Saturday, 20 October 2012

Reflections on Oxford Admissions

Many Catholic Families who courageously home educate will have to make the delicate decision of sending their child to University. Many families completely reject this option and the children will either continue to study at home (Open University being a viable alternative or vocational type courses) or they send their child to one of the Catholic American Universities. 
For others, braving the UK Universities is sometimes the only choice. So what do Universities look for in their candidates?

This following article was written by Dr Joseph Shaw (a home educator and Fellow in Philosophy at St Benet's Hall) and he has been involved with the College admissions for years.

Reflections on Oxford Admissions

People always want to know what we look for in a candidate, in interviews, but it is no secret. In some subjects there are skills which candidates must have to start the course—language skills, for example, or mathematical ones. These ought to be tested by their exams. The real use of an interview is to test corrigibility—whether the candidate can be taught. You see if he can follow an argument, respond to criticisms, think of examples, things like that. When you are teaching him in the course itself, in a lecture or a tutorial, will he get the point? And it is in this, as well as in teaching school children how to read and write or add up, that the modern British educational system is failing spectacularly. For it is painfully clear that it is possible to get every accolade the school system can bestow and still be incorrigible—indeed, in many cases the approach to answering questions in which pupils are drilled to get the best marks is an education in incorrigibility. It actually makes them less teachable than they would otherwise have been.

(Dr Shaw takes as an example a candidate, 'Frank', who has eight A*s and one A at GCSE, and is predicated four A's at A level).

His application form was a sight to behold. Judging from his references, a place in Oxford was almost beside the point—the boy deserved a Nobel Prize at least. He was no exam-taking machine: he had all sorts of outside interests, showing everything from heroic compassion to Churchillian leadership qualities. In class he was always the one with the incisive question and the grasp of the topic. He was logical, enquiring, and broad-minded. So into the interview he came, quietly confident, determined to strut his stuff.

So what, for a good school or an A Level examiner today, does being incisive, logical and all the rest actually mean? It turns out it means the ability to drivel both for and against on the hot-button issues of the hour: euthanasia, abortion, war, vegetarianism. Whatever question he was asked, Frank determined the ‘hot topic’ which must be at issue, and he would start to drivel, stating the case ‘for’ in a couple of minutes and then changing tack to the ‘against’ side. He clearly had the A Levels on toast. The questions are highly predictable, and examiners have boxes to tick as candidates make specified points, for and against a position. In Religious Studies and Philosophy A Level, these tend to be on the ‘hot topics’—English Literature and other subjects do their best to cover them as well—and these naturally come up a lot in class discussion. Until he came into my interview room, Frank had never been expected to provide any analysis of a claim, to respond to unanticipated criticisms, or to think about basic moral principles and how they work. On the contrary, he had been patted on the back for his ability to recapitulate show-case arguments for and against on each topic, which were never expected to lead anywhere or be resolved in any way.

My approach in interviews is to try to get the candidate to see that what he is inclined to say about one case doesn’t cohere with what any sensible person would say about another. I move the discussion away from the hot topics in order to get clearer about the moral principles which apply to them; it is easier to see the principles at work in uncontroversial examples.

When I tried to do this with Frank, he practically refused to follow my lead. I would ask him to consider an example, and he would start talking about a superficially similar example back on hot-topic territory. Asking what he thought about anything produced the for-and-against spiel which, inevitably, wasn’t a coherent position, and could not readily be criticised or analysed. When I asked him for an example (of a moral right, say, or a widely accepted moral prohibition), he was paralysed.

He was the most extreme example, but the phenomenon was widespread. School pupils have been turned into machines for spewing out pre-prepared opinions, carefully balanced, on the controversial issues of the day, and the gaining of this faculty actually makes it harder for them to address the fundamental questions upon which those issues really depend, or indeed to think, in a real sense, at all. It is pleasant to see some candidates, not necessarily the ones with the most flawless marks, beginning to see what I wanted of them and responding with interest to a genuine intellectual task—seeing that they had got themselves into a muddle, trying different options to escape, applying a principle grasped in one case to another, and so on. At the end of the day we were able to find enough candidates we would be happy to teach to fill the places we had available, but the superabundance of candidates with three or more A grades at A Level by no means translates into a superabundance of candidates capable of benefiting from an Oxford education.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Studying Greek

I think one would agree that learning Latin puts the classical into 'Classical education' yet some would argue that it is also Greek which makes an education truly classical.

Greek is often begun with two years of Latin learning completed although again, people have differing views upon this, and Greek can be begun at the same time or even on it's own.

In his well regarded book, 'The Latin Centered Curriculum', Andrew Campbell suggests the student begins with koine (the Hellenistic Greek of the Bible). It is known to be slightly simpler grammatically and the child will be more familiar with the Bible translations and therefore it may be an easier introduction to this language.

There is a first volume of a new program called ' Elementary Greek; Koine for beginners' by Christine Gatchell.
This can be found at although I have ordered my first copy from Amazon in the hope my 13yr old studious son will enjoy it!

This little video is helpful along with all the others there;

One of the reasons I am posting on Greek is that it is available to study at GCSE level and a few Catholic home educators have done or are contemplating this. It is a thorough course and the board which offers Greek is OCR;

Edexcel board also offers the Greek GCSE too.

One of the best loved Greek text books for this qualification is John Taylor's wonderful work, 'Greek to GCSE'.
Samuel (the studious son!) is currently working through the first book alone and very much enjoying it.
It is well presented and clear, but the best aspect is that John Taylor will gladly send all home educators the answer key!
He is extremely helpful and is willing to communicate through e-mail offering any help which is needed. Samuel has only contacted him twice but it is assuring to know he is available should he run into difficulty. (John Taylor has also written some well known Latin texts which are widely used.)

Should the Greek student be taken by the language, then John Taylor offers a more substantial book n 'Greek beyond GCSE which prepares for the AS level.

One last addition which I probably should have mentioned first; if you would like your student to become familiar with this wonderful ancient language at an earlier age, then my dear friend Michelle has written and designed some helpful Greek worksheets for younger children;

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Post-IGCSEs Reflections...

A month on and our son Ben has now been part of the local school's brand new sixth form and so I thought I would share his first few impressions of school life.

It has been a reasonably easy transition namely for him rather than us! I am still missing his presence through out the day for a variety of reasons but primarily because home education forms such a strong bond between most families and you get to know your child so much more deeply.

School has been quite enlightening to Ben and he has made some intriguing observations, some due to the fact he has never been a 'school boy' before and others because he is an observant person and has already a 'well trained mind'.

The students within the sixth form are most definitely more serious about their studies as they have chosen to be there rather than are obliged to attend school. Most of them are clever and astute and he has found most of the academic work simple to adjust to.

As Ben studied IGCSEs this has made the transition so much the easier as they are of a higher standard, more alike to AS level which he is taking now. This is evident, he says, as the work is not much harder and very similar questions arise from subjects like History and English.

The structure and order of the school day is appealing to Ben; it fits his personality. He even likes the bell which made me giggle when he said 'at the end of each lesson this fire alarm-type noise alerts us to change class!' Order and structure? Perhaps a monk in the making ? Perhaps not!

As for his Catholic Faith which is so very important to him, he says that personal views and beliefs at this age are far more respected and revered than in the younger, more vulnerable years. Not that this doesn't halt me from worrying greatly- there are all sorts of temptations and vices on offer (I presume!) but then he would face this in the world at some point anyway. It is an unavoidable truth that one has to battle against. He knows how different he is to others but this seems to have conveyed him as unique and interesting rather than outlandish  (although we may have to consider doing something about his lack of mobile phone! At 16 years old most boys have had a phone against their ears for at least three years or so!) and the invitation to have a Facebook is constant with people constantly asking why he doesn't have one?

There is a 'Connexions' at the school- the sly 'careers advice' which doubles as a secretive family planning clinic and so forth but he knows to make no contact with them. Their presence unnerves me though as does their trickery. (See Connexions website for more information, but they are very sinister and integrated within secondary schools.)

Most peers have been impressed that Ben was home educated and finds it natural to self teach himself- he told me that most of the students are finding it hard to come to terms with 'independent study' which is being drilled into them whereas this is how Ben learnt.

In hindsight I still feel we've made the right decision as I see Ben flourishing and enjoying his learning environment but home education and my strong beliefs have also given me the confidence to remove him straightaway should anything go amiss. I feel at peace because to teach A levels at home is a tall order and even though he would have probably achieved them, I still feel this first step into the world is essential for his future development.

We were given this beautiful prayer of St Fulgentius and Ben recites it daily in Latin to add efficacy;

Short Prayer of St Fulgentius, for Daily use by Students

I beseech Thee, my God, who art the very Truth, that what I know not of things I may wholesomely know Thou wilt teach me. That what I now of Truth Thou wilt keep me therein. That what I am mistaken in through human weakness, Thou wilt correct me. That in whatsoever truths I stumble, Thou will yet establish me. And from all things that are false or harmful, Thou wilt deliver me. Amen.

Rogo te, veritas, Deus meus, ut quaecumque salubriter scienda nescio, doceas me; in his quae vera novi, custodias me; in quibus ut homo fallor, corrigas me; in quibus veris titubo, confirmes me; et a falsis ac noxiis eripias me. Amen.