With English and maths being talked about more than ever before, David Redden, Functional Skills specialist at the awarding organisation NCFE, outlines the challenges facing both learners and educators, and discusses what needs to be done to change the status quo.
We currently live in a country where if you don’t achieve your English and maths at school, you are plunged into a world of uncertainty.
Go to college, and you’re forced into a resit cycle which sees around 80% of students experience the pain of failure again and again. Go down an apprenticeship route and you don’t escape either, as it’s mandatory to have a GCSE or Functional Skills at Level 3 and above to complete.
As a result, many academic and employability opportunities will be denied to you should you be deemed not to meet the core requirements. Want to do a Level 3 Apprenticeship in Hair and Beauty? Not without the Level 2 or Grade 4 in English and maths. Dreams must be revised, expectations lowered, or else face a longer slog to get to where you want to be.
Approaching things differently
Some might say that people should just “get their head down and work harder”. However, while literacy and numeracy are undoubtedly essential skills for everyone, there’s a grey area about whether the type of English and maths being taught is always fit for the route individuals wants to go down.
Being made to sit a qualification that doesn’t resonate with their style of learning forces young people to abandon planned education routes, pushing them to a lower level and reducing their hopes of going into employment at a position they desire.
If we want young people to be in control of their own futures, we need to provide an education that enables them to succeed. GCSE maths has a place in education, primarily for those learners looking to progress in a mathematics field, be that in the actual subject or related area, however it should not be the sole route for all.
Rishi Sunak’s pledges for Multiply and to study maths until the age of 18 recognise the importance of developing skills in maths but could be destined to fail unless we embrace the fact that people have different requirements. It’s possible to approach the same subject in a different way but still demonstrate the same level of knowledge.
Those at the opposite end of the scale must be provided with the skills that allow for progression should they go into further education or apprenticeships. We need to prepare these learners better when they’re in school (pre-16), rather than pass them down the road to the next education provider, particularly when they are provided with fewer resources and less time to work miracles.
By giving these students the practical, contextualised skills that are needed in life and work, they will benefit much more and progress faster than trying to hammer home high-end mathematics that they are neither going to take in or use in the future.
An archaic system and the forgotten third
The education system in England is risk averse and archaic in its nature. The current headlines all highlight the risks around artificial intelligence for education (focusing on issues such as cheating in exams) however the real issue is the way we currently assess students and how we measure their abilities.
Each year, over a third of students will be left behind – often referred to as the forgotten third. This is how the system is built. Not everyone can pass no matter how much they shine in their final exam. As Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, once said, imagine the outrage if we created a driving test that will automatically fail a third of people, no matter how well they drive.
I recently shared a BBC news story around how the resits policy is causing a crisis in 16-19 education, and it got more reaction than any other post I’ve put out – such is the emotion around this policy.
Things need to change and there needs to be more recognition that GCSEs are not always the answer; that schools and FE colleges should be able to use an approach they know will work for those students.
Learners who are not academically equipped to achieve a Grade 4 in their GCSE should be able to demonstrate their abilities in a more practical way, relevant to the route they’re going to take in life.
NCFE recently submitted evidence to the House of Lords 11-16 Education Select Committee, highlighting the imbalance of the Progress 8 measures in schools that drives GCSEs as the only practical option if they want a good performance table position or Ofsted rating.
While this leaves state schools with few options, their counterparts in the private sector are already acting and moving away from GCSEs at a growing rate, as they recognise these qualifications no longer prepare their students for the world of work and life.
Taking the positives and looking to the future
Ultimately, any change is a long way off with political uncertainty until the next general election, but there are positives; extra money is being invested in this area, such as through Multiply, as well as the recent Department for Education announcement giving apprenticeship providers a 54% uplift in funding for English and maths.
It’s important that this money is utilised as effectively as possible; there are more and more platforms on the market providing data-led insights into your learners. For example, NCFE has the Skills Builder platform and initial assessment – appraising both English and maths in a single process that allows you to identify whether a GCSE or Functional Skills is the most suitable route.
Should you be delivering a large volume of Functional Skills already, there’s the FAST product which enhances data-led delivery and specialist support and is proven to be able to improve attainment by up to 6%.
Education is often a political football but what we need is real progression in policies; a continuation of ideas and ideals with the people who have the expertise and experience of the sector making informed decisions – not knee-jerk reactions or rose-tinted reflections.
It’s not trigonometry.
By David Redden, Functional Skills specialist, NCFE
Over the past 12 years, David has played a leading role in shaping and developing NCFE’s Functional Skills qualifications. Working closely with tutors and practitioners from schools, colleges and training providers, he’s gained valuable insight from those on the ground to help shape what’s required within the sector. David is also focused on solutions for the digital skills sector and the implementation of skills assessment tools.
Learn more about English and maths here
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