Is it worth getting a master's degree? - By Tommy Cookson(23 Jan 2013)

Q I am an English literature student and, as a second year, I am now coming to terms with the fact that it is a little too late to turn back now. I love my course, but I do not wish to pursue an academic career. A lot of the graduate schemes I am looking into do not require professional qualifications; however, they attract a number of postgraduate-degree-holding applicants, as well as mere BA students such as myself. Would it really be worth my while in terms of time and money to add a few extra strings to my bow with a Masters in a non-literature-related subject, or should I present myself to firms as young, malleable and eager to learn about the industry through first-hand experience?

FP, Cambridge

A I’d go the young, malleable and eager-to-learn route. You haven’t yet mapped out a career path or even decided what you want to do. What you need is some direct experience to help you decide. I wouldn’t even wait until you graduate: do some work experience at the end of your second year at university and, if possible, get involved in running something at university. It might also be a good idea to arrange an internship after you graduate, too. With all this, you and prospective employers will be able to judge what other qualities you’ve got beside brains.

I can see the attraction of a Masters qualification. The economic downturn, plus the perceived devaluing of first degrees (owing to the recent increase in the number of firsts and the award of 2:1s to half of all candidates) have led to a rise in the numbers of graduates taking second degrees. They hope that by the time they have finished they’ll be able to enter a resurgent market with more distinguished CVs.

Prospective employers will take notice of a second degree that forms part of a coherent career strategy; but at present you haven’t got a strategy. So save the time and the money you’d spend on a master’s degree until you are quite clear what you want to do and what purpose it would serve.

Q My daughter is at nursery school but of course we are already trying to work out how best to plan her education beyond that, and how to match up our aspirations with our budget. My head is spinning already but I wonder if you could help clarify one thing at least, and that is the difference between free schools and academies, and what they offer by comparison with other set-ups.

JG, London

A The 2,300 academies are all-ability independent state schools. About a quarter are privately sponsored, sometimes as single schools, sometimes as chains of several schools. Initially they replaced failing schools; now successful schools actually apply to become academies in order to gain financial benefits and a greater degree of independence.

There are about 80 free schools. They are essentially academies, but they don’t replace existing schools as academies do. They are set up in response to parental demand after surviving rigorous government assessment. They tend to be located in large cities where there is a shortage of good schools. As they are new, it’s impossible to say how successful they will be.

Academies have been going for about 10 years. Their recent massive growth in numbers testifies to the success of many of them in improving results, attendance and competition for places. A lot have dynamic and ambitious management; sixth forms and ambitious teachers; above all, high aspirations for their pupils. They could be the answer to the nation’s prayers.

But don’t judge by the system. Do what you would always do before you decide: look at the strength and breadth of the curriculum; at the results; at the number and quality of extra-curricular activities; at the quality of the head and teachers – and find out what existing parents say about the school.

Q My daughter is in the middle of her GCSE mocks and I’m worried by how stressed she gets the night before each exam. She sits up late with her last-minute revision and then finds it hard to get to sleep. She has admitted that she nodded off while looking over her answers at the end of one of the exams she has already taken, and while it is clearly too late to remedy this problem for the rest of her mocks, it is a big concern for the GCSEs themselves. She has worked hard in general over the past few years and her teachers predict good grades, but I worry that nerves could become her Achilles’ heel. How do we get her to relax a bit without switching off altogether?

RB, Manchester

A The short answer is immediately to stop her working late (say, after 9pm). If she gets into the habit of working late, she’ll find it hard to break it when the GCSEs come around. You should discuss all this with her now while she remembers the consequences of working late before the mocks. Tell her that any last-minute revision is better done on the morning of the exam when her mind is fresh.

A longer answer is that, like many good candidates, she lacks confidence. Get her to focus on what she did well in her mocks so that she sees herself as the strong candidate she is. Where her results were disappointing, get her to see what her weaknesses are and to give them priority in revision so that she stops worrying about them. This is easier said than done. Exploring one’s ignorance is a horrid feeling. But it’s the point of revision: as the word suggests, you get to see things afresh and to make connections you missed before.

Finally, she should make a revision plan which doesn’t make unrealistic demands. For instance, no day’s revision in the holidays should exceed a morning’s concentrated work. The rest of the day should be given over to other things, such as exercise and relaxation. Some schools ban exam candidates from team sports or performing in concerts, for instance. This is misguided and leads to exam obsession and poor work. As far as possible, she should take her exams in her stride.

Tommy Cookson has been Headmaster of Winchester College, Sevenoaks School and King Edward VI, Southampton. Send your questions to