Insanity, according to Einstein is "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". That quote may well have been on the minds of those colleges who have expressed understandable concerns about the impact of the new requirement that all 16-19 year old's should achieve a minimum Grade C GCSE in maths and English.
At a time when the UK hovers near the bottom of International tables which measure literacy and numeracy, no-one would question the need to raise the levels of basic life skills. The issue is how we achieve that. There is, I believe, more than one way of skinning this particular cat and we don't need to subject young people who, for whatever reason have often had a bad experience of school, to an educational version of Groundhog Day.
One approach is obviously to consider alternative qualifications to GCSEs and alternative methods of delivery. Functional Skills (FS) is the obvious answer but if these programmes are to become a viable option, there are a number of issues which need to be urgently addressed.
First, as was highlighted in the excellent Education & Training Foundation (ETF) report into Functional Skills published in March, more than half of UK employers are unfamiliar with the qualification. Yet, amongst those employers who were aware of Functional Skills, nearly 90% thought they were useful or very useful. Those figures mirror our own experience of working with a wide range of employers and individual learners. In fact, once they fully appreciate the "vocational" nature of FS and their focus on the transfer of skills into workplace roles, many employers view them as being of more value than the increasingly academic-orientated GCSEs. However, to be of real value, FS qualifications must be as widely recognised and understood as GCSEs and positioned as a like-for-like alternative rather than a stepping stone or consolation prize. That requires a huge publicity campaign and I see little evidence that the government is prepared to undertake such an initiative.
Secondly, there is a major issue around the funding of Functional Skills. Whilst the funding for FS as a standalone qualification seems fair in these austere times, within the Apprenticeship programme, Functional Skills are supposed to be jointly funded with employers. In most cases, this simply doesn't happen and since no-one appears willing to enforce the regulation, in effect most providers get around £360 for delivering a maths or English qualification equivalent to GCSEs. That level of funding is not viable. Whilst we have been delighted to achieve success rates well above the national average, it is hardly surprising that many providers have struggled to deliver an effective Functional Skills programme. You cannot be expected to invest in people and resources for a venture on which you know you will lose money.
Over 30% of Apprentices fail to complete their course. Whilst the government does not currently provide information as to the reasons behind that worrying figure, failure to complete Functional Skills is almost certainly a significant factor. If the current trend continues, 1 million of the government's much vaunted "3 million Apprentices" will fail to complete and in an economy increasingly dependent on higher-level skills, their future job prospects would appear bleak.
Finally, notwithstanding the rate of funding, the availability of funding for standalone qualifications remains a hugely worrying issue. Despite the governments' statement that English and Maths funding would be "protected" alongside that for Apprenticeships and Traineeships, trying to find funding in the current environment is a thankless task and about as easy as finding an honest official in FIFA. It is not just Apprentices who need to improve their numeracy and literacy skills. Thousands of other workers have similar needs and their lives and job prospects are being blighted by an inability to address them. At a time when we desperately need to tackle the huge skills crisis in the UK, the government has to accept that there are certain areas where "cuts" are simply stacking up further problems for the future of UK Plc.
Whilst we may all have to reduce our personal spending in order to balance the family budget, that doesn't prevent us from taking out a mortgage to provide security for the future. The government should perhaps take a similar approach when it comes to addressing the skills gap.
We have been privileged to work with many learners whose lives have genuinely been changed by obtaining qualifications in subjects in which they had previously considered themselves as failures. That boost in confidence alone has often been the stimulus to encourage them to re-engage with the learning process to the benefit of themselves, their families, their organisations and ultimately, the UK. We need to encourage and support other learners along this road rather than leaving their hopes and aspirations to wither in a funding wasteland.
Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a specialist vocational training company focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills