From education to employment

English And Maths – Opportunity Or Threat?

Dr Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare
The recent announcement that the English and maths agenda is here to stay for the time being is no surprise. 
Recently I had the pleasure of being a speaker at the Association of Colleges conference in London where David Hughes et al were very specific in describing the threats and opportunities facing the FE sector. 
The level of feedback when I spoke encapsulated many of the current observations such as the poor results inherited by colleges from schools and academies when learners join colleges at age 16, and the relevance of current qualification models for mathematics and English. 
Sharing the stage with both Catherine Sezen of the AoC and Anne Frost of the Department for Education consolidated my thoughts on the possible way forward because there is a set of robust facts that cannot be ignored. 
“What are they then?” I hear you say. Well, to be blunt, we may well feel that the current ruling is not correct but although we argue that something different is required, are we sure what that is? 
An employer usually has a number of perspectives – the need for a GCSE is important, moreover trainees must be able to apply their English and maths. 
At the recent conference, one lecturer commented on the lack of applicability that exists when an engineer is asked to comment on a piece of poetry. Quite right, but if we take a hard look at ourselves as a sector how much clarity have we brought to bear? We have functional skills – some would argue the assessment regime here is difficult so where are we to go?
Time for blue sky thinking… As a mathematician I recognise the standards that the Government is demanding and as a previous chief examiner I know that the subject material in external examination is not sufficiently differentiated. 
Equally, are we confident that all the staff in our organisation have at least grade Cs in GCSE English and maths? Probably not – and if they haven’t then they too are probably victims of an unbalanced system that continues to cause ripples at every level. 
The answer is clear: employers want greater applicability. Lord Sainsbury’s agenda identifies the new pathways for the future, and we cannot rely on schools and academics to produce the English and maths attainment levels the system, employers and higher education demand. 
At the same there is the need for a nationally recognised and respected qualification. 
My suggestion is that there should be a new GCSE in applicable and technical skills. It would contain key elements of the current GCSE and Functional Skills syllabi but it would allow testing of skills relevant to business and industry. This new qualification might not ask for a critical review of prose but it may mean producing a technical report or assessment for English and, say, a profit analysis for maths. 
Clearly this is just an idea and others will have different approaches, but what would I do if I represented the DfE? First I would see if the sector was clear on the alternative qualification, then I would start fleshing out the mechanics of the offering. 
Let’s be clear, however, we are talking about different content – not a reduction of the English and maths content or level of skills. I am hopeful that the development by the AoC in establishing a group to look at this will bring about some clear messages which will formulate a new product for consideration. 
Dr Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare

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