From education to employment

How do we make maths and English work for all?

Professor Ed Sallis is chair of the steering group for 'Making maths and English work for all'

Having a good working knowledge of maths and English are two of the most important skills sets a person can have. Without them there are few opportunities and little chance of decent jobs and careers. They are the skills for work, life and learning.

The review ‘Making maths and English work for all’ is the first major study of employer views of non-GCSE qualifications in maths and English. We spoke to over 1400 employers, learners and training organisations. Employers care about the maths and English skills of the people they recruit.

In November 2014 Nick Boles MP, the Minister of State for Skills and Equalities asked the Education and Training Foundation to look at how non-GCSE maths and English qualifications, especially Functional Skills, met the expectations of employers.

It’s been a short but intense period to find the answers. Our research partner, Pye Tait, consulted over 650 employers, large and small from a wide range of sectors.

I worked with an impressive steering group ensuring that the consultation was effective and meaningful. They shared expertise, and championed and communicated the review to employers, stakeholders and other interested parties.

The steering group heard from some compelling expert witnesses, including representatives from Ofqual, the CBI, teachers and learning providers.

In our open consultation we asked about which skills are of the greatest concern, how familiar people are with what is available, and whether new qualifications should be developed.

Whilst the focus was on employers we decided to talk to practitioners, awarding organisations and learners to get a fuller picture and to find out why qualifications other than GCSE might be important.

Through this process we have built up a quantitative as well as qualitative data set to balance what people have told us against what came out of the survey.

The major piece of information we needed to know is whether employers know about and understand Functional Skills. That is important because they were designed as employability qualifications.

If employers didn’t rate them what would have been the point? Our survey found that 47% of employers knew about Functional Skills, higher than we expected, given the five or so years that they have been around.

And with over a million people enrolled on these qualifications in 2013/14 this supports the view that they are becoming an important part of the post 16 and adult learning landscape.

The other important finding is that 87% of employers who are aware of Functional Skills like them. These employers value them for their applied skills, flexible assessment and problem solving.

However, many employers believe that the reliability and standards of these qualifications could be improved, and these are amongst the issues that Ofqual are in the process of addressing.

The review looked at the brand and whether this needs strengthening. It probably takes two generations for a qualification to become established which means that there is still plenty of work to be done to fully establish Functional Skills.

GCSEs are the established brand and as they are changing they will be the focus of attention in coming months. This presents an opportunity to talk in a positive way about the purpose of Functional Skills and should stop them being seen a consolation prize awarded by a GCSE-focused system.

The review confirmed that the policy to get as many people as possible to achieve maths and English a GCSEs is right and important.

However, it is also clear that the people we spoke to want to see a greater clarity of purpose for Functional Skills and for them to be viewed as a qualification in their own right, as a valid alternative route for those young people and adults who may struggle to achieve a good grade at GCSE. It is not about one or the other; it is about raising the maths and English skills of all learners.

Professor Ed Sallis is chair of the steering group for ‘Making maths and English work for all’, the Education and Training Foundation’s review in to what employers and learners need from non-GCSE maths and English qualifications

Read the review on the Education and Training Foundation website

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