Friday, 05 January 2018

Mental Health and Your Child

As exams loom closer, and competition gets harder, your child is bombarded on all sides by stress. Some of us remember childhood fondly but the reality for a modern-day teen undertaking GCSE’s is that the pressure has never been higher. With the new 9-1 grading system, social media distractions and the nation’s eye watching their every move, what can you do to help your child navigate this difficult time?

As a parent, understand that your child is now a guinea pig for a new system that was designed to help UK education compete with other leading countries. However, the system wasn’t designed to benefit everyone and focuses heavily on the top percentage of the country. Students who fall in the middle band can find themselves sinking under a sea of misinformation and even the genuine unknown. For those who seek a grade 4 or 5, the boundaries can seem to change at a given moment and these students are desperately trying to find their feet in a world where the ground seems to shift beneath them. All this can lead to a feeling of hopelessness.

The charity Young Minds states that ‘1 in 10 children have a diagnosable mental health disorder – that’s roughly 3 children in every classroom’. These can range from anxiety and depression all the way to suicidal tendencies. In education, and as parents, it’s essential that we take into consideration how our presence can either help or hinder a child’s development.

What’s the problem?

Firstly, misconceptions. Mental Health is an issue that has sat in the corner of a dark room for a long time, especially in children since we have an image of them that says they should be able to shake off anything. Even if your child is the perfect A* (or should I say Grade 9?) student, plays instruments, is athletic, makes all your family members seethe with jealousy and everything else – if they say they aren’t feeling well, believe them.

The first tool in your arsenal as a parent is communication and attention to detail. The greatest hurdle in mental health can be admitting there’s a problem. No one wants to believe there’s an issue they can’t personally overcome, and it’s noted from Young Minds that ‘3 in 4 children with a diagnosable mental health condition do not get access to the support that they need.’ As their parent, you could be the difference between your child getting through this or cracking under the pressure.

The Next Steps

If you find yourself in a position where your child feels overwhelmed or unsure, give them time to feel better. Don’t expect a quick fix or a snap of the fingers alongside a ‘get your life together’ speech to do much. The best approach is a structured, well supported road to getting back on track. As a parent, use your authority to give them the building blocks they need to take control of their own life. Most students feel that exams and education is often beyond their own control, making them feel powerless and therefore unable to change their circumstances.

For students dealing with stress and anxiety, the NHS Choices website has a variety of suggestions. Most helpful is a structured but realistic revision schedule. Make sure your child knows their exam board and the dates of their exams early in the year. This means they won’t be left a month before 5 exams realising they don’t have time to revise for any of them. As their parent, help them stick to it. For a teenager there are plenty of distractions. Set up an agreement with them where during these times you take their phone for a while, you check in to make sure they’re taking appropriate breaks or even get involved in making the breaks more fun. Sometimes the motivation to keep going can come from someone taking an active interest in helping them rather than passively accepting they may or may not be revising. The greatest enemy to progress is the passive parent.

Don’t let them over work themselves; a break every 45 to 60 minutes is essential. Anxiety can come from feeling there’s too much to do and the impulse to speed through things as quickly as possible won’t help your child. Put aside a work area for them, somewhere they won’t be disturbed but they can spread out a little, get comfortable and can leave their work there when it’s time for a break. Every child works differently so don’t argue with your child if they want to listen to some music or have background ambience to help them through. Remember you’re not just there to ask, ‘how much have you done?’ every few hours; you’re there to care about your child.

Beyond that, be positive in your word choice. Let them know you’re on their side and there’s always time for them to come away from the work if they need to. Good tactics can be some brief physical exercise (start a work out together), creative projects or even just breathing exercises. Those with anxiety can benefit massively from taking control of their own breathing and slowing their heart rate. Students need time to see their life isn’t all about the exam and that their self-worth isn’t directly linked to their grades. You want them to do the best that they can but for some students, that won’t be in an exam.

If your child isn’t good at taking exams – whether because of anxiety or other issues – this doesn’t make them a bad student. Exams are memory games. Not everyone is good at that. If you feel this is something your child will struggle with, search out past papers to make them familiar with what they’ll see on the day. It’s a massive trade ‘secret’ that questions are repeated over the years or only slightly re-worded. Unfortunately, there aren’t many papers for the 9-1 because of how new it is but past papers are still valuable.

Ultimately, help your child find a structure that will break down their workload and then help them stay motivated. Let them know you see them as more than a grade. Perhaps even more importantly, set them up for life with the idea that their problems don’t define them. Going on from GCSE, no matter what issues your child faced or will face, send them out into the world with the confidence that they can do this.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017


Taking your child through the 11 plus process involves major parental involvement. Your child’s preparation in English, Maths, Verbal and Non-Verbal reasoning is vital and so having a good knowledge of what it entails and supporting your child is crucial for any parent.

VAKS would like to help parents understand all that surrounds 11 plus from a parent’s perspective. It is unbelievably competitive and more children than ever now sit 11 plus entrance exams for Grammar schools and private schools, both bursaries and full-fees. The overwhelming pressure can sometimes cause a collective hysteria; parents refuse to share details of their knowledge of interviews, past papers or local tutors they are using. However fundamentally, preparation is vital in the 11 plus saga.

VAKS has 15 years of expert knowledge and experience in successfully navigating children through the journey.

You will never meet a child who has successfully passed through the 11 plus without a significant amount of work and dedication. State primary schools and in our experience, even Prep schools just don’t cover enough in their syllabus and so extra support from tutors like us is essential for an assured pass. It’s very hard to teach a child beyond their abilities but if your child has the potential, the 11 plus VAKS teaching programme will develop their ability and maximise the possibility of securing a place at a top grammar or private school. VAKS has 100% success rate for children who have followed our four-term programme. There are so many useful resources available to parents but they can be overwhelming for parents who do not know how to teach the essential skills that this age group requires. VAKS provides an understanding of how much practise each child needs, the common weaknesses, motivation for boys compared to girls, how to prepare the family and interview practise. In our experience, psychological preparation is equally important as academic. The 11 plus is simply a life challenge that with our help can be completed successfully!


The favoured tutors such as Explore Learning, Bright Young Things and Bonas McFarlane may be most popular but they fail to provide the personal touch we can. The 11 plus demands much more than the ability to set practice papers and mark them; it needs to understand your child’s weaknesses and provide a personal programme catered around your child and their individual and changing needs, which is exactly what VAKS offers. Many tutors set exams papers much too early; before a child can do a comprehension for example, they have to understand how to read a passage.

The fundamental facts every parent must be equipped with before embarking on hiring a tutor are:
• Is it one to one or group-based?
• How much extra homework will there be?
• Which schools they have been successful in achieving places
• Testimonials or contact details of recent families they’ve supported
• Which bursaries or schools are they in communication with?
• The approach to tuition


It has become a forgone conclusion to start the 11 plus preparation in year 4, which in our opinion is certainly not too early. However, this must be approached in a gentle and nurturing manner to ensure that there is a gradual build up in skills before year 5. VAKS also recommends children reading the correct literature as early as year 4 so that they have built the necessary vocabulary and language skills before the more formal English and Verbal Reasoning teaching takes place.

Likewise, with Maths, the level at which schools operate in year 4 is certainly not running parallel with the content of maths papers for the exam itself. All of this takes time to ensure that children build up to the level of maths before year 5.

Careful marking and observing their homework as well as an expert understanding of their working level is vital for the push in the final three terms prior to the exam. For English, ensuring your child is reaching well into Level 4 in Reading and Writing and extending their vocabulary will put your child in a good stead for Comprehension, Verbal Reasoning and Creative Writing papers.

Starting Sudoku, playing chess and learning a musical instrument are all great ways of increasing brain activity as well as doing something enjoyable. In terms of Maths, it is important your child has really grasped the basics such as adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. Ensure their multiplication up to the 12 times table is perfect, and at the end of each term, read their workbook to see what they have been covering. There are numerous ways in which parents can help. For example, playing mental maths games regularly such as Squeebles and DoodleMaths or using measures in the kitchen will support your child greatly.

We advise that, by the end of the summer term of Year 4, attention is really needed; research has shown there is a real fall in ability because of the lack of learning for over a month during this summer holiday. In our experience, parents do not realise that starting year 5 after a long summer without repetitive consolidation can really set a child back.

Year 5 and 6 is when focus is needed and by this stage, you need to be clear of the schools you are targeting. The earlier you know this, the more specific preparation can happen and at this stage every mark counts. Build up your child’s confidence first before firing exam papers at them. At VAKS, we begin preparation of papers at the end of the spring term when children have built the skill set and confidence required. The autumn term of year 6 is when it steps up a gear and mock exams as well as paper practise could be introduced over the Christmas holidays.


Nearly all entrance exams require you child to sit an English paper split into two parts; Comprehension and Composition. There is not nearly enough specific teaching geared towards these exams in schools and a child’s comprehensive skills will not be up to standard even if they particularly good at English. Encouraging reading is definitely worthwhile as it broadens a child’s vocabulary and compliments Creative Writing. Comprehension demands a child knows where the marks are and how to gain them. Children must understand reading a Comprehension is very different to normal reading. The examiner is looking for the child’s understanding of the passage’s and its plot as this is imperative to the chance of success. Thinking about the feelings and intent of characters and articulating this is something children aren’t always ready to do before 11 plus. Grasping the feelings of characters, the mood of the passage, language devices and the author’s intent is a must. Unlike a book where sometimes concentration can be briefly lost, it’s vital you are focused on a Comprehensive text from start to end. This will ensure you have the necessary understanding of: the main characters, the location, setting and time, the obstacles and challenges there may be and if it’s written in first or third person. The passage will contain all the answers and evidence needed; it is simply a case of finding it.

At VAKS, we begin exam paper practise in the Easter Holiday of Year 5, but rather than focusing on quantity, it is more about the quality of what is written and analysing your child’s response to improve their ability. Once they have a solid grip on how to read a comprehension, then they can begin practising speed and timing.

We use our own particular technique for Comprehensions when reading under pressure. A structured method is really important. We recommend:
• Begin by quickly scanning the text and underlining key words, characters and any information about context.
• Turn to the question pages and scan to see exactly what they are asking for.
• Go back to the text and read over to gain a greater insight.
• Begin answering questions and if you have any spare time at the time, read over your longest answers to correct spelling and punctuation mistakes.

VAKS believe some of the best rules to follow when answering questions include:
• Devote most time to the highest mark answers
• Use as much evidence from the text as possible to back up your answers especially when it is a compare/contrast question
• Ensure you read the question properly and do not subconsciously answer a different question
• Attempt all questions
• Make sure you do not miss sections as sometimes there may be more than one
• Make sure you have an excellent knowledge of language techniques such as alliteration, metaphors, short sentences, rhythmic words, strong comparisons and adjectives as they are always relevant

The majority of 11 plus independent schools usually have a creative writing section where questions can take different types of forms; either continue this passage, a choice of different titles to allow some freedom, write a story inspired by a certain image as well as a non-fiction option. It is important your child understands which types of questions give you the best advantage; the ‘continue the passage’ below questions should be grabbed with both hands as they have already supplied your child with a passage full of characters and a plot. Creating a story from an image is also a good one as it at least provides immediate inspiration.


The Maths exam is the paper along with the Non-Verbal paper, which is looked at more closely. As the exams are based on the national curriculum, schools highlight it is around KS2 level 6 which your child must be attaining for this exam. Maths is very much about confidence and it is after January in Year 5, that the hard work really needs to be put in to ensure your child is a confident mathematician. Before completing the bond books, it is important to identify your child’s gaps and improving the foundations. If their KS2 foundations are solid, it will be much easier when facing tricky questions. Maths questions in 11 plus papers have multi-layers and require the same methodology as many GCSE questions. However, KS2 teaching does not allow for this. VAKS teaching will spend more time building maths skills above anything else. This is because many schools will eliminate large numbers of children based on their mathematical ability and their Non-Verbal Reasoning technique. We’ve found websites like KS2 Bitesize and Mathletics are great for providing revision for a range of topics. Key areas should be learned to a high level including time, measurement, factors, square numbers, area and volume, ratio, symmetry, probability, basic algebra and BODMAS.


The Verbal reasoning exam can often differ depending on the school; it can be a multiple choice or standard layout where options are given and the answer is needed. This exam like most, usually lasts between 45 minutes to an hour but timing isn’t necessary early on; getting used to the nature of the exam is more useful. Reading is a great way of preparing for this exam, newspapers and magazines expand their vocabulary and crosswords/word searches improve spelling. The types of questions usually include pairing words, combining two words to make one new, finding words hidden in a sentence etc. Further guidance can be found in the Bond How to do Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning guide books. Our parents have found these very helpful, informative and easy to follow.

The Non-Verbal reasoning is regarded as the test, which indicates your child’s natural ability and potential most clearly. It is often used by Educational Psychologists to ascertain a child’s IQ and working memory. VAKS Founder, Martina Barrett believes that it is very difficult to teach this. ‘Children with strong maths ability will invariably find Non-Verbal much easier.’ Similarly to VR tests, the exam will usually include multiple choices. The main topics, which occur in most NVR tests, includes identifying shapes, understanding patterns, 3d shapes, rotation of shapes and codes. There are several books out there, which can help your child including the bond books, GL Assessment etc.


We’ve found boys and girls do differ in their approach and how they instinctively tackle 11 plus. Although each child is different and these are generalisations, in our experience at VAKS, gender does have an impact.

Boys seem to work better little and often doing exercises such as 10 minute tests in the Bond books or a quarter a of past paper in 10 minutes each day. This is also true for girls however they can focus for longer in general so at weekends, a longer task or whole practise paper could be useful. For both boys and girls, ensure they continue to do things they like and do not swap their favourite sport practise for 11 plus practise. Boys thrive on a challenge and responsibility so getting them to mark their own work can be great for emphasising their strengths and weaknesses directly. We have found girls can be mature enough to understand the areas they must focus on and have control of how they designate their time. However, it is vital the girls continue to have positive reinforcement as they lack confidence and can become very anxious. Boys usually are much less verbal about their anxiety so be vigilant of their body language and manner as this can be an indication.


With serious preparation needing to start by January of Year 5, you and your child must be motivated and confident throughout the period. A good approach to take is to focus on the rewarding of effort your child has put in rather than the result. Whether the desired school is achieved, or an alternative is found, the journey there is worthwhile and rewarding. Your child’s learning ability will excel and inevitably they will have surpassed the standardised level for year 7 merely by completely the 11 plus process. Our mantra at VAKS is that ‘all preparation is key to the child’s overall success and confidence in entering year 7’. No time spent during 11 plus is wasted. Every hour of tuition and homework will pay dividends.

Going to visit potential schools can be a great way of inspiring your child, however we would suggest you visit a variety including grammar, state and private as fixating on one particular school is unhealthy. We believe small amounts regularly are much better than long intense study periods as this can lead to de-motivation. VAKS believes it must be fun and worthwhile otherwise any child, regardless of their ability will lose motivation and momentum. Praise, little and often is invaluable as confidence is key for any child going through 11 plus.

It’s important for your child to understand mistakes are perfectly acceptable; development involves making mistakes and learning from these. They are working at a level beyond many of their peers and above the majority of children their age in the country so reinforcing they cannot always get the answers immediately is important.


After the excitement and relief of your child passing the exam stage, there is just one final hurdle they must tackle; the interview. Most interviews last about 15 minutes and although each school is slightly different, the general conversation will include questions such as what your child’s favourite sport or hobby, their favourite book, film, subject or if they play a musical instrument. Each school’s approach is different; some use images as a starting point, ask general knowledge questions or a quick mental maths question. However, these aren’t to catch your child out but to assess how your child copes under pressure in social situations.

We believe a great way of preparing is to improve their knowledge of the world; for instance, watching Newsround every evening. Visiting open days and knowing what you liked as well as further research of the school are also useful for preparation. If at the end of the interview, your child is asked if they have any questions, mature questions could be what sports are on offer or can I learn a musical instrument etc.


Most schools award a scholarship for academic achievement however there is also the possibility of being awarded one due to a particular talent in sport, art, drama or music. Before gaining one, you may be asked to sit an exam or submit recent work. A bursary is slightly different in that it is based on need; you must submit a years worth of family accounts and fill in a detailed questionnaire on your financial state. Although it can seem very personal and invasive, it can make a real difference. Your child will still need to go through the process of taking the exams and interviews but afterwards they will decide if you qualify for any bursary support; whether this is a small amount or 100% in some rare occasions.

For more information on our 11 Plus Tuition visit:

Knowing your child’s exam board can be of important use, and we don’t mean when choosing between the 20 different types of revision guides in the bookshop.

There are five main examination boards that your child can be placed on: AQA, OCR, Edexcel, WJEC, and CCEA. The question is – what does my child’s grades really mean if the exam boards are different? An A may be easier to achieve on one exam board rather than another, so are both A’s? What, then, does make an A?

VAKS will start with a breakdown of the exam boards so you can understand the difference.

AQA: The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance. AQA is the UK’s largest exam board; over 3.5 million exams are taken by students with AQA every year, while AQA awards 42% of A-levels and 49% of full GCSE courses. AQA is also an education charity and merged a combination of examination boards in 2000; it is taught in 44 countries.

OCR: Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations. The non-profit group was created in 1998 when Cambridge Assessment Group (formally known as The University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES), which was founded in 1858; also operates in 150+ countries and is Europe’s largest assessment agency) merged with RSA Examinations Board. OCR is one of the three leading awarding bodies in the UK, and private school pupils sit 10% of OCR’s exams.

EDEXCEL: Name derived from ‘educational excellence’. Edexcel is the UK’s only privately owned exam board, and was established in 1996 after the merging of the University of London Examinations and Assessment Council (ULEAC) and the Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC). In 2005 Pearson took control, and Edexcel’s examinations are suitable for students aged between 14 and 19, while 8.2 million exam scripts are managed in over 85 countries.

WJEC: Welsh Joint Education Committee. The Welsh exam board is a charity that was founded in 1948. WJEC was traditionally taught in Welsh schools; however, their syllabus is now studied by many English schools (more than 5,000 compared to less than 500 in Wales).

CCEA: Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment. CCEA is Northern Irelands awarding exam body which originated in 1994. CCEA is recognised as a state body and guides the government regarding the content taught in Northern Ireland’s schools.

Why is it important to know my child’s exam board?

It is no secret that variation exists between the different examination boards – this can include the style of questions, the content included, and the difficulty level of the paper. Although there isn’t anything to worry too much over (all exam boards are subjected to rigorous processes to ensure standardisation) it is important to still be aware of these differences.

In the recent 2017 GCSE exams, for students sitting the new higher maths paper, they only had to achieve 18% to pass, which is a 4 (this is comparable to the old C). This meant that students had to successfully answer less than a fifth of the papers marks. To achieve an A, which is now equivalent to a 7; students had to score 52% in the exam.

In 2016 the marks were slightly different, and you needed to get close to 40% in order to pass. This year, standard passes were being given out by one exam board to students who achieved just 15%!

The English and maths exams have increased in difficulty and were dubbed by experts to be the hardest exams since the 1980’s O Levels. However, the pass mark has been lowered so considerably that critics such as Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, have regarded it as “more or less giving away the grade.”

Even though the pass marks have been lowered, the proportion of students achieving at least an A grade (or 7) decreased to 20% with a drop of 0.5%. This, however, makes 2017 the lowest year since 2007, and marks it as the sixth year of decreasing levels, while achieving a C (or 4) grade is at its lowest since 2008, dropping 0.6% since 2016, which is now at 66.3%.

Let’s have a look at what each exam board gave out for this new higher tier maths paper.

AQA: Pass (Grade 4) 2017 = 19.2% of marks 2016 = 53.4% of marks

OCR: Pass (Grade 4) 2017 = 15.3% of marks 2016 = 30.5% of marks

Edexcel: Pass (Grade 4) 2017 = 17% of marks 2016 = 35% of marks

You can see that there is quite a difference in exam boundary markings between the examination boards. Although one exam board’s pass markings may be lower than another, it is also crucial to consider that you cannot find the ‘easiest’ exam board, as each exam board adjusts their grade boundaries depending on how hard or easy the paper was. OCR has been known for their slightly more difficult examinations (they had to rewrite their GCSE maths paper and withdraw their new language A-levels), and in 2016, Greenhead College students left an OCR maths exam in tears due to the paper’s challenges. However, we can see here that OCR has the lowest pass rate for the maths higher exam, so it really differs from paper to paper.

The teacher and the school can choose what exam board to follow based on the classes’ needs and the teacher’s interests. Conversely, teachers can overestimate the power of certain questions, as research portrays that teachers underestimate multiple choice questions difficulty, while open-ended questions can be easier to tackle than first thought. There is also evidence portraying that teachers have ‘played the system’ by selecting examination boards on the easiness of their questions.

VAKS has given you three important reasons to know your child’s exam board:

1. Help revise the appropriate syllabus -> Knowing your child’s exam board can help your child’s learning process. If your child was studying for an AQA geography exam then you could go on the AQA website, look at the subject content, lesson plans and exam criteria, and know exactly what is expected of your child. By looking at the requirements that your child is expected to follow, and the content that they must learn, it can help you, help your child, in their learning. This can include revising appropriate syllabus content as well as helping prepare exam content – for instance, Edexcel commonly includes multiple choice questions, so if you know your child is about to sit an Edexcel paper, then it would be useful to help practice those style of questions, while OCR focuses on more context-based ones.

2. Find the right revision material-> It can end up being another excuse not to revise: you get back from the bookshop and realise you’ve bought the wrong revision guide. You bought the right AQA English and Edexcel maths book, but you thought the science was AQA as well, or did they say OCR? They are always on their phone, why won’t they answer it now?! Knowing your child’s exam board from the get-go means you can help your child with organisation during this busy and stressful period. Buy the exam books in advance, and go on the appropriate examination websites to print out those exam papers and have them sitting on the desk for when they arrive home!

3. Influence course decisions-> When changing schools, or picking A-Level modules, it can be useful to check what exam boards the subjects fall under. If your child is thinking of completing their A-levels at a new location or are considering moving to a Sixth Form College, then looking at the different exam boards may help. In one academic institute they may have OCR history, and in another, have AQA history, and the content taught can differ. Researching what examination board your subject has, and what is taught, can help your decision when choosing between institutes.

If you need any extra guidance or are interested in learning more about our tutoring service then call VAKS on 0800 404 8172 or email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

‘Is the pen licence helping or hindering my child’s learning?’ is a question that we should all stop for a second and think about.

Angela Webb, chair of the National Handwriting Association said, “Despite the increase in digital technology, handwriting is still an essential skill, not only for presentation reasons, but also because of the benefits to a child’s cognitive development.”

This is very true. However, we have to look at the bigger picture – Is more emphasis being placed on the scripture of the words rather than the actual content? What kind of emotional and social impact is this licence causing to my child? What about the gender divide? Or the children who are already struggling with handwriting, such as dyslexic and dyspraxic students, who may feel inferior?

For those of you whose children have managed to slip past the licence, VAKS will give you a quick run-down. The pen licence is a privilege that students earn for showing a certain level of proficiency when writing with pencil, but this freedom can be taken away if the writing regresses.

The pen licence was introduced as part of the new curriculum change in 2014, which also included learning fractions by five, 12 times table by the age of 9 and joined-up handwriting by seven in a bid to enable students to produce ‘fluent, legible, and, eventually, speedy handwriting.’ The old National Curriculum did not mention any penmanship, and students managed to academically succeed before the pen licence was announced, so why the sudden need for the warden-like authority over some ink?

According to former Prime Minister David Cameron, it was “rigorous, engaging and tough”, and was enacted to keep the same pace as the rest of the world. The pen licence also strove to increase the handwriting standard of Britain and generate ‘healthy’ competition in the classroom. However, if this licence was introduced to keep up with the rest of the world, then why has America never heard of this ‘pen licence’? And why did Finland, who is known for having one of the best education systems in the world, recently get rid of handwriting classes in favour of typing ones?

In 2016, Finland’s move to phase out cursive handwriting classes in exchange for keyboard typing sparked debate about the future of handwriting lessons. Finnish children do not start primary school until the age of seven, yet this is the age that British students are supposed to be working towards their licence. Instead of trying to compete against other countries, why not understand what will most benefit the child to improve their learning?

Dr Misty Adonious, Senior Lecturer in Language Literacy at the University of Canberra, explained that whilst handwriting was important to teach, cursive writing has become outdated, “The research shows us that a child will have a better concept and better memory for what a letter is and what it represents if they actually handwrite it ... [but] the argument is really against those pages of cursive, joined-up writing exercises which, in the end actually don't change many people's handwriting styles.”

What damage is this pen licence actually doing?

For us, a pen is what could be one of a 10 multipack that you can buy in a supermarket. For students, that piece of plastic can hold a lot of emotional and social meaning in the classroom.

The opposition to the pen licence shows that this handwriting issue is on a few people’s minds. Kevin Courtney, the National Union of Teachers’ deputy leader, noted how it was a curriculum that was written by government advisers and officials, not teachers.

The ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) survey revealed that a large 90 percent of teachers regarded the Department for Education’s approaches to the changes to be either “chaotic” or “flawed” and that the Department had not properly considered the teachers’ views.

Let’s have a look at what damaging effect the pen licence is actually having.


-> How would you feel if all of your co-workers received coffee in the morning, but you didn’t because you couldn’t get your letters to loop? Receiving the pen licence is like a ‘rite of passage’ and a step closer to adulthood, and many students feel left out for not being allowed to make that ‘step’. Some children will rush home from school, excited about their new found freedom, while others will dread the next day of class, where they will be made to feel different (physically as well, the rest of the class has a pen in front of them, and the other student doesn’t). Then there’s the feeling of non-acceptance when all of your friends have the pen licence, and you don’t – Why am I not good enough? Why do they have it but I don’t? Imagine how the last child in the class must feel to be the only student who has not received their pen licence, the feeling of being left out, and humiliated - it’s not worth the joined-up swirls, and it can make the student feel like their peers are ‘better’ than them. Being forced to write in cursive at such a young age can also trigger negative emotions towards writing in this style, and actually push the student, in the future, to write with handwriting that is not joined up. Some students may feel that they have to ‘illegally’ use the pen if they wish to do so but were not granted the licence; and it can cause unnecessary added stress and pressure for the child. It can even cause them to panic when they cannot get it right, especially for those who struggle with their motor skills.


-> The pen licence is not only causing permanent lines on paper but is causing permanent effects in the classroom; a gender divide. Boys are seen to be achieving the pen licence at a much slower rate than girls, but this is due to the fact that girl’s fine motor skills, such as holding a pencil and writing, improve before boys. This does not mean that one is better than the other – both will develop these crucial skills but at different rates, yet boys are made to feel that they are in the wrong for not earning the pen licence, even though they are developing these handwriting skills more slowly. This social divide in the early years of the classroom that is created between boys and girls due to the pen licence can carry on in further years. The social structure of the class can change, and this can transform a child’s view of the classroom.


-> We also have to think about the physical struggle it can be for some students to try and gain this licence. It can hurt to hold a pencil during prolonged writing tasks and can feel uncomfortable for them to write in this manner. This will, in turn, take longer, and result in less time spent on the actual exercise that will contribute to their learning. It has been shown that during writing time the misbehaviour of the student’s increases, and in turn, the focus then shifts from the writing process to trying to manage the engagement of the children in the room. This makes the pen licence pointless as the children are misbehaving and not engaging with it, while the students who are working well are not receiving the attention. Kids are so eager to get the licence that they rush the skill and produce barely legible joined-up that kind of passes as cursive handwriting. They then take nothing from the skill, and soon after return to their previous writing style.

How is the pen licence rule affecting dyslexic and dyspraxic students?

According to Dyslexia Action, an estimated 1 in 10 of the population has dyslexia. However, 74% of teachers felt that their initial training did not provide them with satisfactory skills to help students struggling with writing and reading. Combine that with 1 in 5 children who leave primary school with writing, reading and mathematics that has not reached the expected national Level 4.

Dyslexia and dyspraxia can often cause children to have poor word and line spacing, illegible handwriting, awkward or cramped pencil grip and poor spelling. They can also face disorganisation and have strong verbal skills but trouble communicating ideas in writing. This means that these students are already specifically struggling in this field and are forced to struggle even more with the pen licence. Is this fair? Instead of extra support being provided for these students, there is extra pressure, and additional worry. A dyslexic student may never be able to master the perfect cursive writing, but that does not mean they should be made to feel inadequate for the rest of their schooling years.

How is this pen licence tailoring to the student’s individual needs when it is forcing students to all write the same? What is the point in having an army of joined-up hand writers who spend more time concentrating on the writing than the actual content? Is it even necessary in this day and age, where Generation Z and Alpha have a plethora of technology that they can use to converse?

Here at VAKS we do, however, understand the importance of practising the skill of handwriting. It can improve the spelling and reading abilities of the child, while helping with the confusion of letters, as well as being a useful tool to put thought to paper, especially in the working world. We feel that it is useful to practice neat, legible handwriting but that there should be a few adjustments. There should be more emphasis placed on the content, and the individual needs of the child, rather than the perfection of the joined-up letters. Also, more leeway should be allowed, especially if the child is facing learning difficulties, and the pen licence should not be taken away when gained.

That’s why we have teamed together to make our own VAKS hand writing certificate to ensure your child does not feel left out when they are trying their best!

If you are interested in learning more about how our tutoring service can help your child then call VAKS on 0800 404 8172 or email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Monday, 09 October 2017

Reluctant Readers

Reluctant Readers

Some children love books and take to reading like a duckling to water. Most however, are not so enthusiastic and some shun the whole experience entirely.

Reading is an essential skill so it is imperative that children learn to read yet, like learning any skill, reading requires practice. If not approached correctly reading “practice” can quickly become a boring bit of the day and the reluctant reader will disengage from learning.

How Can I Help?

At the moment you are probably sitting there, scratching your head, thinking “How can I read more with my reluctant reader whilst at the same time not pressuring them into reading and turning reading into a chore?”

The answer is quite simple – make it part of your daily routine. Children are so receptive to learning that they learn from repetition and copying as much, if not more, than they learn from formally being taught new skills.

DO Try This At Home

Share a book at bedtime or some other relaxed time of the day. It doesn't have to be a long book. Allow your child to choose one that they are interested in. You might be bored stiff at the thought of reading another book about how cars work, but if your child is enthused by cars they will be more inclined to work towards being able to read about them than if they are reading a book, chosen by an adult, that doesn't inspire them.

Let your child watch TV – but turn on the subtitles. Repeated words – for example names and catchphrases – will begin to sink in. This stimulates matching phonemes to graphemes (sounds to words).

When you go shopping read out all the signs on aisles and labels on packets. If your child wants, let them tick items off the shopping list. You can even turn it into a game by splitting the list and seeing who ticks everything off their half first.

Be positive (even if you don't feel positive). When you are listening to your child read make sure to praise all their attempts. Set aside enough time that you aren't clock-watching and avoid saying things like “I know you can do this” or “you've done this before”. Learning isn't a linear process so sometimes your child could do something yesterday that they are finding hard today. Instead, reiterate what they need to be able to succeed e.g. “that looks like an apple so it must be the letter…..a”

How VAKS Encourages Reluctant Readers

Here at VAKS we use Ruth Miskin Phonics to promote a multi-sensory approach to learning. By using small group teaching we can guide every child through their individual learning journey as they progress through our literacy programme.

There's only so much that we can do in a single session and to maximise the benefits it is essential that your child reads – or is exposed to reading – as much as possible at home.

For more information Click Here

Wednesday, 11 January 2017



Year 11 pupils sitting exams in 2017 will be the first to be examined under the new 9-1 course for most subjects. How will this affect your child?

The MOCK exams are over and many pupils feel that they have not reached the expected grade. Tensions are running high and pupils are feeling more anxious than ever before trying to cram in enough revision before May whilst still not having learned all of the curriculum content.

DO NOT WORRY…… VAKS revision courses and weekly tuition are designed to support pupils from January right through until the Summer exams.

The new grade boundaries mean that it is harder than ever to reach the grades. This has been a huge change for teachers to manage and unfortunately it is the students who have felt the stress of these changes. VAKS had already planned in 2016 for these intended curriculum changes and our students have been supported throughout year 10 and year 11 to ensure that they have covered the core changes within each subject.


  • Begin by making a timetable- this will organise the remaining weeks and give students realistic goals to work towards
  • Don’t avoid the workload-it won’t go away and will lead to further stress!
  • Refine your learning- assess the gaps in by doing past papers.
  • Eliminate distractions. Don’t think that you can study with a device in your working space. It is a constant source of distraction.
  • Reward yourself- When you know that you have worked for a sustained period of time, do something enjoyable that will help you to relax.
  • Eat well and Get enough sleep- This is crucial!


Working through past papers and marking them every week is VITAL. This is the number one reason why GCSE pupils who attend VAKS centres do so well in their exams. Without working through papers, the student and teacher CAN NOT assess exactly where strengths and weaknesses lie. The students who take OWNERSHIP of this and spend time marking their paper are INFORMED and IN CONTROL of their learning At VAKS we help them to reach this crucial point in their learning. It is natural for pupils to feel that they do not yet feel ready to do papers as they have not yet learned all the content. In fact, THE OPPOSITE is true. IT CAN BUILD CONFIDENCE.


Our teachers find that the greatest difficulty facing GCSE pupils is that they are not organised with their learning timetable and are unable to work consistently through their revision. This is due to many reasons:

Teachers at school do not teach pupils how to actually revise and learn. At VAKS we teach this as part of our weekly programme. LEARNING HOW TO LEARN and to spend time working effectively is crucial during the GCSE journey.

For parents and pupils this is a minefield. For some guidance on how to download past papers and organise them efficiently call one of our GCSE mums for their advice on 0800 404 8172 or email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


For information about our weekly tuition or our revision courses:
Click Here

Tuesday, 02 August 2016


The effect of these changes will be to make English more demanding. Students will need to be much better prepared. To do well they will need strong skills in writing, in language analysis and in understanding poetry and literature texts.

Our experience at VAKS shows that students who receive on-going tuition over the whole GCSE course, from the beginning of Year 10 through to the examinations at the end of Year 11, have a much better chance of success. The weaker a student’s present skills are, the more this long-term on-going support is needed. Students who start early develop the strongest foundation: they can face the examinations with confidence and with the skills to succeed.

FREE Educational Assessment

So that you can be sure VAKS is right for you and your child, a free assessment is available with no obligation to continue.
Click Here to find out more

Some information about the bringing forward of 2016 GCSE and A-level examiniations.
How can we improve grades dramatically in such a short space of time?
4 very simple pieces of advice that will help your child overcome procrastination.
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