From education to employment

Is the integrity of the GCSE quality standard a barrier to progression for FE learners?

David Redden, Product Manager at NCFE

While the economic impact of Covid-19 has been felt acutely across the globe, research carried out by organisations such as the Resolution Foundation has demonstrated that it is our young people who will suffer most during the downturn, as employers cut jobs and apprenticeships in a bid to save money.

The domino-effect of this employment shortfall, as documented in the recent research paper published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), is that come September, we will see an unprecedented rise in the number of 16-17 year old school leavers seeking to remain in full-time education. It is anticipated that somewhere in the region of 123,000 learners, who would usually seek employment, may instead pursue post-16 education in the form of vocational and technical training.

Creating space within the sector to support these young people is critical to tackling the rise in youth unemployment. However, it does present challenges for centres, especially when the analysis by EPI suggests that two-thirds of the learners looking to continue their studies will not have passed their English and maths GCSEs.

Studying towards a level 2 qualification in in English and maths is a mandatory requirement for all 16-17 year olds who enrol on full time study programmes, which means that if these young people did choose to stay within the education system, most would be required to continue to study these subjects.

The EPI report states that: “in a typical year, around 100,000 16-18 year olds would study towards an English resit qualification, and nearly 150,000 would study towards a maths resit qualification. However, following a surge in numbers, in the most extreme case, there could be an additional 119,000 16- or 17-year olds required to continue with these subjects next year. Even if only half of those in other routes returned to education, this could still mean there would be nearly 60,000 extra students.”

Given the pressure placed on FE colleges already, with the additional strain of GCSE resits too, these additional numbers could represent a significant challenge to their already stretched resources. These challenges include:

  • recruiting more English and maths specialist teachers
  • creating a programme that can overcome the barriers of disengaged learners
  • sitting large numbers of learners for exams whilst ensuring social distancing requirements are met
  • learners already behind on their learning due to the Covid-19 pandemic facing the prospect of timetable changes, and reduction of learning hours, to meet the demands of exams.

Through our #FullyFunctional campaign, NCFE has highlighted that the rate of learners achieving a pass for the resit cohort are very low (22.3% for maths, 31.9% for English). If these achievement rates fall any further due to the challenges around centres delivering to a larger cohort and without adequate resources, there is a risk that we are setting learners up to fail.

Given the falling pass mark for GCSEs, particularly in mathematics where learners achieving a Grade 4 on a higher tier paper was only 18% in some cases, is there a need to protect the integrity of the GCSE quality standard? Allowing FE colleges the flexibility to manage their resources and make the right choices for their learners is going to be paramount for the next academic session, which is why we have welcomed this timely report from the EPI.

The profound impact of the coronavirus outbreak has dictated major changes in how we live and work, but it has also presented us with the opportunity to drive change where change is needed.

In the world of education, lockdown rules have enabled teachers to engage learners in new and increasingly innovative ways that move away from the traditional approach to teaching, and place a heavier emphasis on self-motivated learning. We have also seen policy decisions taken, such as removing the need for Level 2 apprentices to attempt a Level 2 Functional Skills qualification once they have completed Level 1.

At NCFE, we are dedicated to promoting and advancing learning to help improve life chances and increase social mobility which is why, in the spirit of these new-found freedoms, we feel that now is the perfect time to revise those policies which, although well-intentioned, may discourage learners from pursuing qualifications to help them reach their full potential.

David Redden, Product Manager at NCFE

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