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In a piece written for the Association of Colleges conference, Gemma Gathercole, OCR’s Head of Policy (FE and Funding) considers the challenges facing post-16 English and maths.
In the education world, we like a good debate; however, there are very few debates about whether a learner having a good grasp of English and maths is a desirable outcome. English and maths have been proven to provide good positive impact on future learning and earnings potential.
But there are debates that we come back to – do we need a specific qualification level of English and maths or do we need functionally literate and numerate individuals? Are these questions the same or mutually exclusive? In a recent survey of 500 employers that we commissioned with charity Think Global, 94% of respondents said that literacy and numeracy skills were important (with 71% saying very important). So these are questions that we need to address.
Schools understandably focus on GCSE achievement in English and maths, and with the weighting these two subjects are given in performance tables, the focus on these subjects is more profound than ever. But there are some warning bells on the horizon. In describing the new reformed GCSEs in these subjects, ministers and DfE officials often call them ‘more rigorous’. And with the Secretary of State confirming that a ‘good pass’ for the reformed GCSEs is a grade 5 in the new 9-1 grading scale, the new maths and English GCSEs just got harder to pass. The current grade C straddles the lower part of a grade 5 and the upper part of grade 4. In simple terms that means a group of people who would have got a C under the current system will get a 4, or a 'fail' (not a good pass?) under the new system.
Only when the results of the first assessments are published will we start to get a true picture of this impact, but some crude estimations have been made of how many people will fail to achieve that ‘good pass’ in summer 2017. These estimates are somewhere in the region of 15-20%. While these figures may prove to be on the high side and even with various support resources being made available to support the introduction of new GCSEs, it is still likely that there will be some turbulence in results.
This means that come autumn 2017, there are likely to be a greater number of 16 year olds needing to continue with their English and maths studies in post-16 institutions. However, ‘if you do what you’ve always done, then you get what you’ve always got’. If a learner didn’t get a ‘good pass’ at GCSE on the first attempt - and the only intervention they receive is the same style and format of teaching that didn’t work for them before - it’s unlikely that they will progress.
It is a difficult task taking young people, who are probably disengaged from learning English and maths because they have ‘failed’ at school, and getting them to the level they need. And we know the policy seems to be ever-changing. However, in the first year of the funding condition, the EFA reported that 97% of 16 to 19 year olds without GCSE A*-C English and/or maths attending an FE institution continued their study of these subjects. So despite a continuing reported shortage of English and maths teachers, evidence suggests that the sector is delivering.
In a few different places I’ve asked employers whether they use GCSE English and maths A*-C in their recruitment practices as a filtering tool. The most typical response is yes. But when I ask a further question about the extent to which they know what’s in the GCSE, very few have an understanding of the content.
You may have read an article from me before calling for an alternative adult GCSE. We also know that Ofsted has started looking at contextualised delivery of English and maths within learners’ programmes. Our proposed alternative would support contextualised delivery. A contextualised approach is one we strongly advocate. And perhaps the ability to contextualise delivery of English and maths would allow us to avoid that perfect storm.