Education quandary

'Our son wants to take A-level law by distance learning but we think he will be a guinea pig, and also miss out on classroom discussions and teacher-pupil interaction'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's Advice

We all need to sit up and take notice of this one. Although distance learning – taught via video-conferencing with a teacher who might be hundreds of miles away – is currently only a matter of a few minority A-levels, such as psychology and film studies, being taught in a couple of hundred schools, the process is about to leap into mainstream classes.

A few days after this parent wrote in, Moorhouse-Black, one of the leaders in the field, announced it would be teaching AS students physics, chemistry and maths through their computers from September. Then it announced it had been taken over by Nelson-Thornes, the country's second biggest education publishers. That will almost certainly mean comprehensive packages of hardware and software, and texts being waved at schools who are wondering whether to stem teacher shortages by going down this road.

So what does it mean for pupils? David Black, a director of Moorhouse Black, naturally claims only good things. No child is now a guinea pig, he says, because A-level courses have been running for four years already, with results as good or better than those of conventional ones. Video-conferencing in real time allows full interaction between teachers and taught. "In fact, we say that the students should always be the first people to speak." In a world of lifelong learning, this kind of supported independent study is an ideal half-way house between school and what will come later for students at university and beyond. Plus, he says, the company can attract good teachers because there are a lot of people out there who want to teach, but no longer want the hassle of being in school.

Is this true? By and large, it seems to be. Schools report that it is a cost-effective way of boosting the number of A-level courses they can offer, while pupils say that because there is no teacher on the ground they have to work harder at understanding course materials for themselves.

On the down side, there can be technical glitches, and there is no time for the kind of free-ranging discussions that can be the hallmark of A-level classes. But, then again, intense, focused study is not necessarily something many parents are likely to object to.

Readers' Advice

As a teacher and former examiner of A-level Law I was concerned by the recent suggestion that a "video link" is an acceptable substitute for classroom teaching. For years my subject has had to suffer credibility problems with certain universities. The reasons given, although generally spurious, often relate to the unsuitability of non-law graduate teachers attempting to teach law.

All A-level students deserve to be taught by subject specialists in proper, well resourced classrooms. Law lessons should include debate and discussion. Evaluation must be encouraged; the subsequent examination will test this skill.

If schools cannot provide proper, qualified teachers then they should not offer this subject. If the student in question wishes to study A-level law, I would advise enquiries be made at sixth form colleges and further education institutions.

Adrian Watson, Huddersfield

At my school we offer psychology and Latin via e-learning, and will be offering law, social policy and some music courses. It is an exciting new world for both pupil and teacher with encouraging early results in terms of achievement.

Online learning is an excellent way of allowing sixth formers to develop their self-learning capability and to practice organisational skills, although students can find the early stages of such courses demanding and it is important that the school provides a support mentor on site.

Using an internet-based learning environment for group discussion via a message board together with video conferencing can help with the loss of real interaction within a group and with a teacher, but a different relationship develops with a good, positive distant tutor.

Nick Walkey, Deputy head of curriculum, Wells Cathedral School

My children are both now at university, but at A-level they were taught by a motley assortment of teachers, including one who was absent almost every other Monday, and another who spent half his lessons telling the students about his girlfriends. Distance teaching, like any other kind, will only ever be as good as the people who do it.

Lisa Halden, London

Next Week's Quandary

All my children did about the Golden Jubilee at their primary school was to talk about it for a few minutes in their classrooms. The head said they were too busy to give it any more time. I'm no royalist, but surely schools have a duty to mark important historic occasions and explain to children about the times they live in? My children know nothing about the Queen's role. They think she wears a crown and sits on her throne all day

Get in Touch

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce by next Monday, 3 June, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser.

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