Jonathan Wells makes the case for the end of preferential government treatment for GCSEs over Functional Skills

Functional Skills (FS) are not the ‘easy option’, they are much more rigorous than GCSEs when it comes to application of skills, pass marks are significantly higher and the focus is on the application of basic skills in real life practical situations, rather than academic theories.

More than 45 per cent of learners entering the sector do so without having achieved maths and English at grade A to C GCSE, and of those, the majority have a grade D — that’s 122,000 learners in maths and another 118,000 in English (an astonishing 26 per cent of all boys in GCSE English achieve grade D).

While GCSE suits those with an academic aspiration, there are many problems with delivering GSCE in the post-16 sector.

For example, where are the qualified GCSE teachers/tutors in the post-16 sector? GCSE has just two windows of opportunity for examination per year — how does this fit with the roll-on, roll-off nature of many vocational courses? On a practical level, if a training provider does deliver the learning for GCSE successfully, where does the learner take the exam? JCQ requirements on exam centres are incredibly strict and few private training providers have the facilities to manage the strict JCQ requirements for GCSE exams.

So what about those learners in the sixth and seventh decile of academic achievement? This is the group that forms the core of the ‘vocational learners’ who go on to apprenticeships, typically at level two and three.

In this category, employers do not seek GCSE, instead the Education and Training Foundation Report published in March 2015 found that FS are the qualification of choice for employers who know about them.

Many young people will struggle to get an apprenticeship position. For example a quick look on the new Government service — www.findapprenticeship.service.gov.uk — shows on the first few pages for Durham three jobs requiring GCSE A to C in maths and English for level two intermediate apprenticeships. Why do jobs like this impose a minimum GCSE requirement? Could it be that employers and providers are keen to avoid having to deliver maths and English to learners?

In an age where a provider’s success is judged on retention and achievement rates, and where their income is influenced by learner’s success, is it any wonder that providers are seeking to reduce the chance of failure or of learners simply leaving?

Achieving grade C is not simply a matter of ‘trying until you pass’.

If that was the case, they would have achieved this at school.

Ultimately, success for most learners in the sixth and seventh decile of academic achievement is all about getting a successful career.

This typically means vocational learning supported by good, practical English and maths skills that support their job and aspirations.

FS as part of an individualised appropriate and relevant study programme are most often the best means of achieving this aim.

After all, what seems the best scenario — a level two FS qualification that is acceptable and indeed welcomed by employers or a grade D GCSE that is seen as a failure?