In a blog published in today’s FE Week, Gemma Gathercole, OCR’s Head of Policy (FE and Funding) considers whether we have got the correct equation for English and maths in our schools and colleges – a question we posed at this year’s political party conferences.
Students returning for a new term after a long summer break; the leaves changing colour; days getting shorter – all images that might conjure up autumn. Over the last few weeks, another annual tradition has been playing out in Bournemouth, Brighton and Manchester – party conference season.
While party conferences may feel like a relatively standard party of the annual cycle, this year's conferences have felt a bit different. At the Labour conference, in the sunshine in Brighton, there was a party seeing for the first time its newly elected leader and his new shadow cabinet. While at the Conservative conference, there was a mood of celebration as the party assembled for its first conference as a single party majority government for the better part of two decades. Post an unexpected election result came a conference season with more than a little intrigue.
OCR’s topic for the conference fringes this year was English and maths, specifically post-16, English and maths. We asked the question “Do we have the correct equation for English and maths in our schools and colleges?” I want to outline our view at OCR about this crucial aspect of our education system.
We believe there is a need for an alternative GCSE in English and maths that is targeted at learners post-16, an ‘adult GCSE’. We recognise the impact of the brand GCSE and the currency that this holds with students, parents and critically employers, however, we also know that one size doesn’t fit all. We believe there is a need for a qualification which shares that GCSE name but would also retain those elements of flexibility that are critical to enabling post-16 learners to succeed. What might this look like? It would likely have a modular approach, would require and encourage contextualised learning and would have more frequent opportunities for assessment.
In statistics from the Department for Education, there is worrying evidence that the path of resitting GCSE does not lead to more young people achieving those crucial grades. In 2013, of the 42% of students who did not achieve an A*-C grade in GCSE English and maths at 16, 92% in English and 91% in maths still did not achieve the A*-C pass mark on their resit. While early data from this summer suggests the proportion of students resitting at 17 and getting this grade is improving, it still lags far behind where we would all want it to be.
There is an interesting tension here between a desire to see all young people achieve this standard of English and maths and a debate that has been held many times about whether increasing numbers attaining these grades means that standards are falling. Ofqual has spoken about and published information on the comparable outcomes approach, which we won’t revisit here, but this approach ensures that standards are maintained and grade inflation does not occur. So it is difficult to imagine a world where all students sitting their assessments could all receive those crucial grades.
We know that more learners gain these fundamental skills, and that improving these skills is vitally important to learners’ ability to progress to further education or into employment as well as to the success of the UK economy as a whole. However, the current GCSE should not be seen as the only way of realising this ambition.