will have missed out on that final embedding of knowledge which forms the beginning of AS Level. Which is why – the second happening – it is a great thing that schools are beginning to use the June/July hiatus for Year 11’s to begin year 12 AS Level, even if its is with videos and on-line learning. (And why I am running Maths for A Level science courses for Year 11’s! )

Today we had the publication of plans for NTP the National Tutoring Programme and it certainly seems to have had a lot of thought put into it. The website is up and running and the aims and resources are clear. I think we should wish them well in trying to do the catch up of lost time, and maybe even at the other end of the programme providing a permanent means for disadvantaged pupils to keep up.

My tuition for International students continues about the same level but there’s just a hint that some are hesitating as to whether the British international schools will be open in September. We shall see.

May 11 The beginning of the end. Or the end of the beginning. The Prime Minister announced that some restrictions will be eased and said he hoped first and last year of primary schools could open from June, with secondary perhaps seeing some face to face teaching July. But I think it will take a lot to persuade parents and teachers alike to believe it is safe. I believe it is 50:50 whether any schools reopen before September – or at least more than they are now because we shouldn’t forget technically they are open to a small number of vulnerable pupils and those of front line workers.

May 8. Still full. I lost my first Chinese pupil whose parents understandably were hesitant to continue lessons in the uncertainty about resumption. But the place was quickly filled by an extra UK lesson. Zoom works well on Waiting Room but slightly annoyingly when 1 person is Waiting and 2 are in the lesson that counts as 3, which means maximum 40 minutes so you sometimes have to restart. I have found a way of helping with student’s school web tasks but feeding the questions back into a mix of past paper questions to check they can do them without help. I’m also extending Maths for A-Level Biology to Maths for A-Level Chemistry.

Still no sign of at-school restart : safety has to be guaranteed, so if not straight after half term, that would mean end of June earliest – and what would be the point for a few weeks. Are we into Alice Cooper territory? Schools Out for Summer. Schools Out Forever? The lyrics are eerily appropriate.

April 24 The first full week after Easter and it looks like all the pupils in my schedule have returned for on-line lessons. I have adjusted Zoom to include a password and the excellent waiting room feature. For GCSE students the Maths for A Level Biology programme seems to be working well; while continuing GCSE work is useful just in case resits are needed and to keep a learning focus, I’ve offered a programme which looks forward rather than back.

Still no sign of the plans for restart: these could vary for a phased resumption before half term on geographic and yeargroup basis, to a more widespread resumption immediately after half term, to a wait till September. My instinct is for the middle option, but we shall see. Years 10 and 12 will probably be a priority.

April 3 The second week complete and all my pupils have now used Zoom with me successfully , albeit I’ll adjust some settings during Easter. Some schools now looking forward rather than back, beginning A-Level introduction early for GCSE students rather than continuing GCSE work for which there’s no exam and its now become clear today that current work will not count towards GCSE because “schools have also been told not to set extra work to inform the predictions, because young people may not be able to do themselves justice if they are incapacitated by illness or have a difficult home environment”. Likewise with some of my GCSE students I will begin “Maths for A-Level Biology” early.

March 28 The first week of shutdown has completed and Zoom is working pretty well for my remote tuition. There is a boom in Zoom round the world it seems. Schools have been using Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom, Show My Homework, Hegarty Maths, Kerboodle among others to set on-line homework tasks which vary from watching videos to answering questions and entering answers. It looks like Year 13 A-Level students’ tasks do indeed still count towards final grade; with Year 11 GCSE it is a little less clear how important their continued diligence is.

March 20: schools have shut down. Some clarity received from Government that cancelled exams will NOT mean that GCSE s and A Levels are not awarded: rather that the criteria for allocating grades will be determined by predicted grades, mocks, and coursework which teachers will collate and inform examining boards of their recommendation. These grades will be awarded earlier than usual in July and so appeals may be received and possibly an optional Autumn term exam will be arranged. What is not quite clear is whether tasks submitted on line over the next few weeks will count towards grades. Until informed otherwise we have to assume they will.

For year 10’s who are not yet taking exams the objective must be to take on- line tasks, teaching and tuition seriously and diligently to ensure the prolonged absence does not adversely affect their chances at GCSE next year

Today’s various announcements marked a Rubicon so from now I will be doing on-line tuition only till further notice, which some of my UK pupils have already started with me using Zoom. My Chinese students already do this and it works well.

March 19 : update: schools beginning to shut down and set up homework and revision material on the web systems. Some are timetabling the issue of new material to when their normal lesson times would be and some are planning to run live webinar lectures at lesson times. I am beginning to do on line tuition to UK students in the afternoon (already plenty of Chinese in the morning) and finding so far Zoom better than more well known Skype.

Still no word on decision of what might replace exams as a qualification.

March 18: update: announcement that all schools will close Friday and that exams will not take place in May/June. An announcement will be needed as to whether this means postponement till September, or waive through on Precited Grades. PM’s phrase “pupils will get qualifications” could indicate the latter. I am beginning to see how schools will keep their pupils busy: good on line portals like GCSE Pod or Show My Homework are places to set tasks.

A thought: one of the world’s most valuable Apps in moral terms is “Nextdoor” where you can find out what is happening locally, and who knows what its now worth in financial terms. Other Apps whose time has come include Zoom and Skype.

March 17 : update: Teddington has moved to closing most of the school but keeping Year 11/13 open. The reason is associated with shortage of staff, self isolating or on sickness.

Similarly Waldegrave is closing except for Year 7, 11 and 13 which remain open and Orleans Park is open for years 7,9,11,12 and 13 only.

This leaves keeps things moving for GCSE and A Level and leaves open the possibility of completing those exams but of course things are fast moving and may change.

Parents from year 10 are beginning to ask about possible extra tuition.

March 16

My personal opinion is that after this weekend the chances of UK schools having to close due to Coronavirus have moved from below 50% to over 50%. Whatever the science says, peer pressure may become irresistible. If closure happens, the length could be perhaps 4 weeks, 2 of which luckily are at Easter holiday; all the way up to 6 months including summer holidays.

With a short stop, perhaps pupils in Year 11/13 who would be most affected could receive remote schooling, reassemble for exams, and examiners might lower the grade boundaries. But for an extended outage, the question would then be, what about qualifications for 6th form and University, assuming that no exams would be possible in May unless on-line exams were mobilised quickly?  I don’t believe that everyone repeating their year would be an option; firstly I do not believe pupils would want that, and second the capacity is not available unless you roll all the way back to nursery and delay the very first year of schooling.

Even a half way house of taking GCSE/A Level in September would be problematic as it would mean starting the next Year after Christmas, and requiring pupils to maintain “mental fitness” all over this summer. So an interesting alternative compromise is nearby Teddington’s plan to close the school except for Year 11/13, which at least keeps things moving.

If exams were to be cancelled altogether and yet pupils progress to the next level, that then implies that coursework and predicted grades at GCSE and A Level would come into play, as a means of determining 6th form and College admissions. But this is speculation. We shall see. Currently isolation for over 70’s seems to be the focus, but certainly schools are beginning to plan – for instance my school at Waldegrave is encouraging pupils to take more books and equipment home each day in case a sudden instruction comes.

As a tutor, whatever happens, I will offer options to parents of continuing as normal, or moving to on-line, or (and I hope not) stopping altogether. Note that better than Skype for on-line is a purpose built free programme called Zhumu, which I already use extensively with my morning Chinese students and remote Europeans and the tutoring works very well using this system. Needless to say we have already introduced handwashing.


The Biology of Coronavirus is interesting to say the least; at GCSE level we know that viruses, despite causing so much grief, are not actually living, as they do not have enough of the MRSGREN characteristics (more on that in future updates); they only live when a host is found, where they can rapidly replicate; and antibiotics do not work, instead a vaccine is needed to prevent infection rather than cure ; and at A Level you would know that the reason that soap and water is so effective is that the hydrophobic part of the soap can rupture the lipid membrane of the virus (see below)

On a lighter note

Regular readers will know that a pop song is never far away. Let’s hope the outcome is less of John Lennon’s “hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease” in Come Together, or Depeche Mode’s “you know how hard it is for me to shake the disease”; rather Paul McCartney’s “Its getting better all the time” (he always was more optimistic), a song which originated when Ringo fell ill in 1964, and was temporarily replaced with drummer Jimmy Nichol, who played five concerts before Ringo was well enough to return. During Nicol’s tenure John and Paul constantly asked him how he was coming along, to which he always replied, “It’s getting better,” In 1967 Paul made this into a song for Sergeant Pepper.

Medical advice might be, as the Police say, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” (and that was actually at school) or remain as X-Ray Spex would say, a Germ Free Adolescent.

As events develop I will update this blog. Auto updates are possible if you complete the subscription form

The school science of the Apollo 11 moon landing

50th anniversary

On July 20 1969 The Apollo 11 Lunar Module touched down on the surface of the moon and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin began their walk. Many (including me) judge this to be mankind’s greatest single-event achievement so far. Outlined below are the many aspects of this story which provide learning opportunities and potential exam questions across the three GCSE Sciences, particularly Physics.

The take-off

Despite the enormous sound and visual fury of the launch, the fuel used by the Saturn rockets powering the mission was mainly not fossil fuel, rather it was a mixture of liquid oxygen and hydrogen. Normally gaseous, very low temperatures are required to liquefy them, -219 C and -253 C respectively. Being liquid rather than gas is safer, and occupies much less space because
volume = mass / density and liquid density is higher. Saturn had sections which as fuel was used up were jettisoned to just leave the lunar and command modules. The enormous power was needed to enable the modules to reach the required speed to exit the earth’s atmosphere and escape the main gravitational pull.

Saturn V launches Apollo 11

The journey there

The distance from the earth to the moon is about 240,000 miles and the maximum speed was just over 24,000 miles per hour as it left earth’s orbit. So a “time = distance / speed “ calculation indicates a ten hour journey time and yet it took 3 days, so what happened to this slow-coach! Well, maximum speed does not mean average speed, and after the Saturn rockets were jettisoned, gravity slowed down the un-powered Module , as required, in order not to fly straight past the moon as it approached. Also, the journey included an orbit of the earth and several of the moon before descending to the moon so the distance was much higher.

The journey there..and back

Fuel Cells

If the rockets were jettisoned, how did the modules get to the moon without their powerful fuel? Well, once the modules were propelled out of earth’s orbit at high speed, less force was acting upon them since air resistance was zero. There was still a backwards gravitational pull of earth but it became smaller and smaller.  So Newton’s Law would suggest they just carry on in the direction they were pointing, namely towards the moon, even without Saturn rockets’s major fuel source, albeit gradually decelerating from initial 24,000 mph. Small amounts of fuel were needed for lighting, communication and landing/leaving the moon, and these were a mixture of conventional fuels and fuel cells developed in Cambridge University, which were the early versions of the fuel cells we learn about in Physics GCSE. Namely hydrogen plus oxygen combining through electrodes to produce water,and release energy as electricity. The maximum power was around 2000 Watts and the water was not wasted – it was drunk by the astronauts!

A fuel cell was used on Apollo 11 mission

“In space, no one can hear you scream”

As the advert for the science fiction classic confirmed, sound cannot travel in space because the longitudinal sound waves, whose vibrations are parallel to the direction of travel, need particles such as air to vibrate – but there is no air in a vacuum. So how come we could hear the astronauts? 

Sound waves don’t travel in space …but radio waves do

As David Bowie memorably told us in Space Oddity, a conversation was possible between Major Tom and Ground Control. Well, the answer is that communication was achieved by Radio waves, which are not sound waves but Electromagnetic waves which as transverse waves vibrate at right angles to the direction of travel. Just like other parts of the spectrum – like light waves from the sun – radio waves can travel through a vacuum at the speed of light namely 300 million meters per second. Since the 240,000 miles is around 360 million meters, then using time = distance / speed, the time for a radio signal to travel from the moon to the earth is only 1.2 seconds.  Hence the only-slight delay between Houston asking a question and the astronauts answering.

Note however that Michael Collins, alone in the Command module while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, could not be contacted on the far side of the moon as radio contact was lost, as expected. Perhaps this was why Bowie’s Major Tom  lost contact at the end of the record – “can you hear me Major Tom?”

Ground Control could hear Major Tom …at first

The physics of an orbit

When the lunar module had jettisoned its rockets it performed an orbit of the earth before heading to the moon. How does this work? If the module is set in forward motion at just the right speed then the force at right angles to its motion – namely gravity – pulls it towards earth and the net result is a bisecting direction along the path of the orbit.

The speed of the orbit remains constant at 25,000 miles an hour but the velocity is constantly changing. How can this be? Well, it’s because velocity is a vector and speed is a scalar quantity and as Vector tells Gru in Despicable Me, a vector has magnitude as well as direction. So the velocity is constantly changing because the direction in a circular path is constantly changing. When a force creates a circular motion, this is a centripetal force. (Gravity is a non-contact force while other centripetal forces are contact forces – the friction when a motor bike turns, and the tension in the spokes of the London Eye)

The diameter of the earth is about 8000 miles and the Module initially orbited the earth at around 100 miles up. So the diameter of the orbit around the centre of the earth was 8200 miles, giving a circumference of approximately 25,000 miles using Pi. At almost 25,000 miles per hour, the initial orbit took 1 hour.

The Moon Landing

When Armstrong and Aldrin’s lunar module separated from Collins’s Command Module above the moon, it reduced its speed but slightly overshot the landing site in the Sea of Tranquility in order to avoid landing in a crater. Armstrong took over control from the Module computer to achieve this ( a computer with less processing power than an I Phone incidentally).  Less than 30 seconds of fuel remained, so this was where both of the astronauts’ flying experience, including  dog fights with Russian MIG’s in the Korean War, proved invaluable. They stayed impossibly cool, while Houston’s control centre personnel famously were so tense they almost “turned blue”.

Armstrong’s heart beat stayed normal at 70 beats per minute, almost until the “Eagle has landed” but even he succumbed at touchdown to the fight or flight adrenaline hormone at touch down, when his heartbeat reached 150.

After Armstrong stepped down off the ladder – “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – Aldrin soon followed him and began, as the Police would later sing, while Walking on the Moon, to take “giant steps” with his “feet hardly touching the ground”. Why is this? Well ,gravity there is only a sixth of the earth’s gravity ( g is 1.6 rather than 10). So it was easy to hop around. And why is the gravitational force lower? Because the force is proportional to the mass of the two objects, and the moon is lighter than the earth, even if the man has the same mass. So a person of 50 kg faces a gravitational downward force of 500 N on earth but only 80 N on the moon.

The Police …drums on the side of a Saturn

They collected rocks and when later analysed they were found to contain the chemical lelements silicon, iron, aluminum, calcium, magnesium, titanium and oxygen. No carbon or nitrogen, so not enough ingredients for biological life.  Years later however , hydrogen and iced water were found at the moon’s poles and this opens the possibility, with the presence of hydrogen and oxygen, of creating fuel cells using electrolysis which could mean that the Moon could be used as refuelling stop on the way to Mars. 

The journey back

After taking off from the moon, the lunar module docked with the orbiting Command Module and together they returned to earth.  Long before the mission, Aldrin had written a thesis on docking in space based on his experience as a scientist and Air Force pilot in Korea. As the Module approached the earth atmosphere the frictional force – this time a contact force – caused the heat shield to reach high temperatures and gradually melt – as planned.


A parachute slowed the Module down further, with air resistance offsetting the weight of the Module, which floated down at a leisurely terminal velocity to the sea.

The crew were kept in quarantine for several days in case they had caught viruses on the moon.  A virus – unlike bacteria – is counted as non-living but nevertheless can contain DNA. It is worth recalling that DNA was discovered by Watson and Crick at Cambridge University only 16 years before the Apollo 11 mission.

Further Physics work

All of the above science should be readily understandable by anyone taking Physics or Maths GCSE – if not it’s a definite revision topic! For those carrying on with Physics, the A Level and Physics Aptitude Test for Oxford will contain more advanced Space concepts like eclipses, Kepler’s Laws for orbits and what many consider to be one of the all-time great equations; namely Newton’s formula for the Force exerted by gravity on two objects, of mass m1 and m2: F = Gm1m2/r^2 where r is the distance between the masses and G is the universal gravitational constant. 

Scientists are still not sure what Gravity truly is, yet in the 1700’s Newton could already quantify it, and in a sense invented the science behind Apollo.

2019: the year of the Periodic Table

Did you know 2019 is the Year of the Periodic Table and its 150th birthday? Me neither! It has to be one of the least publicised “Year Of’s”  and yet one of the most important.  Dmitri Mendeleev’s creation attracts me in two respects, first for the science and second for the use of the highly visual illustration to simply explain it. The Table has evolved in to the colourful all-in-one-page presentation of data with shapes or pictures that I like – think Infographic, think London Tube map.

The Periodic Table is wonderful in that it answers so many questions about physical science, and if all that you know about Chemistry is the Periodic Table and the answers to the questions below, then you are well on the way to a GCSE Chemistry pass. As an adult you are welcome to this understanding but please feel free to skip to the “fascinating facts” towards the end and find Mendeleev’s position in the history and philosophy of science.

What is an element?

An element is a substance that contains only one type of atom, such as hydrogen; in contrast to a compound which contains more than one type of atom, such as H2O. A molecule contains more than one atom – of the same type such as O2, or different types such as H2O).

Some elements have an obvious single letter and some don’t; why is that?

Hydrogen and oxygen simply are called H and O whereas Magnesium is Mg and Potassium even more strangely is K (from the Latin Kalium). So there are many reasons, for instance Beryllium, Boron and Bromine couldn’t all be B.

What’s the difference between a Group and a Period?

The Groups are the downward columns and the Periods run across. Groups generally have elements of similar properties like Group 1 metals and Group 7 Halogen gases. But the properties from left to right of a Period are completely different e.g. from metallic to gaseous. The common factors in Periods is the electronic shell, so the second Period 2 is the second electronic shell.

What’s the difference between the top number and the bottom number of an element?

The top number is the atomic mass (A.M.) while the lower one is atomic number (A.N.). The atomic mass is the number of protons and neutrons while the atomic number is just the number of protons (and also electrons). So sodium has 11 protons and 11 electrons (A.N. 11) and adding in the 12 neutrons makes A.M. 23.

What is the order of elements?

As you go across the table left to right, the atomic number increases by 1 each element, going from Hydrogen (A.N. 1)  to element 118, Oganesson  (Og),  formerly Ununoctium (UUO, A.N. 118). Atomic mass also increases, albeit sometimes by more than 1. Along with many elements towards the end of the table, UUO is unstable and in fact only 3 atoms of it have been produced since 2002. When Mendeleev first published his Table in 1869, he left some gaps, but made predictions of properties which in due course did fit new elements such as Group 3 Gallium.

Can we use the Periodic table to identify metals and non-metals?

Broadly the metals are on the left and in the centre while the non-metals are on the right.

The transition metals in the middle don’t seem to follow the group number pattern. Why?

At GCSE level we just mainly consider the first four periods and so for example period 2 group 1 e.g. Lithium and group 2 e.g, Beryllium  then skip over the transition metals to group 3 e.g Boron and on through groups 4,5,6,7 to the final column for Nobel gases.

Why is the final group called group 8 sometimes, but also group 0 ?

This gets to the heart of the electronic structure of periodic table. The common factor of the final columns is that all the elements have stable outer electronic shell configurations which at GCSE level generally means 8 electrons in the outer shell, and so zero in electrons in the next shell.

So what other parts of the periodic table relate to electronic structure?

Sodium’s electronic shell structure

The group number determines the number of electrons in the outer shell (and vice versa). So group 1 metals have 1 electron in the outer electronic shell, and for instance sodium is A.N. 11;  so its 11 electrons have configuration 2,8,1 Then group 2 elements have 2 electrons in the outer shell, and so on through group 4 with 4, and group 7 halogens with 7 in the outer shell.

Does group number determine the type of reactions elements have? 

Absolutely! Group 1 elements are keen to release their single outer shell electron to go back to a stable outer shell of 8 and so react strongly to, for instance, water and acids to form ionic compounds in which the metal ion has a charge of 1+. Meanwhile group 7 halogens are adept at gaining the one electron for a stable outer shell. So Na+ and Cl- from an ionic bonded compound whereas chlorine bonds covalently with hydrogen or itself by sharing rather than exchanging an electron.  Group 0 (or 8) Noble gases like argon are inert (they barely react) because they are already content with their full outer shell.

Can we predict which elements will form multiple bonds from the position in the Periodic Table?

Yes, oxygen in group 6 has 6 outer shell electrons and so needs 2 more and forms a double bond with itself or two bonds with hydrogen (which needs 1 electron) to form H2O (water). So the very familiar formula of water owes its existence to the position of hydrogen and oxygen in the Periodic Table. Nitrogen in Group 5 needs 3 more electrons so shares them with three hydrogen atoms to from the very familiar ammonia NH3. At the other end of the 2nd period, Beryllium in Group 2 cannot be bothered to gain 6 to make 8, rather it loses 2 to from the Be2+ ion, That is why group 2 metals like magnesium form 2+ ions.

Group 1 metals get more reactive as you go down the group whereas Group 7 halogens get less reactive. How does the periodic table explain this?

As you go down a group the atom gets bigger so the outer electron shell is further away from the positive nucleus. For metals such as potassium this means it is easier to prize away an electron from the claws of the nucleus than it is with the smaller lithium.  On the other hand the larger iodine is less willing to accept an additional electron than chlorine, because for iodine the positive nucleus is further way from the incoming electron.

Some elements like chlorine have a decimal place in the atomic mass whereas as carbon does not. Why? 

Isotopes is the answer. Chlorine has a 35 A.M. isotope and an 37 A.M. isotope in the ratio 75% : 25% and so the weighted average is 37.5. Carbon has several isotopes such as the carbon dating isotope C14 but they are in tiny proportions so the base isotope of C12 is used in the Table.

Why is Period 1 only 2 elements?

Hydrogen and Helium have respectively 1 and 2 electrons, after which the first shell is full and we move to the second shell which has the more familiar 8.  Hydrogen and Helium are the main constituents of the Sun and indeed the Universe, which begs the question, are there any elements in space not in the Periodic Table? You will find the answer in the final section, Strange Facts (about the Periodic Table)

So which Periods and Groups are important for GCSE?

For the first three periods i.e from elements H to Ar you should know each element in detail and arguably be able to recite and know their properties, reactions and electronic structure. Equally Groups 1 (alkali metals), 7 (Halogens) and 8 (0) Nobel Gases (and to a lesser extent Group 2 Metals) are important to understand in detail, and for these Groups extend your knowledge to Period 4 as well, for instance down to potassium and bromine.

For transition metals in the middle you don’t have to know their groups, periods or electronic configurations, but should be aware of their names and properties. For example copper, which conducts electricity and has highly coloured compounds like its sulphate,  and which features in core experiments. You do not need to know the details of radioactive elements but should understand the principles of radioactive decay.

Strange facts concerning the Periodic Table

Mendeleev’s elements – the Donald Rumsfeld of his day?
The Table has the look of a Patience card game. This is not a coincidence because Mendelev was a card player and initially sorted the elements by atomic mass, wrote them on cards, and placed them in columns of similar properties and increasing weight.

He initially missed out around a third of the elements because they had not been discovered but he was able to predict some of the missing element properties.  On the other hand he made no space for Group 8 Nobel gases.   Another reason for omissions may have been that he was running out of time to publish, especially since other versions and lists were beginning to be circulated.

The 92nd element is uranium but it can transform itself into other elements like lead through radioactive decay. Elements above A.N. 92 do not actually exist – not naturally anyway – they have to be artificially created and they also radioactively decay. .

Some scientists believe that although we have reached 118 now, we could go as high as 137 – but no higher because energy levels would not permit it.

The original classical elements as proposed by among others Aristotle were earth, fire, air and water, with aether the heavenly element soon added. The alchemists began to identify more conventional elements like sulphur and mercury, so that by Mendelev’s time the modern, full set was in reach.

So one might imagine Mendeleev as Donald Rumsfeld, who famously was mocked yet admired for his “known unknowns” description of military strategy.  Mendeleev’s “known unknowns”  were elements like gallium, germanium and scandium whose properties and existence he predicted before discovery. His “unknown knowns” were the iodine-tellurium pair which he placed in the wrong order because he was unaware of isotopes; and his “unknown unknowns” were arguably  Group 0 inert gases because, being inert, they formed no compounds; and the high atomic number elements including lanthanides, actinides and  radioactive elements.

Although in GCSE exams you are given the Periodic table, so it doesn’t need to be memorised, but just in case, you may wish to consult Google and the 120,000 ways of memorising it. Including songs like this one.

Each element has a story
There are only 2 liquid elements at room temperature – bromine, and mercury the “liquid metal”. Most of the rest are solid except for around 10 gases.

The lower elements are often named after famous people (yes, there is an Einsteinium, and a Curium) and also planets (Uranium, Plutonium, Neptunium). Note that Mercury the element and planet are both named after the god.

The country Argentina is named after the element Silver(Ag). Meanwhile Gold (after the Latin word Aurum) is so precious because it does not tarnish, being so unreactive, and it is a metal, again related to its position in the Periodic Table.

Carbon is the building block of life and forms many millions of organic compounds. Because of its position in Group 4 it requires 4 electrons for stability so typically forms 4 single bonds, or 2 singles and a double, with itself or other elements like Hydrogen in Methane (CH4, Natural Gas). Yet it is also the single element in strong and precious diamond.  It also forms graphite which has several layers of hexagonally arranged carbon – the graphite pencil works by a layer peeling away on to the page. Graphene is a new material – it is only one layer of graphite – so only one atom thick – yet is between 10 and 200 times as strong as steel (depending on the steel type)

A good reference for the details, pictures and uses of every element can be found in

Electronic structure and Heisenberg’s role in the War (possibly)
As you go across a Period, more protons and electrons are added, but the atomic radius, strangely, gets smaller. This is because the additional electrostatic attraction of more protons outweighs that of negative electrons. But when you jump to a new Period and new electronic shell comes into play.

Neils Bohr – who developed the theory of electron shells in the early 1900’s and which matches the Periodic table so well – was from a footballing family – a good player himself, his brother was a Danish international. Neils, of Jewish descent, also stood out against the Nazis, whereas Heisenberg (of Uncertainty fame) was more accommodating and the two had a mysterious and fractious meeting in 1941 concerning the development of the German atomic programme. Heisenberg showed a drawing, but there was disagreement over whether it was for a bomb or reactor. There is even uncertainty (of course!) about whether Heisenberg advanced Germany’s nuclear programme after the iconic meeting, or held it in check.

The book “Periodic Table” by author Primo Levi is a collection of short stories which links his love of science with his experiences in fascist Italy and in Auschwitz.

Space exploration, the Big Bang and the rest is history
We have not so far found elements in space that are not listed not in the Periodic Table. In fact all elements are thought to have been produced from Hydrogen and Helium after the Big Bang through various processes of fusion, fission, collisions, disintegrations involving for instance supernovas and neutron stars.  Many of the processes involving the protons, neutrons, and electrons of He and H began in the enormous temperatures in the first fraction of a second of the Universe, following which traces of Lithium and Beryllium, the next elements by A.N., emerged. Carbon soon followed (OK after a few million years!) and the rest is history (literally!)

Although the earth is principally solid, less than 1% of matter in the Solar System is solid. Exceptions include iron which is thought to be at the centre of all planets in our solar system.

And finally…the man himself

…more about Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev himself. A Russian scientist, from Siberia, one of 17 siblings. The world may have been a different place if his second fiancé had not agreed to marry him (he threatened suicide otherwise). She did marry him, a month before his divorce from his first wife (interesting timeline!). A Chemistry teacher who had just written the definitive textbook of the era, he claims to have envisaged the Periodic Table in a dream and upon awakening reproduced it.

He incorporated the periodicity of the properties of elements, and although he focused on atomic weight not number, his work seemed to hint at the future through his use of “valence” which would later evolve to reflect atomic number and electron shells.  The repeating patterns had been observed a few years before by scientists like Newlands and Meyer, but as is often the case timing is everything. So it was Mendeleev that is principally remembered; not just due to luck but also because his Paper, presented to the Russian Society of Chemists, included a coherent “pull it all together” theory which included predictions of new elements.

Mendelev was all set to receive the coveted Nobel prize in 1906 but at the very last the committee changed its mind -ostensibly because of the 37 year gap, but probably because of a trivial tiff (to which scientists are not immune!) The influential scientist Ahrrenius objected to a previous criticism of one of his theories!

One of Mendeleev’s originals

Mendeleev  studied at St Petersberg, and helped to create the first Russian oil refinery. One of his  first tables is shown above from 1871,

Also below – what is now recognised as the oldest classroom chart version, dated 1885, found in St Andrews University; and in true Antiques Roadshow style, it was found in a dusty clear-out.

Credit : ST Andrews Periodic Table

There is a crater on the moon named after him, and, as you would expect, one of the elements, mendelevium, A.N. 101.

When Mendeleev died in 1907 his Periodic Table was well on the way to international acceptance but his last words were to his Physician. “Doctor, you have science, I have faith”.

For an amusing insight to the Periodic Table here is a Podcast by Professor Brian Cox


Playing the examiner’s game

This morning on Radio 4 I heard the story of author Ian McEwan helping his son to write an English essay on one of his own books, only for a low grade to be awarded. The reason – the essay did not answer the question in the way the examiners wanted. As exam season approaches this a crucial topic – I firmly believe that knowing how to interpret questions and structure answers can add many percentage points to a score. Here are some things to look out for:

Command words. Especially on longer mark questions, certain words or phrases in the question require certain responses. For example, in Business Studies and many Humanities subjects the words “evaluate” or “assess” trigger the need to present balanced arguments with evidence and coherent analysis, followed by a conclusion with a definitive yes/no answer with justification.  So, if “evaluate Brexit” (perish the thought!) came up, you would need two Leave points, two Remain points followed by your own preference with the most important point, and reason why, for instance, the economy was more important that immigration control (or vice versa).  Some students miss out the conclusion, and miss almost half the available marks.

In Science, command words include “design”, or “describe an experiment”. Normally this involves a practical experiment, perhaps a core practical, and students should describe not just apparatus and substances, but also the control variables (what you keep the same), the independent variable (what you deliberately change) and dependent variable (what you measure); safety precautions; how you would present results; and how you would ensure reliability, precision and accuracy. A glossary of terms makes dull reading but is vital to understand. Practical write-ups in exercise books are well worth revisiting.

In Maths, the phrase “show that” may involve a proof or rearranging a formula to make it “look like” the required expression, while “must show your working” or “give reasons” means just that – for instance in a geometry question, you could get the right numerical answer but omit English reasons like “alternate angles rule” and fail to get full marks.

Attitude: it is tempting to answer the question you want to answer, rather than the one you have really been asked. So pupils must read questions very carefully, and as well as Command phrases pick up key words and clues in the stem of the question like “more than” or “only” or “double” – examiners have included them for a reason, not for show.

Examiners do now have the annoying habit of asking “real world” wordy questions rather than simple numerical ones. They assume pupils would prefer to answer a question like “Johnny runs part of the London marathon at 5 miles per hour, setting off from Westminster with both hands on Big Ben vertical, and traveling for 15 miles. At what time does he arrive”. Rather than simply “Speed = 5 mph. Distance = 15 miles. Set-off = 12 o’clock. When does he arrive?”  Well, I know which option real-world pupils would prefer, but we just have to get used to the fact that Maths questions are increasingly “applied” rather than “pure”, obtuse not transparent, and so practice makes perfect when it comes to approaching long winded questions.

In general, the examiners and their questions are the only ones you have got, so you simply must play their game and recognise what they are after. If they insist on asking Biology questions about drunken rats (they did!) you should just go with the flow and not flounce out. What is more useful, taking to Twitter afterwards and complaining about a stupid question, or showing resilience and attempting a tough problem?

Assessment Objectives. The curious underworld (which for a time I inhabited) of examiners and their mark schemes is dominated by these “assessment objectives”. So, in Business Studies you gain marks for knowledge, analysis, application and evaluation. In Biology you can accrue marks as you mention one by one in the long questions the relevant systems and organs, processes, and substances and compounds. In Maths “method marks” may be awarded, but only under quite strict guidelines, for instance if you have correctly written a defined key step in your working.   One way to find out about these is to read the publicly available mark schemes and examiners comments on the past paper web sites. In Maths, for instance reviews published by exam boards include lots of pearls of wisdom and often start with, “many pupils were let down by inability to perform basic maths” (In non-jargon, they couldn’t add up).

Examiners have hundreds of papers to mark in a short space of time, so the key is to make it easy for them to award good marks – by mentioning key words or phrases or numbers in the answer which matches their mark scheme, and by displaying well-ordered neat working. A relatively short sharp answer can out-mark a much longer one if you hit the examiners trigger points.

Know the specification. These have got more complicated, partly because of changes like “9-1”. So, for Science GCSE, there is Higher and Foundation in each of Double and Triple. It sounds obvious but revise what you have to revise, and especially if you are going to drop a topic, ignore what’s not required.

Second guessing the content.   It’s a mug’s game to spend time predicting the questions, but a sure-fire topic in all three Sciences is environment and associated climate change, global warming and renewable energy. Also, after let’s say two of three Maths exams, if you have had a Box Plot and Cumulative Frequency but no Histogram, well you can guess what’s coming next. Mr Barton’s Maths website issues an annual prediction, as does Tutor2U for Business.

Structure as well as knowledge. In summary, of course revision of pure facts is important, but it only gets you so far; practicing real questions and comparing your answers to examiner’s mark schemes can get you much further. If you can’t beat examiners, then join them, play their game and give them the answers in the form they require.

Footnote: an old school-friend who read this article reminded me that our Geology teacher Dusty Rhodes (so named because he threw the blackboard duster at us for minor indiscretions – times change!) used to write “ATQ” all over our scripts before awarding marks of zero or 1/4. ATQ of course means “answer the question” – so some things don’t change. For a pupil who has revised well, not ATQ is one of the biggest remaining risks.

A banker GCSE science question – the environment; what students need to know.

There is much media talk and public interest about environmental issues like climate change, renewables, air quality, plastics and pollution. There are school children marches and protests for Climate Emergency round the world. Penalties for diesel cars to discourage nitrogen dioxide and particulate emissions are being introduced, and, astonishingly, the Tesla electric car company’s market value at £40 billion has now overtaken Ford’s despite only achieving a fraction of Ford’s sales. The UK Government is phasing out petrol engine cars by 2040 in favour of electric and voted for Zero net emissions by 2050. What can we say about the inclusion of these topics in Science GCSE? Well, firstly, there are lots of examples, and “environment” is one of the few certain, banker questions in the whole of the GCSE syllabus. The first new 9-1 GCSE science papers confirmed a very large number of “environment” questions for a relatively small part of the syllabus – hence very high value revision! Secondly, examiners are looking for proof that students understand some of the technical language involved. Let’s take a look in more detail.

Questions about the environment in general have become so popular in Chemistry, Biology and Physics papers, in both combined and triple science alike,  that I sometimes think you just have to mention “carbon dioxide” and you are half way to a pass ! Even if you are a climate change skeptic, suspend that view until after the GCSE’s! Certainly the payback on a relatively small amount of revision on a not-too-difficult subject is high since one or more questions will almost certainly feature – which cannot be said about all science topics. After a previous year’s “drunken rat” controversy, students tweeted that they had learned their CGP Biology guide religiously, yet so little of the syllabus cropped up.

A common fault amongst pupils is to confuse climate change and pollution, so that’s a good place to start.   Students should understand the following three key points:

1. All three of the sciences begin this topic with fossil fuels, which are mainly oil, coal and gas and derivatives like petrol and diesel.

2. There are two separate consequences of fuel combustion. On the one hand, the generation of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as a natural but increasing product of combustion. Then on the other hand emissions of bi products such as sulphur dioxide and soot  which cause pollution and smog.

3. And to counter these problems is the emergence of renewable energy sources such as solar power which reduce dependence on fossil fuel.

Candidates should ensure they understand both the advantages of fossil fuels and derivatives (fairly cheap, easily available, engines designed for them) and disadvantages (may run out, greenhouse gas generation, pollution, scars on the landscape). Similar pro and con assessments should be learned for individual, different renewables.
The basic mechanics of global warming should be understood. Rays from the sun entering the earth’s atmosphere bounce off the surface , and we need this to happen to a certain extent to provide warmth yet prevent overheating; but increased CO2 concentrations in the earth’s atmosphere don’t allow enough long wavelength infrared radiation to escape, leading to a small but significant warming of the earth. (This is the way greenhouse glass works). Pupils should also know that un-combusted methane itself is a greenhouse gas and that increased world-agriculture contributes to the climate problem (and yet provides food of course)

Some effects of global warming should be learned such as polar ice-caps melting; sea levels rising and coral reefs deteriorating as ocean temperatures rise; and species migration patterns changing.

Students should be able to interpret graphs such as global temperatures rising on the y-axis – but note the typically narrowed scale – with time on the x-axis, especially since the industrial revolution. These show global average temperatures rising around 1 degree C to 14.5 degrees, which alongside CO2 atmospheric concentrations rising from 0.028% to 0.040 % seem to provide a link.

Now let us summarise what revision is needed in each of the three sciences in addition to the above, and the type of question likely to be asked. (More detail is available in my coaching card lesson plans). Each science begins with the basic assertions above, particularly the part played by carbon dioxide in global warming, then develops different angles.


Pupils should understand how fractional distillation of crude oil works, including generating products such as petrol and diesel fuels as described in this BBC video about Grangemouth refinery where I visited many times in my work.

Students should learn the basic word equations associated with combustion of fuels which are generally alkane hydrocarbons .

Hydrocarbon +  oxygen –> carbon dioxide +  water + energy released

and one example, for natural gas combustion.

CH4     +            2O2             →         CO2          +        2H2O

And also the word equation for acid rain, which damages buildings and statues, especially limestone :

Sulphur Dioxide + Water -> Sulphuric Acid

Students should also know the formulae of Nitrogen Dioxides (NO and NO2) and also understand how incomplete combustion produces sooty carbon particles (turning bunsen burners yellow) and in extreme circumstances the poisonous carbon monoxide (CO). Methods of reducing emissions are important such as scrubbers at power stations and catalytic converters on cars.

(In a sense I am pleased to see nitrogen and sulphur oxides (called colloquially “NOX and SOX”) being given priority once more. As a performance analyst in BP in the 1990’s I collated the emissions data from BP Chemicals’ factories including NOX and SOX. When CO2 was suddenly elevated to a much higher importance, I always worried that focus on these polluters might be lost).

Although not in the syllabus as such, an interesting view of air quality real time results around the world, as judged by amounts of pollutants including NOX and SOX measured by detectors placed e.g. on buildings, is this web link  

The alternative fuels of particular interest in Chemistry are ethanol, bio-fuels like bio-diesel, and hydrogen along of course with their pros and cons.  A further branch to revise is the benefits of electric cars and the two main means of powering them namely re-chargable batteries and hydrogen fuels cells. At typical question would provide data for energy use, cost, mileage and ask you to “evaluate” the alternatives which means recommend the best with justification.

The cracking of alkanes to alkenes and subsequent polymerisation also features in this context both for the fossil fuel origin and the non biodegradable nature of plastics.

Another branch of pollution features in metals extraction and mining, with heavy metal dis-colouration of rivers a possible disadvantage as seen in this article about the Colorado river.

Exam Questions have ranged from simple (what type of reaction is burning fuel in oxygen?);  to numeric (compare the parts per million figures for particulates, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide for several types of fuel); to everyday experience (why do supermarkets charge for plastic bags?);  to involved (describe how a fractional distillation column works).


For Physics pupils need to know more detail about individual energy sources both conventional and renewable. The energy transfer steps for several of these should be understood. So for power stations running on fossil fuels, the transfer is from chemical (in the fuel), to thermal (burning it), to kinetic (turbines and generators); to electrical (the grid).

Nuclear power involves a plentiful supply of uranium and plutonium but they are finite resources so counted as non-renewable. And of course though they have the advantage of being green in a sense – no carbon dioxide emissions – the disadvantages include waste disposal and impact of major break downs (albeit rare) like Chernobyl.

The major renewable sources to learn are: solar panels (see this video of solar powered city) and solar cells; wind turbines and wind farms; geothermal hot rocks; hydroelectric power; and tidal barriers. For each of these students should learn the energy transfer process, and advantages and disadvantages, perhaps two of each. For instance, for wind energy the transfer is from from kinetic wind energy to kinetic blade energy to electrical. The advantages include it’s renewable, and has zero carbon dioxide emissions and pollution; but it is not always available (when calm), the turbines can scar the landscape, and though costs are reducing they are expensive to build and maintain.

Typical questions have included: is global warming of 5 degrees C over the next 100 years a fact, a guess or a prediction?; why are copper pipes under a solar panel painted black?; calculate the cost of waste energy from a food processor and how it is manifested;  why do chemical salts used to store solar energy need a high specific heat capacity?; explain the difference in actual versus maximum electrical output percentages for a variety of energy sources; give 2 advantages and disadvantages of running gas fired versus nuclear power stations; why are transformers used between power stations and the national grid?; and what is the payback time on a project costing £1000 yielding savings of £500 per year (answer : a 2 year payback).

It follows that students should know and be able to apply formulae around energy efficiency, power and energy transfer.

Finally, although electric cars are not specifically on-syllabus, that won’t stop AQA or Edxcel throwing in a wildcard question like “compare the advantages and disadvantages of electric cars versus conventional petrol or diesel engine cars”.  Answers should include reference to easy availability of petrol (difficult for electric chargers); petrol is from fossil fuel and so contributes to global warning (electric cars do not – though the charger itself has to be charged); petrol and especially diesel cause particulate, sulphur and nitrogen dioxide pollution whereas electric cars do not; and conventional cars currently have a higher mileage range than electric.(Note that a £300m electric taxi factory is opening in Coventry – truth is stranger than fiction as 3 years ago an A Level Business Studies question case study was built around just such a possibility, Even Business Studies is not immune from our topic ! )


Photosynthesis and the carbon cycle are highly relevant in this context.  This is a must for Biology exams, not just for the environment  question. The word equation for photosynthesis must be learned:

Carbon dioxide + water (with sunlight) –> glucose + oxygen
6CO2                  + 6H2O    light –>            C6 H12 O6  +      6O2

(The reverse equation for respiration of course also is important)

The carbon cycle includes the absorption of carbon dioxide through photosynthesis in leaves, and the production of carbon dioxide through respiration and also decay of dead animals, which eat vegetation.  This has been in balance until recently when from the industrial revolution onwards fossil fuel combustion is producing more carbon dioxide – only by a fraction but enough to mean an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which in turn links through to the so-called greenhouse effect and global warming.

In Biology, further emphases include the generation of another greenhouse gas methane through more intensive farming, and the reduction in CO2 adsorption through Amazon rain forest depletion, in tandem with the production of CO2 from burning those forests.

Fossil fuel pollution includes damage to leaves from acid rain because their waxy layer for mineral absorption is damaged, while health is affected by carbon monoxide because in red blood cells it binds more strongly to haemoglobin than oxygen.

Further related topics include pollution caused by sewage and excess fertilisers, which can lead to eutrophication of lakes and oxygen depletion.

Typical questions include; describe the main points of the carbon cycle and the role of photosynthesis; what can we do to slow global warming?; interpret a bar chart of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide produced at each stage of the carbon cycle.


Environment as a subject is as near to a banker question as you can get, and one of the few where parents can easily help children, especially as GCSE age is just young enough for pupils to still accept parental advice! Further, you will hear almost daily on the news stories about this topic,  whose science may well feature in GCSE and so a round table discussion could follow at dinner. The key points are to start with are fossil fuels, but distinguish between carbon dioxide emissions – said to cause global warming;  and sulphur and nitrogen oxides, bi product polluters causing building damage and health issues. Then candidates should be able to explain the science and list some solutions for these problems. The examiners want balanced arguments, so be prepared to list both the pros and cons for conventional and renewable energy sources.

What to expect in the 11-plus

What to expect in 11 plus entry exams

I have just completed some Maths tutoring for two excellent students hoping to join a grammar or independent school in South West London.  Their approach was exemplary, their Maths was already well in advance of Year 6, and they wanted to get even better, being prepared to work very hard in lessons and at home. One full practice paper was not enough for homework, they coped with two a week.  Their parents hoped for a free or reduced fees place, but if not I have no doubt they would try to find a way to sacrifice to pay fees.

With the recent news about possible expansion of grammar schools, it made me think about what would happen if my two students did, or didn’t, make the grammar schools, and also how the various entry exams compared to each other, and to traditional year 6 SATs standards.  In other words, what should pupils expect in their exam?  Let’s start with this.

The entrance exam

My focus was upon my local South West London schools, 10 fee paying private independent schools and 8 free, state, selective grammar schools.  I drew broad conclusions about the latest exam processes, likely to be reasonably applicable outside London too. The first thing to say is that in these 18 Schools, it is very difficult to find free sample papers or even sample questions on their websites.  This is to avoid advantaged children “buying” their entrance through expensive “teaching to the test” tuition.  However, for some of the Surrey schools typical common entrance papers can be purchased, some schools just outside this area do publish sample papers, and of course national publishers like CGP and Bond make practice papers available.

So you can piece together what the typical test will look like.  Maths rather than English is my speciality so here are some of features of the typical Maths entrance paper.

The number of questions will be between 25 and 50, students have 45 minutes to 75 minutes to complete, so at 1.5 to 2 minutes each these are short sharp questions.  But the complexity varies significantly from beginning to end, so you should expect to spend 30 seconds on the easy ones and perhaps 3 minutes on the difficult ones. The ability to work fast is almost as important as the ability to answer the question.  The paper typically divides, in order of questions, into what I’ll call the four quartiles of difficulty.   Remember that the higher the reputation of the school, the higher the demand for places, the higher proportion of questions in quartiles 3 and 4, as follows:

1st quartile  – simple KS2 topics
Number : Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division (always without calculator)
Fractions, percent and decimals, number lines
2nd quartile – tricky KS2 topics
Number and measurement: clock times, square and prime numbers, ratios, units of measure
Algebra: graph coordinates, sequences, simple algebra expressions,
Geometry:, Angles along straight lines, at a point and in triangles, areas and perimeters of regular shapes, recognise 2D and 3D shapes, simple translation and reflections.
Data : Mean (average),Tables, Pictograms, Bar Charts, Pie Charts, Line graphs
Problems: Inverse Logic problems such as “what number did I start with”
3rd quartile – still KS2 but highly developed problems
 Factor pairs, place list of fractions and decimals in ascending order
Algebra: Solving linear equations, Create equations from areas and perimeters, including odd shapes;  substitution of numbers in equations
Geometry: Combination of angles rules in one problem, Nets, angles round a clock-face circle Rotations, Symmetry, Mirror (e.g. what would “WINTER SALE” be on a window’s other side
Problems: Speed x times = distance problems, Number reasoning, Railway timetables, Time-zones

4th quartile – Beyond KS2 to KS3 and KS4 GCSE, and Puzzles
: Exchange rate conversions, Fibonacci sequence, Prime factor trees, Ratio problems such as cake recipe; HCF and LCM; powers.
Algebra: simultaneous equations created from e.g. prices of burgers and soft drinks, Multiply double brackets using grid or FOIL
Geometry Parallel line angles, enlargements and scale factors, 3-D cuboids
Data: Venn diagrams, Probability, Mode, Range and Median
Problems: Sudoku-like magic number puzzles, Shapes representing operations, number machines Shortest route problems such as through the streets of New York; full page multi-paragraph problems featuring combination of numeric and verbal reason logic culminating in for example, which of five children got a present, which of five animal lives on which island?
This last, 4th quartile frequently goes well beyond KS2 in two respects. Firstly, what I’ll call “puzzles” – which ironically will never resurface in secondary exams. Secondly, school syllabus content stretching well into KS3 Year 8 and 9 even in rare cases up to KS4 GCSE level (yes!). This last quartile contains the differentiator questions, the ones you have to be able to do to be really confident of gaining entry. When tutoring an 11 plus pupil followed by a GCSE pupil I sometimes find myself using the same sample questions.

Most of the school websites say, to be politically correct, that the questions should be suitable for any KS2 student (only one admitted that some questions may stretch to KS3). Parents should not be fooled. With demand outstripping supply by 4 or more to 1, the higher reputation schools do throw in the puzzles and year 7-11 level questions to identify the brightest pupils.


How many exams?

The table below shows, for the 8 grammar schools sampled in SW London, most have 2 stages, although the Sutton set start with the common SET test. The 10 independents all have just one stage except St Pauls, which starts with the common ISBE test, and most have an interview to confirm selection. Most schools feature Maths, English and either a separate verbal reasoning test or similar questions within English. What is noticeable is that Non Verbal Reasoning is becoming quite rare now (thank goodness – awfully difficult to teach!)


Maths English Non Verbal
Comments Sample Maths available
Tiffin Boys  Y Y  N 2 stages,  and stage 1 counts 10% each Maths and English, Stage 2 counts 40% each Maths and English  for entry. No
Tiffin Girls  Y Y N 2 stages, and stage 1 is Maths and English OMR multi choice, passing gets you to Stage 2 Maths and English which alone determines entry No
Below are the Sutton Grammars taking  common SET
Nonsuch High for
 Y Y N 2 stage, 1st  English and Maths common SET multi choice, then joint second stage Maths and English with Wallington High School for Girls No but SET samples can be ordered
High for Girls
 Y Y  N 2 stage, 1st English and Maths common SET multi  choice then joint second stage Maths and English with NonSuch High School for Girls As above
Greenshaw High  Y Y  N 1 stage only Maths and English common SET multi choice. Pass for eligibility for  60 places. As above
Sutton Boys  Y Y  N 2 stages, first is common SET English and Maths multi choice , to get you to second stage Sutton specific English and Maths. 1st and 2nd stage tests all affect final entry, ratio is 2:2:3:3 As above
Wallington County  Y Y N 1 stage only, Maths and English common SET, pass to be eligible for  place As above
Wilson’s Sutton  Y Y N 2 Stage , first is common SET Maths and English, second Maths and English. Count in ratio 2:4:4. As above
Maths English Non Verbal
Comments Sample Maths available
Hampton  Y  Y  N 1 stage, 3 exams : English, Words and Reasoning, Maths and an interview A few questions
Halliford Y Y Y 1 stage Maths, English, Verbal and Non Verbal reasoning No
Lady Eleanor Holllis Y Y Y 1 stage tests in Maths, English, VR, Non VR followed by Interview No
St Catherine’s Y Y N 1 Stage tests in Maths and English then interview No
Y Y N 1 Stage tests in Maths and English then interview. Note : it confirms some KS3 material will be tested. Yes full paper
Y Y N 1 stage tests in Maths and English Plus write a personal statement No
Kingston Grammar Y Y N 1 stage English Maths and verbal  reasoning followed by an interview Yes most of a sample paper
Reeds Y Y N 1 stage tests Maths English and Verbal Reasoning No
Y Y N 1 stage test Maths English and Verbal Reasoning Yes a full paper
St Pauls Y Y Y 1st stage ISBE / GL Multiple Choice in English, Maths, Verbal and non Verbal reasoning. 2nd stage is English and Maths and interview No but ISBE sample papers can be ordered

Grammars – the pros and cons.

Through the lens of my two students, if they started Year 7 even in the best of the local state schools, they would be so far ahead that they would, to be honest, be bored and held back. Like many bright children they need the challenge. The supply of free grammar schools is limited. At many of our local grammars the ratio of applicants to places is 4 to 1 and at some even higher, where queues around the block form at the start of exam day. (Some now phase exams through the day to avoid this).  In business, if supply is limited and demand is high, you increase prices or create more capacity – in this case by creating more grammar schools, because prices are fixed at zero.

However the downside is of course that if the brightest pupils are creamed off from state schools, the overall standard must surely fall. This is detrimental to the remaining pupils, who lose the chance to learn from the approach and abilities of high achieving pupils, and dispiriting for teachers who enjoy challenging them and getting a positive can-do response. Some teachers would surely jump ship. Some Headteachers have said this would recreate “secondary moderns”.

One compromise – which one of our local state schools already employs – is to offer a limited number of exam-selective places, while mainly offering free places for local pupils.  The question then is, do you sprinkle the selected pupils among the classes, or “set” from the start.  The problem with the first approach is that schools are constrained by the national curriculum which prescribes certain content for certain years, so the brighter pupils would be constrained by the pace of the slowest.  The alternative is to “Set” from year 7 and effectively teach the top set Year 8 or 9 level content from age 11, and take all GCSE’s  (not just Maths) a year early.  This “grammar stream” approach is advocated by former UCAS Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook Or go further (as my old school used to do) and identify the brightest year 7 pupils and to remove them at year end from Year 8 and place them straight into Year 9 (we were called “removes”).

Is tutoring needed?
As noted above, the questions definitely stretch beyond standard KS2 (whatever schools say). The question is, how do you get access to, and practice these.  In theory, purchase of Bond or CGP practice books can do the trick, but the risk is that the pupil will miss the personal explanation and without homework being set, may not practice enough, and even these excellent publications don’t include the outrageously tricky questions which do crop up.  Note also that while common entrance papers like SET the Selective Eligibility Test can be purchased, frequently these are only for Stage 1 permission to sit the really challenging Stage 2 papers which are not formally available. So structured learning, and exam tips are needed over and above school provision. Parents might provide this but many would struggle with the vital end of paper questions. Extra tutoring is your insurance policy (but not a guarantee) and this can come in several forms, including private one to one,  or exam centre cramming.     

What is tutoring providing?

What you are trying to do is this: First make sure the basics of KS2 are in place. Second, introduce the pupil to a selection of KS3 topics which may crop up. Third, help the pupil work at speed. Fourth, teach exam techniques. Finally set a sufficient quantity and quality of challenging tasks from which gradual improvement instils confidence – the “more I practice the luckier I get”.  What is difficult to teach is the natural mathematical abilities such as puzzle solving and spatial awareness, and my guess is that is why such puzzles are included – there may be disadvantaged pupils who cannot afford tutoring yet have that innate mathematical ability which money can’t buy.

In conclusion

The 11 plus is highly challenging. A good KS2 performance – an 11 plus “pass” – will probably not be enough to get through. There are many pupils and parents willing to take up that challenge, to achieve that extra level of excellence. Schools, the State and Tutors all have a part to play in meeting that demand.

Chinese Maths in English schools

News that Chinease Maths techniques are to be introduced to English schools needs some explanation and examination.


Initially to be piloted in around half of our primary schools, the technique involves learning techniques more by rote,  asking one child to answer a question, then asking the remainder of children to repeat the answer. The class does not move on until all the class has “got it”. The brighter children avoid being held back because they have a role in leading the other children with the first answer.   There are some similarities with Kumon, namely keep practising by repetition until “mastery” of a topic is achieved to an advanced level, but differences too: Chinese Maths emphasises the role of the respected teacher at the front of class, Kumon relies more on self learning through worksheets.

Chinsese children themselves are believed to be 2-3 years ahead by the time they move to Year 11; so 16 year olds in China are already at the same level of maths as an 18 year old A level student in the UK.

There is a view that culturally some British pupils are not ready for this and our cultural diversity and child centred participation doesn’t sit easily with chanting and learning by rote which is common and part of the educational ethos in China. The benefits are not at all questioned.

Chinese Maths versus English real world approach

More important I believe is this. The direction in Maths and Science in England is to introduce more “real world” relevance to exam questions, not just at GCSE KS4 but also at earlier KS3 and KS2 as well.

So while introducing a “back to basics” learning approach in Maths is very good, not least because we are slipping down the international educational league tables, I wonder if joined up thinking is taking place in Government in terms of the following two factors:

If teaching methods move in the direction of focusing upon  purely numerical excellence, and yet examiners insist on setting real world applied questions where the maths technique is merely a small means to an end, do we risk the recent Biology GCSE “drunken rat” exam problem ? By this I mean that the children aim to learn the syllabus and technical methods to the best of their ability, and they put a lot of effort into mastering the knowledge and technique required in the syllabus, but meanwhile the examiners smother the questions in “real-world” unfathomable words and situations.  So the child learns the techniques but can’t do the exam questions because they haven’t been schooled in the methods of deciphering them, or applying the technical knwledge they have acquired.

An example in Maths itself is the 2015 GCSE question that went viral. The question involved two techniques rarely seen together: algebra, and probability. One can imagine pupils achieving high levels in these two topics individually using Chinese techniques of practising lots of examples, but being unbable to piece together the required jigsaw which requires a different sort of skill altogether.

Mile long and centimeter deep

One other phrase associated with Chinese Maths is interesting: their criticism of the British Maths syallabus is that it is a “mile long but a centimetre deep”.   There is something in this.  For GCSE Maths there are five basic topics such as Number and Algebra but within those there are many sub-topics making around 80 in all. One wonders if all of these are necessary, for instance frequency density histograms are beloved by specification setters but in practice are never used by businesses. Could some topics be left out allowing time for in-depth understanding of the core?

But we are where we are: my philosophy as a tutor is to “teach to the test”, whether GCSE exams or earlier end-term tests. Because that’s what parents want. And the last thing a child wants is to open an exam paper and find there are topics they don’t even recognise. So you have to teach the whole syallabus, not just the mathematic principles but the ability to understand and answer increasingly inscrutable questions.

Measuring success

In summary there will almost certainly be benefits and we need somehow to catch up on global competitors. An intangible benefit may be a cultural change, to make Maths excellence expected rather than optional. But ultimately, the acid test is this: will the programme lead to better GCSE results, either higher marks, or the same marks at a younger age? This may depend on whether the new techniques are compatible with the direction of Maths exam question designers. Sound learning of fundamentals is essential and surely must be improved – so we have to start somewhere; but it may be only the first base-camp stage in achieving the summit of maths mastery. We may not be able to judge success for half a decade.

Drawing graphs – Top 180 pop records example

In GCSE Science and Maths you are often asked to draw or interpret graphs – representing and visualising data are the technical terms. Often it depends on whether the data is discreet or continuous.

Continuous data can be almost anything – a temperature measurement for instance – and line graphs are generaly used – whereas discreet tends to be categories that can only have certain values and bar charts are best. As an example here is an assessement I did for my hobby – assembled the top 3 pop singles each year for the last 60 years. I used a bar chart to show which artists had appeared more than twice. Not suprisingly the Beatles, Elvis and Michael Jackson were at the top. If you are pop rock and soul fan you can see the full list and how they they were chosen in this link. 



graph6As part of my tuition I run through each of the types of graphs you can see here including scatter, line, Pie, box plot, bar, cumulative frequency, histogram. These are becoming ever more important to understand with the new GCSE’s coming next year with Maths.



Another favourite with the examiners expecially with science is the concept of independent and dependent variables. Independent variables are the things you change deliberately e.g. the size of the pellets in a chemcial reaction, and these normally go on the x-axis. These “cause” a change in the dependent variables which are the “effect” i.e.they tend to be continuous, could be the reaction rate, and are usually on the y axis of a graph.  Finally the “control variable” is something you keep the same to be fair, such as as room temperature or weight of pellets.

There is often a cross over between Maths and Physics so if you learn about Distance Time graphs in Maths you will also see efectively the same graph in Physics.

And often you will be asked to interpret a graph about which you know nothing such as the drunkne rat biology question – the key is not to panic and instead apply the pronciples you have learned about graph interpretaton.

And don’t of course forget algebra graphs , classic y against x, straight lines or quadratic curves, measuring gradients, shading inequalities for instance.

All in all graphs pop up everywhere in Maths and Science GCSE not to mention Business Studies!

Brexit through lens of A Level Business Studies

The AQA Business Studies  A level Buss 4  exam is coming up, and Section B (a 50 minutes essay) is rumoured to perhaps contain a Brexit question.   Jim Riley, former businessman and consultant turned on line business academic, runs the excellent Tutor2U website with his twin brother. It covers business and humanities subjects and as well as briliantly assembling a knowledge bank offers sound advice on structuring exam question responses. He lists the various subjects covered already in the Section B past papers – margers, integration, planning, innovation etc. – and points out that European business is one of the few subjects not covered yet. It’s time may have come.

With that in mind I constructed – and answered myself – a possible Brexit question using Jim’s recommended layout of intro – 3 points (2 for 1 against) – conclusion. Here it is:

“In the event of a vote to leave the EU, would the risks of economic shock for the U.K. outweigh the benefits of controlling our borders to reduce immigration?”

In the upcoming Referendum the people of the U.K. will vote on whether to remain in, or leave, the European Union. The E.U. is a collection of 27 independent countries with a population of 500 million. Trade within the EU is governed by the Single Market, in which there are very few trade barriers or tariffs between members, and where trade agreements are negotiated on-bloc to the rest of the world.  Any reduction in Single Market access is likely to affect trade and cause uncertainty in financial markets, which may in turn diminish public finances.  In the EU there is free movement of goods and services, and also people for employment. This means that a dis-benefit of membership is reduced control over who settles in Britain, leading to an increase in net migration in recent years, which both changes the nature of the U.K. and itself puts pressure on public services.  In this essay we will examine some of the possible economic shocks of Brexit, and balance that against benefits of getting back control of our borders.

First let us examine trade barriers associated with Brexit and their effect on individual companies. The medium term economic risk of leaving the EU will be to reduce U.K. firms’ access to the Single Market. The impact will be to inhibit trade and increase trade barriers, in three respects. First financial tariffs, which U.K. firms may have to pay to export to EU countries; second the complexity and uncertainty of doing business with Europe would increase; and third inability for a prolonged period to strike new trade deals to replace EU deals as they unwound. If we examine Porter’s 5 competitive forces, new entrants to markets find it difficult to compete against existing companies if high barriers to entry exist. Brexit would create these barriers. This would reduce the ability of U.K. firms to compete against for instance German and French rivals, specifically new growth business would be difficult to secure, and existing business exports lost. Decisions on investment size and location would be at risk.

What evidence have we that trade might be more difficult? At a high level, the German finance minister has confirmed that Britain would be excluded from the Single Market, while President     Obama of the U.S.A. has said that Britain would be at the “back of the queue” in developing a U.K. independent agreement with the U.S.A. At a very local level, the former leader of the Republic of Ireland has said it is likely that trade tariffs would have to be introduced for products coming across the Northern Irish (UK) border into Eire. Tariffs vary – for instance 32% on wine, 4% on gas, and around 10% on cars and wheat, but typically they might average around 5% which would make UK products 5% more expensive when selling into Europe. Companies would either increase their prices accordingly to maintain profit margins – but this would risk losing sales volumes – or cut costs by 5%; for instance their labour costs.   An example of the increased complexity of doing business post Brexit is the risk to the “financial passport” which the UK financial services sector has by being in the EU.  This would put at risk the attractiveness of London as a financial centre for banks, insurances and currency trading.

So in summary the threat to individual companies of Brexit would come through trade barriers, tariffs and market access which would make individual UK firms un-competitive. Collectively, this would produce an economic shock to the UK.

If the economic case against Brexit is compelling, why as we approach Referendum Day is the Leave campaign pulling ahead in the polls? The answer lies in one word – “immigration” – and one phrase “get back control of our borders”.  Net immigration is running at about 300,000 each year. This means that the difference between gross immigration (600,000) and emigration i.e. people leaving, around 300,000, is about 300,000 net and has been increasing since the end of the 2008 recession as demand for labour has picked up. Free movement of labour is legally binding in the EU and so when David Cameron tried to win concessions from the EU before the vote, all could he achieve was a restriction on immigrants claiming benefits rather than a restriction of numbers per se. The attraction of the UK has increased to migrants as the minimum wage (the lowest wage employers must pay to employees) has risen. The rise of EU immigration has had economic, business and social effects. First, economically, more immigrants have increased pressure on social services like the NHS social housing and schools, at a time when budgets are already under pressure. Businesses need a supply of labour and are tempted to take the cheapest labour from Europe, and this in turn has a social effect. Namely communities especially on the East Coast are changing, with many different nationalities for instance Polish beginning settle and open their own supermarkets. The Leave campaign asserts that a way of addressing these issues is to “get back control of our borders” by leaving the EU, thus eliminating the requirement to accept immigrants without a proper assessment of their skills and suitability. This will be especially important as the EU expands in future, possibly taking in countries like Turkey and Albania which are nearer trouble spots in the Middle East.  This security issue makes it ever more important to control our borders.

In summary the case for controlling our borders and hence immigration rests on difficulty in providing social services, a desire to preserve the UK’s ethnic mix, and worries about the future security of the UK. The Leave Campaign argues that the only way to address these issues is to leave the E.U. This is so important that any short term economic problems, if they arise, are insignificant especially if we no longer have to pay our EU membership fee of around £350 million a week, as advertised on the Leave Battle Bus.

Now let us use this membership fee to compare against macro-economic risks and assess whether a U.K.–wide economic shock would occur.  The fee amounts to £18 billion a year. A rebate of £5 billion occurs immediately leaving a net £13 billion payment. Our public expenditure is £750 billion a year so this represents 1.7% saving. Our Gross Domestic Product (GDP, the sum of all economic activity in the U.K.) is around £2000 billion so the saving would be 0.7%. Both of these savings are significant but how certain are the savings and would they be offset by economic risks of EU withdrawal? We have argued above that individual companies would find it more difficult to trade with the EU post Brexit. This in turn would reduce sales revenues and hence profits of U.K. companies, collectively meaning less corporation tax would be paid to the Government, and that jobs would be lost and unemployment would rise. This fall in Government revenues coupled with increased demand for unemployment benefit would lead to inability to balance the UK finances, which would require public national debt to rise, unless income tax rose or services like welfare or health care were cut.  The evidence to support this is that several independent economic forecasting bodies such as the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation of Economic Development and the Bank of England, have been warning of the economic effect of “Brexit”. There will be a short term shock and long term permanent shrinking of the economy. For instance the IFS have estimated that the negative effect of Brexit will create a £20 billion – £40billion fall in available public finances. This more than offsets the £13 billion gain. Taking a £30 billion midpoint, the net loss would be £17 billion, or 2% of public spending and 1% of GDP – indicating a recession. The Chancellor has claimed he will need to propose a short term emergency budget to increase taxes and lower public spending in reaction to these forecasts. He also has said that long term by 2030 the economy would be 6% smaller than otherwise would be the case, meaning a £4,300 loss of GDP per person. Other evidence for a shock very close to the date of the referendum is that share prices on the FTSE 100 index and value of the pound have fallen in correlation with the polls favouring Brexit, which leads to uncertainty in the markets.   Finally it is not certain how much of, or when, we would get the $13billion back, especially if some savings were maintained to preserve trade deals.

Summarising, the collective impact of companies’ difficulty in trading post Brexit would be both a short term shock and long term drag for the UK, which would offset the benefits of regaining the membership fee.

In conclusion I believe that on balance the high risks of economic shock following Brexit outweigh the benefits of reducing immigration for the following reasons. Leaving the EU would create barriers to trade for companies from a variety of factors like tariff increase and loss of trade agreements and this would in turn diminish competitiveness and restrict investments. The collective sum of these difficulties would mean a diminishing of the total public finances which the majority of economists agree would significantly outweigh the savings of the membership fee.  Forecasts are difficult and vary but the common factor of most is the sign – “negative”. The impact will be tax rises or spending cuts or increased debt – none desirable. However, this does not mean that staying in the EU should proceed without change. If immigration continues at its current level forever then clearly the U.K. would eventually, literally run out of space, and so I recommend that if the U.K votes to stay in the EU it uses its 2017 Presidency of the EU to continue the case for reform.  The most important argument for remaining is to avoid a recession and more austerity, caused by financial uncertainty and inability of companies to trade as they did before in Europe.

Biology GCSE drunken rats question

Three of my tutorial contacts talked to me today independently about the GCSE Biology exam that is going viral. I Googled “#aqa biology” and sure enough a torrent of links and Tweets popped up.

It seems that AQA included  questions in Biology GCSE biology about drunken rats, why boys drink beer and girls drink wine, including under aged drinking references, and a Business Studies question about what is an independent company.

Almost simultaneously a number of Scottish students complained that their Maths exam did not reflect the syllabus, and crucially “a common complaint was that the exam bore little or no resemblance to past papers and exemplar papers”.

What is going on? Let’s examine the issues, which raise important questions in general about the direction of exams. AQA are a terrific exam board, but have they got this one wrong?

First, this is not the same as last year’s most-tweeted GCSE Maths problem about “sweets in a bag: show that n²-n-90=0.” .  That was difficult, but on-syllabus, albeit requiring two rarely connected parts of the syllabus, probability and algebra. Not the same either as the “Scottish crocodile” question which was valid but ambiguously worded.

This year’s problems perhaps reflect a disturbing trend among exam boards. To appear to be “relevant”, “on-message”, “out of the box”, “contextual with society”, to focus on the “ethics of science” and “how science is applied” – rather than test simple scientific fact.  Also, a surely mistaken desire to be “cool with the kids”.  There is a whiff of Millenium Dome here – let’s make science exams more interesting and the kids will abandon their computer games and flock to science!

While some of these aspirations may be desirable their inclusion in vital exams is clumsy, unannounced and too dominant.  If such questions are included, it reduces room in the Hour test for basic questions about biology fundamentals. The implication is that examiners see science more as a matter of opinion, not fact.

Examiners, perhaps inadvertenly give the impression that they do not appreciate that teachers and children work very hard to learn the syllabus, practice on past papers, and despair when they open the exam paper and see a whole series of questions bearing little overt relation to the syllabus. They take the syllabus very seriously – more so than the examiners perhaps. It is like training all year to climb Ben Nevis, you reach the top exhausted, remove a prearranged stone from a cairn to claim your reward, only to find a message saying “Ha Ha, fooled you, you’ve climbed the wrong mountain!”  A teacher estimated that “only 25% of the course content” was covered in the Biology exam.

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, known unknowns we can cope with, it’s the unknown unknowns that are the problem.

The question about “what is an independent company” was no doubt aimed at the idea of fair, not biased testing, and perhaps “controlled” and “independent variables”, but surely a better question would be, “why is an independent company used”? (for drug testing)?

biology2Some challenging examination of science experimentation and data analysis is fine – I am a data scientist and welcome the inclusion of graphs to represent data, and questions about interpretation.  Healthy living and drug testing are indeed in the Unit 1 specification. But when questions are sexist, appear to condone breaking the law, or are from another subject altogether, things have gone too far surely.

How many boxes can you tick in one question? Sexism, under-age drinking, animal testing, drug-taking, newspaper accuracy! One is tempted to ask, what were the examiners on when they wrote the question?! But seriously, didn’t the management have a quick sense check, and quietly suggest, ”I think you should have another look at this one, it is inappropriate”. Important social issues, but in a Biology exam? Better on Nicky Campbell’s excellent “The Big Question” on Sunday morning TV?

This raises questions about quality control at AQA, which along with Pearson/Edexcel and OCR is truly a great and professional organisation. (An independent company in fact, non-profit making)  I had assumed the Q stood for quality (actually it is for “qualifications” and AQA should remember that’s why pupils take the exam). One hopes this is a temporary blip. Questions like these are actually reducing standards not improving them.  If the majority of syllabus topics are no longer included in the exam, what’s the incentive to learn them?

I am detecting another general trend across exams. In their desire to become more challenging (good!) examiners are including more and more words in their questions, but not following through to ensure that the English is correct and unambiguous (bad!). An experienced tutor told me recently that sometimes a pupil often “has to guess” what the examiner wants.

Another question in the Biology exam is about Malaria. OK so far, it is in the syllabus. But the question is shrouded in “extras” – for instance needing to know Maths GCSE standard form “power of 10” notation. A core of scientific experimentation is to change and test one independent variable at a time – but here the examiners themselves are simultaneously testing biology, and beyond-basic maths.

AQA have responded and are standing by their exam, saying they do not want it to be “predictable”. I have taught and trained many pupils and adults and what I have found is this: provided they are given clear instructions with no surprises they will pursue a difficult task to completion, otherwise many become confused and disheartened. The danger for AQA is that in their efforts to make science more “interesting” and “challenging” they will discourage interest, especially as these questions were in the basic science Unit 1 paper. They seem more appropriate for advanced students

The fact that AQA felt the need to explain the question on social media at all suggests it wasn’t very clear in the first place. The fact they defended it suggests we should expect more of the same, we should “expect the unexpected”.  This will mean more teaching time is dedicated to predicting and practicing for these flowery questions, and less time for the fundamentals of biology.  Examiners may be surprised, but optimising your grade really does matter.  Appliance of science is of course important, but not at the expense of simply knowing the fundamentals?

At the risk of sounding like a “grumpy old man”, and another thing: core Unit 1 science GCSE contains no questions about electrical circuits or electrical safety but generally contains questions in Biology, Chemistry and Physics about the evils of fossil fuels,  carbon dioxide and global warming. On-message indeed!

The other issue emerging is the annual use of Twitter and other social media by pupils to vent frustrations with exams. While I am not a great fan of “trial by social media” I think this method of scrutiny is here to stay and exam boards must expect more in the future.

In summary, my beef is this. Though “application of science” is directionally right, and AQA are a fine organisation, the quality control on questions needs to be stepped up.  We need less social posturing in science exams. The syllabus content may be reasonable, but the questions do not sufficiently or overtly reflect the syllabus.  And when they do, they are shrouded in unnecessary, periphery extras, obscuring the basic facts around the subject.

If an 11-year old were to learn the subjunctive

If an 11-year old were to learn the subjunctive…..then so what?  Would they say, “if only I could use the subjunctive mood in my conversation, how cool would I look!” Perhaps not!

It seems ridiculous that such young children should learn the finer points of grammar like the subjunctive, or be tested on the difference between a preposition and a subordinating conjunction (the distinction which I heard the Schools Minister Nick Gibbs get wrong live on air), or that 6 year olds should face national tests on punctuation, tenses, nouns, adverbs, statements and verbs.

On the other hand, consider this. The U.K. is falling down the international league tables in English education. Yet we invented the language. Shouldn’t we be nearer the top?  Whereas we might soon be behind the Marx Brothers’ imaginary countries like Freedonia  or Moldova (OK that turned out to be a real one).

Also I rather like the idea of 11 year olds knowing more than me about English grammar. Not difficult I admit.  I was never really taught it at school until I did Latin, taught by our wonderful North of the Border Latin master whom we nicknamed “Scotch Mist”.  “The having been marched up the hill Romans won the battle”, or “he was so stupid he was fed to the lions”.

As ever I turn to pop music. All of these songs use the subjunctive mood to a degree. “If I were a rich man” (Fiddler on the Roof).  Correct. “If I was” (Midge Ure); incorrect – should be “were”. ”If I was a boy” – Beyonce: incorrect – likewise. “If I were the only girl in the world and you were the only boy” (Dean Martin – correct), and the classic Tim Hardin/Four Tops “If I were a carpenter”; correct.

I guess that if you are going to raise standards you have got to start somewhere.  Possibly these tests are a step too far, but on balance it is better to aim too high than low, and they are a counter to the seemingly unstoppable rise of Twitter-like abbreviations.  If the building blocks of Maths like fractions are being taught at an early age, why not do the same for English?  Maybe the ability of children to pick up grammar, if taught, is greater than we think.  We shall find out in due course.

Let us not forget in this “Shakespeare year” that the Bard, or rather Macbeth, whispered one of the greatest subjunctives of all. “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly

So to finish here are two sample tests, first  KS2 English for 11 year olds, in which you will find the controversial “subjunctive” topic in question  41, and also for KS1 6 year olds   Can you manage them?  (I didn’t even score 100% in the KS1 grammar test! But then I am a scientist and mathematician so there is something reassuring about that!)

Would seeing an exam beforehand really help?

News today that the Department for Education inadvertently but helpfully posted a SATS test on a practice paper website some time before the real thing (not a good week for the department, the National Audit Office found holes in their accounts). This made me think, how much would it really help to see an exam before?

The answer is, if you didn’t know it was going to be the real thing, then it wouldnt help that much. It would be easy to forget the solutions, especially if time passed.

However, if you did know it was going to be the exam, you would take extra care to remember the methods and solutions.

In practice the chances of this happening are almost zero. Or are they? In the following sense this does happen.

Certain questions occur time after time in pretty much the same form – just with different numbers. Actually this tends to happen more in A-Level than GCSE, but consider these examples:

June 2015 : Expand and simplify (t +2)(t + 4)     
November 2014 Expand and simplify (2x + 3) (x – 8)
June 2013 Expand and simplify (m + 3) (m + 10)

(Answers below)

They are in effect the same question, same technique, but with different numbers.

Will esentially the same question occur in 2016? We shall find out soon. You could look at it in two ways. Either, it occurs so often it’s time for a break: or it’s a staple question, it will occur agan. Second guessing the examiner’s mind is impossible in terms of exact questions, but broadly you can predict the type of question.

What’s clear is that this type of algebra, whether “expand the brackets”, or perhaps the reverse – “factorise”, introduce the brackets, and solve the quadratic – is likely to crop up.

Therefore if you have done your past paper practice, and it does reappear, then in effect you have seen the question before. At least the method, which you have practiced and mastered. If you turn over the paper and see this type of question, you think “joy, I know how to do this”.

Of course not every question is a “repeat” question, but broadly quite a large proportion have similarities. As a back up to learning the methods, past paper practice, with access to worked answers, is so incredibly useful ! And why my tutoring homework always includes some real (on paper, not PC ) past paper examples.


June 2015 : Expand and  simplify (t +2)(t + 4)    t² + 6t + 8   
November 2014 Expand and simplify (2x + 3) (x – 8)   2x² – 13x – 24
June 2013 Expand ans simplify (m + 3) (m + 10)   m² + 13m + 30

West Indian cricket wins Maths question

The start of the new English cricket season reminds me of that moment a few weeks ago when England were about to win the T20 World Cup.  West Indies batsmen had a mountain to climb from their last over and Ben Stokes, England’s expert “death” bowler, was ready (Stokes had won the game for England in the semi final in similar circumstances). However (and this is a personal opinion) I think Stokes was already imagining his celebration, particularly to his nemesis Marlon Samuels, and his concentration wavered.

Carlos Brathwaite, West Indian batsman, had other ideas and England’s hopes disappeared in a blaze of sixes. His achievement lends itself to a form of GCSE Maths question proving popular with examiners. Namely the “reverse mean” question where pupils have to calculate not the average of a given set of numbers, rather the number needed to change an old mean to a new mean.

England cricket team had an average of 7.75 runs from their 20 overs. West Indies after 19 overs had averaged 7.21 runs per over. How many runs did they need from the last over to win the match ? (i.e. exceed England’s total by 1 run)  (See below for answer)

Although West Indian cricket has struggled of late, the win was eventually going to happen as they have a tremendous competitive spirit. As can be see in this fascinating BBC article about the use of gamification in Jamacan classes. A small company, Edufocal, has set up computer aided classrooms for core subjects like Maths which reward the children for scoring right answers. The company is growing and results are improving. Sponsorship from Virgin’s Branson Centre of Entrepreurship is helping.  Some of my pupils use CGP Mathsbuster which has a similar philosophy – bronze, silver, gold trophies are awarded as pupils move through the questions.  But in Edufocal’s case the prizes are real – cinema tickets etc ( funded by subscription).

And just to keep the Jamaican theme going, one of my favourite artists and songs is Bob Marley’s One Love, the video here being not in Jamaica but London, with a yound Suggs and Paul McCartney.

So, returning to the cricket, the final was featured in the “Cricinfo” website which specialises in statistical coverage of cricket matches and includes graphs which, while not exactly the same as in GCSE, do show the power of using visual techniques to bring numbers to life.

Carlos Brathwaite perhaps wasn’t thinking of solving a GCSE puzzle as he awaited Stokes’s first ball (a glance at the scoreboard may have been easier!) But if he was. here is what he would be calculating:

England’s average (mean) of 7.75 runs per over from 20 overs meant they scored 7.75 x 20 =155 runs in total. So West Indies needed to score 156 to win. But after 19 overs, their average was only 7.21 per over so they had scored 7.21 x 19 = 137 runs.  So from the last over they needed 156 minus 137 equals 19 runs to win. (In fact they scored 3 sixes from 3 balls, and another from the next for good measure, to win with 2 balls left. Bravo!) 

Big data helps Maths GCSE revision

Big data is a term used increasingly to describe the use of large amounts of data gathered electronically to determine insights otherwise lost in the detail. It is often characterised as the 3 V’s, Volume ( e.g. terrabytes); Variety (e.g. social media insights as well as surveys) and Velocity (fast data transfer and processing). A famous early example was use of location-specific Google searches on flu medicine to predict and track the spread of a flu virus through America quicker than conventional methids.

How can this principle help revision? Well, a subset of Big Data is simply “more data than usual” – big data light to coin a phrase – and I have done this with Maths past papers. Not just answers and methods are available on line for all past papers – that is well known – but also examiners’ comments are available question by question.

erInitially I have looked in detail at 4 past papers, 100 questions, and captured the comments from each, 130 in all, for which the examiners highlighted common causes of lost marks from tens of thousands of entries. Then I grouped them and tallied them GCSE style in a frequency table and chart as seen left. This sheds light on general areas for revision, with (lack of) “basic maths skills” ferquently bemoaned by examiners, as well as subtle tips such as “read the question very carefully and make sure you show working”.

Then, further I picked out twenty very specific examples of errors that seemed to occur – this time syallabus technical content rather than functional categories above – and wrote and illustrated a list of “20 things examiners do and don’t like to see”.  A typical one is shown. I recently took some examiner marking training and I can assure you this is true. If a question asks you to “express a number as a product of its prime factors”  then merely listing them, with commas, will lose you a mark, if the “times” sign is missed out. Even if the numbers are riight as above.

I have put these and other tips together into an Easter/Summer Term special lesson covering:
– reminder of key basic maths skills, especially the ones that get overlooked
– exam technique :  start, during and end of exam
– problem solving techniques for difficult, wordy, end of paper high mark questions
– active revision methods
– the twenty things examiners do and don’t want to see.

With half time biscuits covering the Jack Black “school of rock” Math video.

misAnother phrase used in the Big Data field is “wisdom of the crowds”.  This is being applied superbly by the excellent on-line Maths tutor “MrBartonMaths” (he is also a real teacher). One of the blog pages he runs is “Diagnostic Questions – Guess the Misconception” where students are invited on-line to answer a multiple choice question and give their reason (a typical weekly question is shown). Typically around a thousand students vote (hence the “crowd”) and reveal what errors are often being made (in the example A is correct of course, C was the most common error). The misconceptions are both the students’ errors, and tutors’ sometimes incorrect expectations of what errors might be most frequent.

A lot of data is available out there on-line – the key is to process and present it in the best way to understand and hence help students.


A GCSE Chemistry substance found on planet Mercury

News today from the NASA Mercury probe that an unexpected substance has been found on Mercury, in fact making up the outer crust of planet Mercury. The substance is graphite, which will be familiar to GCSE Science and Chemistry students, not only because it is used in pencil lead due to its slippery nature and black colour, but also because its unusual structure is frequently the subject of GCSE questions.

graphiteGraphite is made of carbon atoms, arranged in layers in a giant covalent structure. While the bonds between adjacent carbon atoms are strong covalent bonds, the bonds between layers are weaker enabling slippage to occur. Further, the structure includes “free electrons” enabling graphite to conduct electricity. This is highly unusual for a covalent, non-ionic structure, as is its high melting point. Graphite is also used as part of nanotubes in tennis rackets.

 In some senses graphite is like diamond because it is also a giant covalent structure of carbon atoms, but in diamond there are no layers, just a continuously strong bonding arrnangement making diamond much harder. And of course you’d look a bit silly with a pencil for an ear-ring.

What other GCSE substances are there on planets in our solar system? Well, on many planets we can find an iron and nickel crust, and on Mars recent photogrpahs indicated the possible presence of both water and methane, with the water creating channels that are still changing in appearance.  This indicates that the water is still moving and not completly frozen, perhaps because of hydrated salts, which lower the melting point.

BowieThis, together with the presence of methane (carbon with four hydrogens – natural gas – and another GCSE bonding question) indicate that Life on Mars is possible. And so I need no excuse to include a video from the sadly missed David Bowie’s Life on Mars, one of the great rock records.

So it may not get you any more marks, but in a GCSE question it would surely look cool to your examiner that you knew that graphite had been found on Mercury and methane and water on Mars !

As a footnote, a wonderful website called contains picture links to all the elements, including carbon of course – try it!

Gangnam Style Exam Cramming

News that Psy’s worldwide hit “Gangnam Style” has exceeded 2.5 billion video views is astonishing. That’s two thousand five hundred million (like when my football team loses 8-0, the teleprinter helpfully adds “eight”).  A Maths GCSE question could be:

Write 2,500,000,000 in standard form : Ans. 2.5 x 10 to the 9th 

Gangnam_Style_Official_CoverBut where or what is Gangnam? Well, the Economist reported recently from Gangnam itself in Seoul, South Korea, where just to get into the best private tuition after-school study groups, children have to pass exams; the children are cramming for crammers. These are the Hagwon schools and the best are called Sekki (cub) – most of them in fashionable Daechi-dong in stylish Gangnam (yes that one). Students work at a level up to 5 years ahead of their age group syllabus and often arrive home tired and late after a double day in education. A law is now being proposed to ban children from studying in private tuition after 10 pm.

Children also spend their free periods at school doing extra homework for Hagwon. Parents spend 0.8 % of GDP (or a tenth of all household income)  on private education, which puts South Korea top on the Private Tuition World League (Britain is 8th with 0.4% of GDP). But few parents actually admit to enrolling.

But this is what we in the West are up against – huge achievement in South East Asia.  Demand for tuition is so high (sigh!) in Seoul, South Korea that no advertising is needed.

But does this have a measurable impact upon results? Well, yes. according to the latest PISA study (not the leaning tower, rather the international education benchmark for 15 year olds in 72 countries). Korea is in the top ten for Maths and reading and 11th for Science (Singapore as ever dominates). While the U.K. has climbed to 15th in Science it has dropped to 27th in Maths. A sobering thought. Should the U.K. strive to match SE Asia by copying their “learning by wrote” mastery techniques, or push on with our strategy of “real world” syllabus questions perhaps more relevant to the workplace. That’s for a future blog!

Gangnam is a fashionable district of Seoul in South Korea described as affluent and the equivalent of Beverley Hills or Chelsea. Psy wrote “Gangnam Style” as a slightly ironic social comment on Gangnam residents lifestyle.