Hope FM: Which subjects should you be focusing on when applying for a grammar school in Dorset (23 October 2014)

Hope FM: Which subjects should you be focusing on when applying for a grammar school in Dorset (23 October 2014)

I spoke alongside Sheila at Hope FM about AE Publications.

A transcript of the interview is below.

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Host: Accelerated Education Publications… this is something different, where as a teacher going back a little while, just tell us what your experiences were like there.

SC: Yes, I was teaching full time in schools for around about 9 years, and then I moved part time for another 6 or 7 years. Four state secondary and also worked in primary education as well. So, I’ve been really right across the board in terms of the state system.

Host: When you were there, yes you did a really good job, but you felt you could do better and went into tutoring?

SC: Well, tuition began as a side-line for me back in the 90’s. I suppose initially I was hit by the financial crisis, most people were back then. We’ve got another one now. As a teacher, I was doing some private lessons as well. I discovered I was quite good at it really. It just seemed to take off. Before I knew it, I had 25 students a week. So, there was really no alternative, really, but to make a choice between becoming a part-time state teacher and continuing tuition or stopping it really. I decided that I would take that move. In the end, of course, the tuition grew so much that there wasn’t really any option. I had to stop teaching in schools.

Host:  You just couldn’t do two jobs at the one time.

SC: I couldn’t do two jobs at the same time, no.

Host: Now, Steve, correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand that one of the things that you specialise in, is helping children to prepare for those all important 11 plus’s, that used to be called Exam’s.

SC: Yes, we tend to focus quite a lot on that. I believe that what we do helps children prepare for life through improving their educational standards, whatever the outcome of particular tests. However, we do take in children from around about 8 years old, when we tutor them, and they leave us normally around about 11. Although we do have some children that stay with us until they are 14. We prepare lots of kids for these tests. We have a lot of experience doing that. Our books that we publish do aid children in preparing for these tests.

Host: It sounds like that, perhaps, is the secret. I think quite often when children get to aged 10, their parents are thinking, oh well we’d better start preparing them. Whereas, you actually do that from a much earlier age.

SC: Some parents bring their children around about 9 years old. We have them for a year through till, they really sit the 11+ when they are 10 actually. Most of them are still only 10 years old, or only just 11. But, we have over the years started to take children in earlier, because we found that there was a demand from parents to get their children to a much higher level. One has to put this in context really. The state system is not really aiming at that. It has a much longer term goal. Children are 16 when they are doing their GCSEs. But, the Grammar Schools are really looking for a much higher performance much earlier than that, so we have to accelerated their progress. Hence our name: ‘Accelerated Education’. That’s what we specialise in doing really, trying to get the children to a much higher level much earlier.

Host: We are just going to take a short break because there are four Grammar Schools in Dorset and each of them has a slightly different focus. So, we will come back and talk about thoat in just a second…So, if you are listening in and you’ve got children that are coming up to sitting the 11+ exam for the Grammar Schools, you should not be shaken either, because we’ve got help at hand. My special guest this afternoon is Steve Curran from Accelerated Education, AE Publications. He’s here to help you with all these difficult tramatic [decisions]… for some people this could be quite a challenge. There’s four Grammar Schools in Dorset and they’re all different, can you just explain to us about that?

SC: Yes, I believe down in Dorset, it’s not unlike some of the schools in London, but there are four Grammar Schools: Poole, Bournemouth School (which I think is a boys school), then Bournemouth School for Girls and Parkstone as well. Basically these schools do a mix of four types of exam either English, Maths, Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning. The papers are set by a company called GL Assessments and we are very experienced and know about these people.

Host: So you are able to take the children through each of these stages.

SC: Yes, I think the most difficult one is English. English doesn’t respond quickly to tuition. It is always important to really work at your child’s English from as early an age as possible. English is aquired over a long period of time. It is very hard to teach techniques and quick-fix things in English. We tend to work with our children over a very long period of time to improve their English skills.

Host: How important is spelling Steve?

SC: Well, there is a spelling element in the GL Assessment tests. When you are doing Verbal Reasoning tests for them, there is some English in there and some spelling skills are required. There is also in the GL Assessment English style test, a spelling element. Also, I do believe that Bournemouth School and Bournemouth School for Girls do require an extended writing exercise where children have to write an essay or a story and, of course, their spelling will be taken into account there as well. Spelling is important. It’s not crucial, but it’s important.

Host:  I am a bit old-school when people used to be able to spell lots of things. Here at Hope FM, we have a lot of people come in to do work experience from a broad spectrum of schools. I have to say that when the children come in from the Grammar Schools, they do tend to stand out. Do you, Steve, even their spelling is not very good.

SC: There is a tendency for every age-group to say that the previous age-group was better at this. But, we tend to look back at the past with rose-tinted glasses and think that there was a golden age of people being able to spell. But, I remember my mother writing a letter to me, and she couldn’t spell. I mean, her education wasn’t that developed but I think throughout the ages people have had difficulty spelling. Some children are more gifted at that than others.

Host: Now, I just asked that because I was genuinely interested because I know that it is just part of it. If children have got that ability to express themselves and write an amazing piece of prose (is that what you would call it?) or an essay. Someone like me, perhaps, may have stunted that creativity because I was wanting every word to be spelt it correctly, whereas these other elements to English apart from spelling.

SC: Yes. Obviously there is syntax, there’s structure of sentences and your understanding of grammar. I do believe that there was, back in the ’60’s and early ’70’s, a move away from teaching in a much more structured and traditional way in schools. There was tendency to believe that if we expose children to language and a lot of reading, and we gave them English experiences in the classroom, they would somehow pick this stuff up by osmosis. I think are a lot of people are now realising that it is much more important to teach the basics to children. That is what we really focus on. We tend to have a more traditional approach. That is not to say that some of the progressive ideas that came in back then weren’t good. Pupil-centred learning and these kind of things. It was great. But you really need to make sure children are on a definite programme of learning their grammar, learning their spelling, learning the meaning of words, reading very good books, and not just reading books that don’t really challenge them in a literary sense. I think there’s been a move back by many people, including us, to really ensure that children acquire these basic skills. The Grammar Schools, of course, are looking for that too.

Host: I think that it’s just so encouraging to know that you are providing the service that you do at Accelerated Education. Because, I think it can be daunting for parents. Just talking about the reading, I am just amazed how little a lot of children actually do read. So, having that back-up there, knowing that yes, I’ve got to do this. Presuming that you provide lists of suggested reading?

SC: We do. I think we have blogged at some point. Our marketing director could be more specific about this. But we have blogged about books that children should read. Classic books. Modern classics. It’s important to expose children to really good literature. There is plenty of it. There is lots of good modern literature as well. Also the classics of children’s literature is important too. Along side of that a programme of spelling and vocabulary. We actually provide that through our books. We also provide creative writing books as well. There are a lot of things you can do to boost children’s skills in English and I think that is very important if you are aiming for the 11+.

Host: People can’t believe, I’m such a busy person and yet people say ‘how do you fit in time to read?’ And, I think my children have picked up on that. But, we’ve always read as a family, but that’s another story altogether. Perhaps if a child is very bright and academic and they are in a family that doesn’t read, they are not going to get those suggestions made. So, that’s great that you’ve got that there for them.

SC: I also think it’s very important that you make children read out loud. Because, sometimes you can look at a child reading a book and you think, ‘they’re reading that, that’s really good’. But, they may be skipping over lots of word, and you don’t know that until you make them read out loud, and he doesn’t (or she doesn’t) can’t read that word or doesn’t know what that word means, so they just skip it because they want to get on with the story. So, I think it’s quite important that you try organise little reading sessions every day, maybe 10 or 15 minutes, where they read to you. Then you are going to get back much more feedback on how your child is progressing. You have got to remember that teachers are so busy these days that the teacher in class might only have the child read to them every fortnight, maybe never at all. But, most primary school teachers will ask the child to come out and read. Reading out loud in class is often not done as much as these days. Teachers are often aware of not embarrassing children publicly who don’t read very well.

Host: This is where extended family can help as well. You know, if Aunts or other relations or Grandparents are even around, this is something they could do.

SC: The important thing is to know that your child is engaging with the text. Because, you don’t know that when people just sit quietly with a book in front of them. They may just be looking at the pictures. You don’t know what they are doing. You know, that is something that we say to parents, ‘if your child is having any difficulties in this area, get them to do it openly with you. That can assist’.

Guest: Also what we found, just going back to what Steve was talking about earlier with the blogs, there is a blog we are going to be putting out in a few weeks time about some of the books we’ve got on our literary list. One of the great things about technology is that you can download the books to a Kindle or an iPad or any element of a tablet and read it from there. We have found on Amazon there is a number of old classics that they are giving away for free. So, you just need to download it. Some of them, I think there was only one, that we found that was 20p, but that’s practically nothing. So, it’s easy to download classic books onto a Kindle or a phone or an iPod or any electronic device that a child has that they can tap into at any time. So, rather than them playing games on that tablet, it’s good that they can have something to read.

SC: Just one example, you can take all the novels of Jules Verne, which are great for boys. Girls, they can read Black Beauty. There’s cross-over you know, girls can read boys books and visa versa. But, there are some books that are attractive more to the girls and some more to the boys. Many of them are attractive to both, but there are many books they can access.

Host: Let’s take a break and perhaps we can talk about maths next time…

Host: … hopefully Steve, you are helping generations of parents make the right decision in how to prepare their children for these all important exams that they take before they go into the Grammar Schools. We’ve just been chatting about the four different exam subjects and we’ve chatted a lot about English. Let’s talk a little about maths. What’s required there, Steve?

SC: Well, first of all I would say that all of these schools do have a maths test. They are of the GL Assessment variety. The standard on that maths test ranges from Level 3 right up to Level 6 in terms of SATs. Which is really beyond the level that is taught in primary school. Normally children are aiming to get Level 5 in Primary School. There is a Level 6 test, but very few children actually take it. Primary school would see that children are very successful if they get a Level 4. So, what the Grammar School’s are requiring is a higher level.

Host: Would you say that it’s your understanding that the majority of those children who are successful have some sort of additional tuition?

SC: Yes, I think most children would have had some kind of help from at home, or help from a tutor. Sometimes, in primary schools as well, there is extra maths classes that are run by teachers for children who are performing really well and they are trying to prepare them for the Level 6 papers. It’s a mixed picture, really, I believe. But, however it cuts, parents need to get their children to higher level if they are really going to succeed in these 11+ exams. Because, what’s required on that paper is an understanding of decimals, fractions and percentages. To be really solid on that stuff is not something that most primary school children would have acquired through the primary curriculum. The new curriculum which is coming out is tougher. For the moment, I think children are probably not adequately prepared in the primary schools.

Host: So, Steve, having the Publications, people can go to find those at www.aepublications.co.uk – Accelerated Education. This is obviously helping parents to understand what is expected.

SC: Yes… There was a sea-change that occurred in the 1960’s and 70’s towards a far more progressive approach to maths. Unfortunately maths doesn’t respond to progressive approaches terribly well. Maths is, in my opinion, a building block subject. You have to understand something and then you build something else on top of that, and the, you build something else on top of that. But, if you actually have a far more sporadic and chaotic approach to maths – which I’m afraid, in my opinion, the progressive approach tends to have, children often don’t really have a systematic understanding of decimals, fractions and percentages which I would call is the ‘core understanding’ right up to GCSE.

Many children go into Secondary school without a clue about the three areas and then they try put it together in Secondary school and fail there too because, obviously Secondary school teachers are not in a position to babysit children. They’ve got to get on with the curriculum. Their expectation of children when they come up from Primary school are often dashed pretty quickly and have to go back and teach this stuff. The Grammar schools, of course, require the children to have that in place. So, it’s important that children really grasp these areas.

We focus a lot on the more traditional approach, in making sure these children have acquired these skills. Knowing their Times Tables is really important and Primary schools have focussed much more on that now, but parents need to ensure that their children have learnt their times tables. That doesn’t mean going up the Times Table: one times seven is seven, two times seven is fourteen. It means, if I say ‘seven eights’, they’ve got to be able to say ’56’ straight away.

Host: … there’s all different ways, and it doesn’t matter which way it is, but people should be learning that. You get into the exam room and you can’t use a calculator for everything, can you?

SC: You cannot use a calculator in exams. You’ve got to have a very, very solid understanding of your times tables. Because, it also helps your number-bonding as well. Adding and subtracting in your head. Knowing were the numbers are positioned up to 100. It might sound very obvious to us as adults, but to a child of 8 or 9 it’s not obvious. You mustn’t make assumptions about what children know. Unfortunately a more progressive approach in maths tends to believe that if a child explores and plays, they will get this stuff anyway. But, they don’t. Not always. Some of them do. The very bright children, the very, very able children, I don’ think it matters what you do, they will find a way through. But, most children are not geniuses, they are competent and can learn. They need help. They need a structured approach to learning. Primary school children, in my opinion, respond far better to that, than the vagaries that have often occured in some kind of educational approaches where teachers have said ‘well, let’s explore this thing, let’s see where this leads’. Well, that’s fine. I’m not against any of that. I do believe maths should have that very strong explorative element, that discovery element. But, we’ve got to make sure that children are completely solid on the basics. That is the basis of all great discoveries, is that it is a fantastic classic education and if they’ve got that, they can do everything.


SC: We’ve got a very structured approach to mathematics. Each step along the way is explained. Information, then the technique, then practice, then test it. As Carolyn said, we don’t just say ‘here’s a test’. Because children are discouraged by tests, often. If they do really badly on a test, they don’t want to do another one. That’s not the way to learn. The way to learn is to get all the things in place and then to test and then to tweak with testing. Testing is about tweaking people’s ability, it’s not about teaching them. You don’t teach through tests. You teach and then test.


SC: One of the problems is that parents have been subjected to a more progressive approach in maths. Actually, half the country, right now couldn’t pass a GCSE maths exam. That’s a fact. Many parents wouldn’t like to admit it but they don’t have a GCSE in maths. They failed it. But, they don’t want their children to fail as well.

Host: Is that your core subject that you used to teach? Did you teach maths?

SC: Yes, I taught maths and English. They are the two areas that [I do].

Host: I can see that you get quite excited about numbers. I don’t particularly, but you obviously do.

SC: I’m actually a trained English teacher, but I taught maths as well and wrote books about it. So, I’m a bit of an autodidact.

Host: You make it all sound very interesting. We’re just going to have a bit of a break and then talk about non-verbal and verbal reasoning and what is the difference…

Host: Our featured business this afternoon is Steve Curran. He’s from AE Publications, which stands for Accelerated Education. We’ve been chatting this afternoon about how his products can help children who are preparing themselves for the 11+ Exams. There’s four Grammar Schools in Dorset. They’ve all got a slightly different focus on the exams and really Steve wants to help parents have a steer to what they should be doing to prepare their children. Not, just in the 6 months before, but perhaps two or three years and more particularly the 12 months before the child sits that exam. We’ve been talking about the Maths side of things, the English side of things. Steve, there’s another two elements and these are the Non-verbal Reasoning and the Verbal Reasoning tests. Tell us about these, what’s the difference between the two?

SC: Well, Verbal Reasoning focusses partly on English skills and logical processing, you know problem solving with words and coding. A lot of it is fairly straight forward and does require children to have some English skills. Basic spelling questions occur and manipulation of verbal alphabet type of things really. There’s a bit of maths on those tests as well, but not a great deal, for the GL Assessment type style test. The Non-verbal Reasoning is really spatial reasoning. The ability to look at images and see the changes that might be made. Really, there’s only three things that you can do a the Non-Verbal Reasoning question, and that is: try and see what’s the same, what’s different or what’s the pattern. These things are explained in our books. Our Book 1 covers all of the techniques for Non-Verbal Reasoning and our books in Verbal Reasoning do the same. Non-Verbal Reasoning is a more recent addition to testing intelligence or testing people’s ability levels. It tries to circumvent language skills. Whatever background the child has come from, looking at images doesn’t require language skills, it requires visual skills. Some people are more naturally gifted at this than others. But, children can learn to do this, but they need to take a structured approach, again, familiarising themselves with the styles of questions and the various techniques that are involved in solving them.

Host: It’s all about practice as well. It’s quite a while since any of my children took those tests, but again, if you have practice of doing these, when it comes up in the exam you immediately think, ‘ah, it might not be the same problem, but it’s something similar’, and that’s all very helpful.

SC: It is. Again, I would take a similar approach. It’s better to learn technique, how to do things, first. Then to do intensive testing. I think what a lot of tutors appear to do is they say, ‘ok here is a test, and when you’ve done it, I will go through it with you, and show you what’s wrong’. I don’t really go along with that approach. I tend to say, ‘ok, let’s learn the techniques’. We will do a bit of testing along the way. We have short test-books for that purpose. So, we do do tests. But, generally speaking we focus very much on the children’s learning to begin with. Then, as we approach the tests, the real exam, we will intensively test and tweak where the child is getting things wrong. But, we wouldn’t use the test as a major learning tool. Our ‘How To’ books do that and we find we get much higher levels of success with children when we do it that way.

Host: Well, Mrs Bloggs has been listening for the last 45 min’s and thinking ‘yes, I want to go onto that website, www.aepublications.co.uk, and make some purchases. How does that all come about, do you buy all the books at once, you explain it to her.

SC: Yes, you can buy our books over the internet. We are very rigorous in the way that we test our books out. We have our own tuition centre in Slough where we have about 1,400 children per week. All our books come out of a rigorous testing process that we put into place through our tuition centre. We tend to pre-run our books through there to check and sort out any problems where they don’t work, and we can adjust them. So, I think it’s quite unique. Because I think most publications can’t really do that. They are publishers and that’s what they do. They’re not Tuition Businesses, which is what we are, who publish books. We tend to publish books which, only when we are happy that that book is working perfectly to our spec, will it go out. We have highly developed material. They are not half-baked, they are fully developed. I think parent’s will be very satisfied and yes you can buy them on our website.

Guest: …

SC: We are developing our range all the time. We focus mainly on our Year 5 students in the last few years because, obviously, they are running up to the exam. We are now turning to Year 3 books and Year 4 books. Gradually that compendium of books is developing. You can see what age appropriate books are on our website…I’m sympathetic with parents. It really is quite stressful in preparing children for this exam. However, I’m a great believer, perhaps I will end on this, but if you can sort out a child’s educational level and put the basics in place by the time they are 11, you will never really have any more problems with them. It’s when they drift into Secondary School with problems it’s very hard to solve it there. Secondary Schools are not set up in that way, you are going from classroom to classroom. If you basic maths skills and your basic English skills are not solid, then every subject area suffers. I think it’s really good that parents focus on making sure their children have achieved those basic skills by the time they are 11. Preparation for the Grammar School is a very good way of doing that.

Host: I think it’s really great to speak to you this afternoon Steve, and reassure people listening in that there is help out there. You are someone who really, really knows what they are talking about, because you have been a teacher and have done that job and, as a result have seen where there are perhaps some gaps. AE Publications, Accelerated Education. I’m not saying it’s filling the gaps, because I think you’re doing so much more than that. It’s really a back-up to, perhaps, what people have already been taught.

SC: It’s about extending and developing children, really. We all want them to be successful, whether they go to Grammar School or not. in the end, the most important thing is that they’ve acquired their skills for life.