Monday, 17 August 2009


I remember opening my GCSE and A-Level results very well. I was so concerned about the whole thing that I just couldn’t go into school to pick them up and decided to open the letter in the privacy of my own home. They all came out alright in the end and got me into university without any problems, but the annual ‘dumbing-down exams’ debate has come round again just at the time when everyone is panicking over whether they will get the right grades. I suppose it’s topical, but shouldn’t we be celebrating excellent exam standards rather than criticising students every year? Nevertheless, maybe these critics have got a point.

Now, I must explain that I saw a question in a Maths A-Level that you’ll enjoy hearing about. It was a box-plot and whisker diagram question on the subject of orchestral musical instrument weights, and there was an upper outlier. The question was: “Suggest an instrument for this value.” Ummm, a ‘harp’? That’s what I went for - although this question stumped the most intelligent brains in the class, and I found it quite funny that my knowledge of classical music had come in more handy than any quadratic equation from the past - in a maths exam! My friend who got 100% in almost every maths paper wrote down a ‘cello’, which may well have got him a mark, but I doubt it. OK, so the ‘dumbing down’ evidence is out of the way.

However I’m still a bit disappointed with the Metro newspaper this morning saying A-Levels are so easy that ‘even monkeys’ could be trained to take them, according to a teacher survey. Now come on, that’s just silly. It is true that students are finding out more and more about qualifications before they take them, so they are better prepared, and this has problems. If you’re taught the syllabus and sample questions, you’ll remember it for the exam and then forget it all soon after.

That’s exactly what happened for me in A-Level maths. I got 96% but would struggle to get an ‘E’ if I was to sit any of those papers now. But whilst the preparation for exams is better, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re easier - and we should be thinking more about congratulating students than criticising their achievements. If pass rates fall, we’ll be slamming the education system. If they rise, we’ll be saying it’s easier. But either way, there will always be a picture of two of the most beautiful blonde girls the papers can find posing outside a college clutching their pieces of paper. That’s a certainty.

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Well done to the Daily Star, Daily Star Sunday and The Sunday Times - the only three national newspapers to be recording a circulation rise during the recession, based on last year. Richard Desmond’s Star titles went up by 15% and 1% respectively, whilst Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times was up 2%. I like to highlight the positives here, as every other national daily and Sunday has seen its circulation fall over the last 12 months. The reason for the Star to be doing so well can primarily be put down to the price decrease (it now costs 20p Monday to Friday), but also to the fact it is being brought more upmarket by the editor, with less naughty pictures of women on the front-cover and more proper Sun/Mirror-type tabloid stories. The Daily Star Sunday has been doing quite well for a few years, since it started giving away free DVDs - although The Sunday Times seems to be selling itself on good quality journalism for the moment, which is encouraging.

On the other hand, you’ve got papers like The Independent (down 17%) and on Sunday (down 22%) which could well be out of business in the near future if they show no sign of improvement. However, for The Independent, this figure must be realised in the context that their cover price went up from 80p to £1 over this period. So in terms of revenue from newspaper sales they won’t have suffered that badly - and the Daily Star will be losing revenue but gaining ground on competitors. In the long run, that might just be more important. It’s good to see the Star doing so well, as although it’s far from my paper of choice, it is a British newspaper. And if somebody’s doing well, then there’s still hope for everyone else!

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It’s shaping up to be a fascinating season in the Football League after the second matchday of the season, with Coventry City being the only Championship side to have registered two wins so far. It’s been a solid start for Sheffield United and Newcastle United (I’m extremely surprised at the latter!), but these are just two sides who could have a good campaign. The league is so open this year that anybody could go up, and it will be consistency and strength-in-depth that will secure promotion in my eyes. An outside bet for the top six could still be one of last season’s League One sides - such as Leicester City or Peterborough - but there’s plenty of twists and turns still to go.

I hope my prediction of 16th for the Toon will be proven wrong by Shola Ameobi (since when was he capable of scoring three goals in a season, let alone a game?) but am not getting carried away just yet. There are plenty of good players who could still leave the Magpies before the end of August, and we could still be left with youth-teamers filling up the numbers. But hopefully not. I’m off to Crystal Palace this weekend to see the Magpies in action, and am sincerely hoping that it turns out slightly better than their last visit to London - a 6-1 defeat which I witnessed - in E10. If we ever play Leyton Orient again, I think I’ll be hiding underneath the covers...