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I’ve finally got some discipline in my life. The trigger for it was going to Oxford University for the National Centre for Research Methods, Research Methods Festival. I have been to Oxford University for a conference before so was slightly aware of their dining room and communal eating but I thought that this excellent service was for delegates only, you know, people serving you swiftly and efficiently, promptly at the allocated meal times – I thought the students would have some sort of regular canteen type situation with a dinner lady and stodgy food. But I found out that actually, Oxford (and Cambridge) students get fed and served like this everyday – by staff in bow-ties!

I was very shocked. ‘Normal’ students have to plan their food, budget, think about what to cook, use crappy saucepans and fight with their room mates who never do their share of the cleaning. All this eats up time and causes stress.

I lived at home during my BA and MA so did not have to suffer this stress with strangers, but I did not get served by my parents. We always lived communally where we all contributed and my dad never wore a bow-tie. Anyway, my point is that although at first I was shocked that this is normal and every day (oh how the other half live), I came from the conference refreshed, feeling healthy (the fruit was delicious!) and suddenly had become a early to bed early to rise person. It helped me get into a healthy routine.

My thesis is broadly speaking about widening participation, these elite universities for me were something to be hated and despised. But having now experienced this ‘boarding school for adults’, I think that all students, especially those who have to work, have children, live in crowded housing or noisy neighbourhoods, whilst trying to study, should be sponsored to spend six weeks (or months) in Oxford University as a respite and to have the opportunity to spend uninterrupted time on intellectual thoughts rather than chore thoughts or have no thoughts due to dragging through the day after sleepless nights spent in a noisy neighbourhood.

Oxbridge students could also have an exchange and live life in a ‘normal’ university for a bit too. I do understand that there are Oxbridge students who have lived in ‘the real world’, and realise I often exhibit probably unfair prejudice towards people educated in elite institutions, but for those privately educated young people who need this safe, protective environment as they have lived like this since aged 5 and Oxbridge for them therefore is a continuation of this boarding school environment, a university cultural exchange may be beneficial. Especially if Oxford graduates are our leaders and education ministers of the future.

I know of someone (@KathrynDodd) who once suggested to me that Oxford and Cambridge should become a university for postgraduates only. After experiencing this environment, I think it is a marvelous idea. I don’t see anything wrong with having this boarding school type of university like Oxford and Cambridge per se (so long as all the staff have good pay and benefits), but it should be available to a wider group of people, and perhaps making it a postgraduate initiative is the answer.

Just so you can get a feel for the atmosphere there, here is the view from my bedroom window.

View from Oxford

Punting along

Until I moved out and now have the luxury of my own study, I did my degree and MA in an overcrowded flat, sharing a bedroom with my sisters and studying in the hallway, where I would get visits from my family as they used the toilet (as well as previously studying for my GCSEs and A levels in the watertank cupboard). I do work best now if I hear toilets flushing, farting, water running and the neighbours stabbing each other, and I would not change the experience I had as it’s made me as hard as nails and no sociologist should live in an ivory tower, but I reckon looking at ducks whilst thinking philosophical thoughts would have been pretty good too. Just as a respite.

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In 1996 I was a school girl studying for my GCSEs. My older sister who was two years older had left school with below a C grade in Maths. She had to retake at sixth-form college but ended up with a lower grade than her first attempt and on her final retake scored ‘Ungraded’. The reason for this decline in motivation and increased boredom I witnessed with each retake was a bit of a worry for me as I didn’t want to go through this.

So I set myself up a little revision room in the watertank cupboard at home (it was the only ‘spare room’ we had). I had a desk, a chair, a radio/cassette player and made a detailed colour coded GCSE revision timetable. As you tend to do about 10 GCSE exams at the same time I had to prioritise time spent on subjects. So maths got top priority, marked in yellow. I worked hard revising for a couple of months and despite the watertank being hot and noisy, especially at bath times, my revision schedule worked a treat and I got a C!

Now that I have elected to do Advanced Quantitative Methods as part of my PhD I have to revisit some GCSE maths as I feel that I have lept right into a whole advanced world before I have mastered the basics. This became very obvious to me last week when in our statistics class, the lecturer said ‘now here is a quick recap on logit which you would have done at school’. There is NO WAY I did this at school.   This logit business is just for the people in the advanced sets who used scientific calculators and not something we lower sets would have been burdened with. But the fact that the lecturer assumed that we had all done this before made me realise that it must be quite unusual for someone from the lower sets to even think about trying out Advanced Quantitative Methods in their future lives.

However, I am a firm believer that your GCSE grades don’t really reflect much – they reflect how good your teacher was, whether or not an annoying boy pulled at your hair all lesson, as well as how much you revised in the watertank cupboard in the summer of 1996, but they don’t reflect current and future potential to learn.

So in the spirit of my PhD topic which is about lifelong learning, I would say do not let your past experiences of school maths stop you from learning now – start off by using the marvellous online tutorials which of course did not exist back in 1996, such as the Khan Academy (especially the algebra stuff which is essential for regression statistics). And if you quite liked the old maths book you used in the past, you might be lucky to find it in the IOE library which has a collection of ‘retro’ GCSE textbooks. I found my old watertank cupboard friends:

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Retro maths books: Let’s convert those francs to pounds!

(c) 2014 Annika Coughlin

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