Chambers gives a definition of rigour as an 'unswerving enforcement of law, rule or principle'. At Le Loft, we believe that academic rigour is therefore a programme of study in which the academic principle is paramount and all other considerations are secondary; a programme that remains academically fit-for-purpose under all kinds of stiff challenges; it doesn't collapse under pressure. For students, these may be exams, interviews or peer-review; and for the schools: politics, budget constraints, market forces. These elements interact and challenge the academic programme: easier exams, higher grades; so much better for marketing purposes.
Something is either fit-for-purpose or it is not. The student wishing to pursue a career in another country will need to achieve the academic standards of that country as well as the one that they are in; likewise the state-educated students trying to compete with the privately-educated will need to match their competitors' qualifications, and not necessarily those of their immediate peers. The academic discrepancies between the various exam boards and syllabuses in the UK are wide and far-reaching: not all A*s are equal and some are more not-equal than others.
Considerations of academic rigour have to take place outside of these inequalities. The instruments of assessment are blunt; schools cannot be trusted to tell the truth; syllabuses are chosen with an eye on league-tables, not students' futures; the rigour is lost to the deliberate confusion of the market. Fitness-for-purpose can only really be judged after the event, but by then it is too late: the student has obtained qualifications that may be worth less than the marketing has claimed. We have missed the boat.
If we have no need of them, the worth of these qualifications does not matter: as long as we can read, write and stay out of trouble, we should be able to get by. But there's a but: if we want to do more than just get by, we cannot afford to invest our educational years in a portfolio of qualifications that doesn't measure up. To compete in an international arena, we need 8 good grades in I (for International) GCSEs to demonstrate a wide and balanced academic foundation: English and Maths, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, a (second) Language, a Humanity and one of the Arts will do for a start; then we need our 3 (A or A*) International A Levels (in relevant subject areas) or a total of 37-40 points at Higher Level IB to get into a good university; and then we need at least a 2:1 if we're going on to a PhD. That's roughly a 12-year undertaking and it'll cost upwards of £50,000. That's a huge amount of resource to invest: we cannot just swallow claims of academic excellence and hope they stand up under scrutiny at the most important interview of our lives.
Yet there is more. What about those outside interests? What makes you interesting? You've demonstrated that you're clever, but what makes you intelligent? How are you going to protect this investment? How are you going to see it through to the end? What will you do if your computer dies at the start of term but at the end of your budget? And how are you going to get your data back? Are you going to collapse under the pressure? Academic rigour cuts both ways.
And this is where we come in! We've both been there and done it. Got the T-shirt, worn it out. Blown more than one fuse (ain't that the truth!), gone up in a puff of smoke and got the data back! We reckon we've got a few answers to those questions, so here they are: Welcome to the 'Le Loft Programme of Academic Rigour'. Please keep your seatbelts on at all times, windows and doors shut, and don't feed the monkeys!
First: Please note that we are not a school, a college or a university. We are a couple of self-employed private tutors. We are independent, so we are free to call things rubbish if we think they are. As business folk, we understand budgets. We run this place on a shoestring: we maintain (and build) our computers exclusively on open-source software, mark up our own website, keep our own accounts, produce all our marketing by DTP. Even the cats can type! We start early and we finish late. We plumb, paint, knock down and rebuild, cut, paste and edit our office space as if it were no more trouble than flying to the moon. As teachers, we understand exams and revision, feedback and motivation, frustration and confusion and all that other teacher-stuff that goes with the job (paperwork, mostly). Our qualifications are robust: the CAPES (in France, to be a teacher you have to pass this post-graduate competitive exam at or above the 90th percentile) and a Masters in English (ESL) in her classroom, with a BSc(Hons.), Ph.D (medical sciences) next door in his. So we know what we're doing, and how to do it. But that's enough trumpet blowing, here are some of those answers we promised.
One. Unless you are fortunate enough to be going to a school that offers the IGCSE (not to be confused with the UK-benchmarked iGCSE, L1/L2 Certificates, or the new '9-1' GCSE), you will have to sit the IGCSE as a private candidate. This is very possible: Cambridge are supportive about this, their documentation includes detailed syllabuses and learner guides to go with them. The exams are taken when the student decides they are ready, not when it suits the school to enter them. The nearest exam centre that accepts private candidates is, however, in Plymouth, so you'll need to find a friendly B&B, or set out early. We can support you with the English Language aspects, the entire French syllabus, the three Sciences and probably most of the Maths as well (if it's not too hard...). We rent out classroom space at Le Loft and other tutors are welcome to hold classes here, should that be one of the ways forward.
Two. The science IGCSEs have a practical exam paper. We have limited facilities here for the purposes of doing practical work, and because we run this place on a shoestring, we do not offer a wide range of practical work. What we can offer is the use of these limited facilities to gather experience in planning and executing ongoing practical research. Happily, this reflects more realistically the situation in a bona fide research lab, and so is in our opinion, a more valuable experience. In addition to the underlying scientific skills, these activities encompass the areas of digital image manipulation (including images-as-data), data handling and processing, essay planning and report writing. As well as the development of the experimental skills of scientific research, these projects are designed to force the development of some fairly advanced computing skills. The narrow range of topics has the benefit to the student of focussing on how to develop the idea in hand, rather than constantly trying to learn new practical techniques i.e. it makes the student think more deeply than widely; the width comes from the background literature searches. The experimental work can be complex and it may be necessary to run an experiment in tandem with another. The IGCSE has an alternative paper to the practical one: the student is given experimental data to work with, and the questions are correspondingly harder in compensation. Thus the home student is not disadvantaged, but they will need to develop a 'feel' for experimental data, sources of error and bias, the difference between sampling errors and an outlier, the list goes on. In this respect, experience is unquestionably the best teacher.
Three. Q1: What do you do when your computer blows up? A: Well, we recommend that you turn your other one on. Q2: How do you get your data back? A: Restore it from those backups. Q3: What do you do if you haven't got a backup? A: Smile gently at the fallibility of the human condition, then put the kettle on, strip the hard drive out of the dead computer and plug it into the spare, copy the data from the /email@example.com partition across to /firstname.lastname@example.org. Reboot, the kettle should have boiled by now.
Four. Our 'programme of study' doesn't really exist. All our students are different. Some are struggling with their French vowels, some are struggling with their English ones; some, bless them, are struggling with their lives. So for us, 'academic rigour' means trying to put in place a skill-set that the student uses like a tool kit. We see our role as tutors as putting in place those tools that we identify as missing, based on an assessment of how critical any missing tool is to the student's goals. A common example: What is the point of revising using a computer when you will be examined by pen and paper? Which skill are you going to work on: pointing and clicking or legible handwriting? Here is our list of skills that we believe are needing to be in place to make a success of a university education.
(i) By the age of about 12 or 13 (i.e. 4 years before leaving school for college, and in no particular order, save the first): Psychological stability and preparedness for the onslaught of adolescence. Also good self-esteem, active social life, compassion, tolerance, bit of puppy fat, enjoyment of food (including basic cooking skills), laughter, dance, enjoyment of moderate exercise, enjoyment of fresh air (guess who's going to be walking the dog!), healthy fear of strangers, value burgers, ill health, poor grades, untidy bedrooms and not backing up your data. In addition, we would like to see an enjoyment of learning, neat and careful handwriting, good spelling and vocabulary, good arithmetic, some general knowledge, some awareness of their own (and therefore everyone else's) boundaries. Academically, we believe that the current Level 1 qualifications (GCSE Foundation Tier) should be achieved by the time a student hits their teens.
(ii) By the age of 13 or 14 (i.e.3 years before leaving school): All of the above, save that they should know how to use a washing machine and tumble drier. Academically the student should be achieving the Level 2 (GCSE Higher Tier). The student should also have a 'tower' type of computer and have some idea of how to replace the following components: storage discs, optical drives, memory, graphics cards, monitors, and how to replace mouse and keyboard for non-USB ones. They should be able to take it from one room to another and put it back together if necessary; critically, they should be able to install a non-proprietry operating system and an external backup device. Use it.
(iii) By the age of 14 to 16 (last two years of school): The race is on! The student should be comfortable in their skin, articulate and well groomed when necessary (but only when necessary, don't wear it out!). Bedrooms will be tidy enough to find things, your bookshelf should hold at least one textbook (not revision guide) per subject; homework should be as much a part of your routine as changing your socks: once a week just won't cut it. Academically, the focus should be on getting those 8 IGCSEs. The preparatory work done with the L1 and L2 qualifications will underwrite this task. You will need to learn how to set up that /email@example.com partition. Beg, steal or blackmail your parents into finding that /firstname.lastname@example.org; when they complain, tell them it doesn't need to be a new one and find one cheap enough to convince them you are correct. Note that laptops, tablets, mobile phones are gadgets and not computers. Don't take no for an answer; when they cave in (and they will) configure the machine such that it is fully compatible with first.computer; backup your data. And do the washing up at least once a month to express your gratitude.
(iv) College. You need the following skills.
ComputingSpreadsheets: at least the ability to produce Profit and Loss (PnL) accounts, Cashflow Forecasts, Balance Sheets and a simple budget; ideally, you should be able to translate arithmetic formulae into arrays of data, construct and optimize graphs from these data and then export them as graphics. You need to know how to form links between documents. Word Processing: Outlining, formatting and deformatting, installation of fonts. Image Processing: importing a variety of images from a number of sources, including your spreadsheet manipulations; you must be confident with all the common file formats, compression, insertion into documents, production of overheads. DTP: You will invariably have to do a presentation, so learn how to do it well. DTP will be useful when you need to sell stuff. Coding skills: You will need to be able to work at the terminal. How else are you going to mount /email@example.com? Using the GUI? As root? Not on my watch! Basic html will come in handy.
Do not believe your tutors when they say you are doing well. Reserve your judgement until you see your results; hopefully they are correct, but you must assume you are failing in unknown ways. Humility is a virtue. You need to be reading extensively: master your chosen subjects. You should have at least three up-to-date textbooks on your bookshelf, they should be visibly 'thumbed' by the end of your first year, with finger marks on most pages; you should know in which chapter any particular syllabus item is covered. Do all the exercises and test questions. Keep a card index of all your references. Get a printer that takes bulk ink (CIS) or a laser printer so you are not afraid to print stuff out. Print your essays out single-sided and double-spaced so you can edit them between the lines and add notes on the blank page. Read at least 5 papers a week. By the time you are called for interview, your reading should be central to your chosen degree; read all the papers you can on that area and familiarize yourself with the field. Focus in on the area that interests you the most. Find out who the most active researchers are in your chosen department, read at least the abstracts of their recent papers. You may be lucky enough to be interviewed by them.