Hay fever ‘bar to university places’


Image captionHay-fever could push down exam grades by 10%, say researchers

The impact of hay fever at exam time could be harmful enough to mean that some students might miss out on a university place, say researchers.

A study in Norway has examined the relationship between pollen levels, hay fever and exam performance.

It suggests rising pollen levels could push down results by 10% for hay fever sufferers.

Report author Simon Sobstad Bensnes said students could be “unfairly barred” from getting into university.

The study, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, examined the impact on hay fever sufferers of taking exams at a time of year when pollen levels are higher.

Bad timing

Using the results of public exams in Norway over three years, researchers found that on days with high pollen levels exam performance was consistently lower.

Image captionThe Norwegian study suggests high pollen days see lower exam results

There was an average performance dip of 2.5% on high pollen days – and researchers estimate that for pupils with an allergic reaction results were lowered by about 10%.

The report, presented at the European Economic Association conference in Mannheim in Germany, says hay fever sufferers could be missing out on the grades needed for university and for jobs.

“Increases in pollen counts can temporarily reduce cognitive abilities for allergic students, who will score worse relative to their peers on high stake exams, and consequently be at a disadvantage when competing for jobs or higher education,” says the report.

The study says that the negative impact shown in exam results would be likely to apply to other settings, such as the workplace, where it could lower productivity.

About one in five people are estimated to suffer from hay fever – and the study says that this could be higher among young people, with suggestions that a quarter of young people in Norway are allergic to some extent.

In England’s exam system, pupils who have had serious problems with hay fever on an exam day could ask for this to be taken into account by examiners.

The report author says it raises questions about holding exams in the spring and the early summer, when sufferers are most likely to be affected.

“Holding high-stakes exams during pollen season has a large negative effect on allergic students, who are subsequently unfairly barred from enrolling in the most prestigious universities,” says Mr Bensnes.

Councils unite in bid to tackle Scottish teacher shortages



Six councils in the north east and north of Scotland have united to tackle teacher shortages in their schools.

The local authorities in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Moray, Highland, Orkney and Shetland are to hold a summit aimed at addressing the issue.

Ministers and officials from the Scottish government and the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) are among those also involved.

Councils have already tried individual initiatives to ease the problem.

Launching the initiative ahead of the 7 October summit, the councils said the challenge had been recruiting and retaining “sufficient numbers of high-quality teachers to provide the best possible education” for pupils.

Pay weighting

This is in the face of low application numbers for teaching jobs, and rising pupil numbers.

The objective of the new drive is to find a resolution to teacher recruitment and retention on a local and national level.

Consideration will be given to issues such as whether pay weighting should be introduced for those in the north and north east, similar to that given in London, and a national campaign to promote teaching.

Gillian Elliot
Image captionGillian Elliot is teaching in Fochabers after a free accommodation offer

The event has been led by Aberdeen City Council.

Council Leader Jenny Laing said: “Many councils in the north and north east of Scotland are experiencing higher than normal levels of teacher shortages – particularly at senior management levels.

“Whilst not yet at crisis levels it is nevertheless a serious issue that we want to tackle now to protect the interests of pupils.

“We urge the Scottish government to work with us on finding a solution at a national level. This is a case where one-size does not fit all councils.”

In 2013, Aberdeenshire Council sent staff to Canada and Ireland to try to recruit new teachers.

Last year, Aberdeen City Council offered to pay the tuition fees of staff who want to become primary school teachers in a bid to tackle the shortage.

And earlier this month, the first teachers took advantage of an offer of free accommodation for six months to teach in Moray.

The council teamed up with a local developer to provide 10 new two-bedroom properties for new recruits.

The local authority said there had been a significant increase in the number of applicants for teaching posts.

‘Right skills’

A Scottish government spokesman said: “We are committed to ensuring schools have the right number of teachers with the right skills.

“That is why we acted to safeguard teacher posts for the next year by committing a £51m package of funding for Scotland’s local authorities to maintain teacher numbers and pupil-teacher ratios at 2014 levels in 2015-16.

“In each of the last four years the Scottish government has also increased student teacher numbers.

“We welcome the opportunity to engage with local authorities to discuss potential further action to address the issue of teacher recruitment. We look forward to receiving the invitation to the summit and a representative from the Scottish government will attend.”

The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) welcomed the announcement of the joint summit.

General secretary Larry Flanagan said: “The EIS is willing to engage constructively with councils to explore ways to improve processes for teacher recruitment and retention.

“Attracting teachers to some parts of the country – for example rural or remote areas or areas with a lack of affordable housing – is an ongoing challenge for a number of local authorities.

“While pay and conditions for teachers will continue to be agreed nationally through the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers, it is open to local authorities to explore additional incentives or other means of attracting qualified teachers to come and work in their schools.”

And Scottish Parent Teacher Council executive director Eileen Prior said of the news: “Our children deserve no less.”

Analysis by Jamie McIvor, BBC Scotland education correspondent

There are a number of possible explanations for the problems in northern Scotland.

For example, the cost of housing in some parts of the north east – an important factor in the overall cost of living – may deter people from moving there if they know their salary would go further in another part of the country.

In rural areas, it can be a challenge to find the right person for any skilled job.

Young people from rural areas who want to become teachers will usually have left home at 18 to study – many may simply not fancy returning to a rural community, at least while they are in their 20s or 30s.

It is important to distinguish between the drop in the overall number of teachers in Scotland in recent years and the all-too-real challenge some councils face filling advertised vacancies.

Maths GCSE re-sit 22 years after first attempt



I have a C in GCSE maths. In fact I have an E, a D and a C in GCSE maths.

So why, 22 years after my first attempt, was I compelled to sit it again?

What was I thinking?

I am 38 years old, a full-time worker, a mother, a wife – it’s not like I am time-rich and yet I sacrificed what little free time I had between November to June to sit for hours and face my demon.

Maths has always been my nemesis. I shy away from anything remotely mathematical. “Words are my thing, not numbers,” remains my mantra.

It stems from my time in secondary school.

My maths teacher had worked at the school forever. Generations of pupils had been taught by this short, wiry north Walian with an academic beard and a hairstyle to match. Now he was tasked with having me in his class.

Some wag decades previously had given him the moniker Squareroot. A grammar school teacher with grammar school values. The type of man who thought nothing of launching a dusty wooden blackboard rubber at some poor soul at the back of class for no good reason.

It quickly became apparent to both Squareroot and the rest of the class that maths was not my forte. As he expertly flung the results of weekly test papers at me, it caught me full on in the face followed by his melodramatic yell with the devastating result of 45% echoing around the classroom. Oh dear.

This weekly humiliation continued for the rest of the school year. It became the stuff of corridor fodder – what mark was Squareroot going to issue her with this week? I’m sure behind my back, sweepstakes were being undertaken with dinner money exchanging hands. It was excruciating.

Image captionMaths lessons of 1988 were fraught with the danger of flying blackboard rubbers

An all time low of 18% hit me close to the end of term. I seemed to be getting worse despite Squareroot’s fury at why I couldn’t understand. In the end, he realised he was dealing with a complete no-hoper and abandoned the cause.

Unfortunately for Squareroot, he was to remain my teacher for the next two years and was only able to escape me when finally I was moved into a new class.

At 16 I sat my first maths GCSE scoring an E. Not bad considering.

I thought I’d give it another shot and in the November re-sits managed a D. And finally, after six years of maths hell, that long anticipated C finally landed in my grateful and relieved lap. The realisation that I would never have to think about maths ever again was sweet.

I did not suspect 22 years after that first attempt, I would find myself sitting GCSE maths again. But with a young child about to start school, I felt I had to conquer it and overcome my fear so I wouldn’t instil it into the next generation. And so I found a tutor, signed on the dotted line to sit the exam and hoped for B this time.

Work colleagues hooted with laughter when they heard and there was much mirth to be had when everyone around me had a go at one of the questions. The majority of them got the answer wrong. It seemed I was not alone.

All the while, my patient and intelligent tutor guided me through the fog.

A GCSE maths paper - with answer written beneath question
Image captionWhat was this question? Some kind of torture?

Exam day came around fast and having spent the previous two weeks locked in the kitchen, ignoring my family and engrossed in mastering quadratic equations and the like, I was ready.

The first half of the Edexcel paper was a breeze.

Then we got to question 19. And it was clear that the examiner had had a bust up with their spouse. The sweet, mild and expected questions that had up to this point dominated the exam paper was replaced with what can only be described as some kind of evil. A quadratic equation disguised as a probability question. I felt sick. The panic rose, and the clock started to speed up.

I was back to the nightmare of Squareroot’s class.

Needless to say, I couldn’t complete the paper. And the following week with paper two looming, my confidence remained at an all time low. Time ran out yet again and big mark questions went unanswered.

And now here I am waiting to see what I got. I just hope that I don’t drop a grade or two…

10 ways to get your graduation noticed


Image captionGraduating students in Bonn, Germany celebrate with classic hat-throwing. But is it enough?

This is the graduation season, with universities awash with gowns, photographers and ceremonial handshakes. But how are you going to get noticed in the sea of catering tents and pompous speeches?

1) It’s all about the hat: What is it about hats and graduations? Years of studying and you get to throw an impractical hat in the air. But the hat is the graduation scene stealer – either with a look-at-me message written on top or with rows of hats creating that symmetrical overhead photo opportunity.

Graduation hat
Image captionIf you want to get ahead get a hat: A graduate in New York sends a mortar board message

Even when there’s a ban on throwing hats, that becomes the story. The attention-grabbing graduation ceremony needs a hat with a message and ideally someone slipping over when they’re wearing it.

Hebei Academy
Image captionHebei Academy in China has a campus where Harry Potter might feel at home

2) Make your campus look like Hogwarts: Graduation is a curious mixture of ceremony, ritual, pseudo-religious imagery and young people feeling like they’ve achieved something against the odds. Which means there’s a lot in common with a Harry Potter adventure. Hebei Academy in China has brought this full circle. Last month’s graduation drew the world’s photographers because it actually looks like it’s been staged on a back-lot in Hogwarts.

Image captionA spaniel in the works: Fudge has been part of his owner’s academic “journey”

3) Bring a dog: Among the most photographed graduates this year must have been Fudge the cocker spaniel, pictured in his canine-size robes at his owner’s graduation at Edinburgh Napier University. “I know it seems eccentric, but Fudge has been part of my journey through uni since day one,” said owner, Jack Proctor. Fudge was unavailable for comment, but he is believed to be considering postgraduate studies if he can manage the fees.

George and Miko Kaihara
Image captionGeorge and Miko Kaihara had their graduation interrupted by the Second World War

4) Old people with a poignant tale: George and Miko Kaihara, now aged 90, were part of the Japanese community in the United States interned during the Second World War. It meant that they never got to graduate. But that was put right last month, when these two veterans of the Class of 1943 finally got to pick up their diplomas. This is a much more uplifting way of getting people to see your graduation than funny pictures on YouTube of graduates in high heels falling over.

Graduation Iranian police academy

5) Keep them guessing: Particularly tough nuns about to take out the geography department? A remake of Sister Act with a special forces theme? These were Iranian female police cadets showing their skills at a graduation ceremony a few years ago. It’s a little different from the “motivational” speech from the bloke from Norwich who sponsored the new sports hall.

Jon Bon Jovi
Image captionGown rock: Jon Bon Jovi shared some big ideas with students

6) Deploy an old rocker: “Our future starts in our past – but it doesn’t end there”. “Choose a direction and if the road turns – turn! If there is a fork in the road – take it! It’s ok to map out your future – but do it in pencil.” Wise, wise words from Jon Bon Jovi at Rutgers University last month. These philosophical insights were light work for a man who brought the world a breakthrough album called Slippery When Wet.

Obama at coastguard graduation
Image captionPresident Obama has a look of weary resignation for this James Bond-themed graduation picture

7) Famous face, awkward photo: You’ve got the US president at your graduation. Time for a serious face, full of respectful gravitas? Nope, an opportunity to pretend to be James Bond. President Obama went along with this Bond gag at a coastguard graduation ceremony. But that expression? Parent who wanted to be taken seriously forced to join in with the novelty dance at a teenage disco. Nice.

Emily Bruell in Colorado
Image captionEmily Bruell in Colorado tells the world she is gay

8) That big personal statement. Who can resist the perfect platform for a big statement? Friends and family are gathered, it’s a symbolic time of change, it’s a moment made for a big reveal. And so this year saw the coming out coming into the graduation hall.

More stories from the BBC’s Knowledge economy series looking at education from a global perspective and how to get in touch

9) Exit through the gift shop: Graduations have become merchandising opportunities. Part of the impact is now being felt, not just with a lump in the throat but with a substantial hit on the parental wallet. On top of the commemorative photos, outfit hire, food and souvenir mugs and T-shirts, there are now more upmarket souvenirs, such as graduation rings and jewellery. None of this fundraising feels as strange as some US colleges which offer university-themed coffins.

10) Toe-curlingly embarrassing dance routine: When they say something is going viral, it’s sometimes because it’s like a virus that makes you feel rather nauseous. Here’s the entirely spontaneous moment when students in Portsmouth, New Hampshire began to dance along to a Taylor Swift song. There’s something about organised fun that feels like you’ve been trapped in a terrible recurring nightmare.

Head teachers also face results day nerves


Jules White
Image captionJules White says the approach of exam results means a growing sense of anxiety for heads

Pupils and their families have had an anxious wait for GCSE results. But what’s it like for head teachers? Jules White, a head from West Sussex, describes the pressure.

They say that you should never work with children or animals – the results are too unpredictable. With two teenagers and a couple of poorly-behaved dogs galloping around my house, I should understand the truth of this as well as most people.

Perhaps I should know it better than anyone because I am also a secondary head teacher and when August rolls around, the truth of this old adage always rings louder still.

The summer holidays are great but as time goes by the fear increases and a faint sense of nausea rises to full-on sickness – GCSE results day is close at hand.

Let’s get a touch of mea culpa out of the way first. I am by nature intensely competitive, always wanting to do better than the rest.

It used to be in sports, but more recently I have found different league tables to focus upon. Throw in too an unhealthy dose of anxiety about letting down students, their families and colleagues, and an unpleasant cocktail is placed on order.

Disturbingly, a string of “gold medal” performances from students and staff at our school has not allowed these fears to subside.

Disturbed sleep

Over recent years, I have become all too familiar with some turbulent emotions which affect my sleep patterns by night and an ability to fully relax by day.

If I am generating any sympathy then spare a thought for the others too – because I am not alone.

Image captionHead teachers across the country also face pressure as exam results arrive

You see, to a greater or lesser extent, all heads worry about their results. They reflect years of education and everyone’s hard work. The future of students – and many head teachers – often rest upon them.

Schools get the results a day before they are given to the students.

During the wait for their arrival, different heads cope in different ways. My closest head teacher colleague takes on the role of expectant father and paces the streets until the results download is completed by his assistant head.

The assistant head calls at approximately 3am with the headline figures. Only then can the head take some genuine rest.

Some heads are away in far-flung places and wait anxiously by their phone for scores to come in. Others log on in the very small hours hoping for an early data release. Then, there are those like me, who meet with anxious senior colleagues for a 6am “results breakfast”.

So is it all down to a lack of steel and a desire to avoid reasonable levels of accountability? I don’t think that it is that simple.

Our anxieties are fuelled by what seems to many heads to be an unhelpful mixture of an unreliable exam system which in turn services an equally unpredictable inspections system.

The facts are difficult to contest. Last year more than 45,000 exam grades were changed after schools challenged the results.

In 2012, matters seemed to have come to a head when schools up and down the country found that crucial English and maths results often bore no relation to expected outcomes.

Inspection fears

Many head teachers are uncertain as to how overall grade allocations are made and frankly pronouncements from Ofqual the exam regulator are frequently as clear as mud.

Heads are contacted in July with an overview of exam entry patterns and potential grading anomalies. To me, these letters merely add to a sense of unpredictability rather than bringing clarity to an already murky system.

Then there is Ofsted. Too often weak inspection teams seem to place an undue emphasis on a fleeting set of annual results. Trends over time can be overlooked.

This can cut both ways, as some underperforming schools seem to leap to “good” or “outstanding” on the back of favourable results. Other high-quality schools can fall foul of a poor judgement following one year’s indifferent performance.

It won’t have offered much reassurance to heads waiting for results that this summer more than a thousand inspectors were themselves found to be not good enough.

Some improvements are at hand. There are plans to measure schools across a wider basket of subjects, which would be a step in the right direction, as is the removal of inflated scores gained from some vocational qualifications.

But from the perspective of a head teacher, more is still required for a robust and transparent exam system, so that everyone involved knows what is expected. There needs to be attention to consistency and clarity as well as “rigour”.

We must also think more about the purpose of examinations. Is removing coursework and independent study the right way to prepare young people for the modern workplace?

As the GCSE results approach I will tell myself to stop worrying quite so much and to keep things in perspective. But there would need to be some changes before I could take this advice on board.

Jules White, is head teacher of Tanbridge House School in Horsham, West Sussex. The school achieved 76% of pupils achieving grades A* to C in at least five subjects, including English and maths