The strain of getting vocational learners over the GCSE English and maths finish line is behind much strain in the FE and skills sector, as recognised not least in Ofsted’s annual report. But behind the policy is a view of GCSEs and the workplace that needs rethinking says Mark Flinn.

Last month, FE Week stated that 130,979 17+ learners were entered for GCSE maths in summer 2015, an increase of 57 per cent over the previous year [see English and maths supplement available on feweek.co.uk]. Many will herald this as good news. But is GCSE maths fit for purpose as a qualification for vocational learners in the 21st Century?

What we used to refer to as “numeracy” has been replaced in ministerial terminology by “maths”. But when we look closely at the GCSE maths subject content and assessment objectives for 2015 and beyond, as published by the Department for Education in 2013, we find much content unrelated to the needs of vocational learners in the modern world.

Where, for example, in the modern workplace (or elsewhere) are we ever required to use or apply the factorisation of quadratic expressions, quadratic equations, simultaneous equations, linear inequalities, sequences, Pythagoras’ Theorem, the surface area of a sphere or pyramid, simple proofs in Euclidian geometry, the sine rule or the cosine rule?

Why has the attainment of a grade C pass at GCSE become the ‘gold standard’ to which all, irrespective of future career plans, must aspire? Not on the basis of any research evidence, and not on the basis of a proven link between subject content and vocational needs

In the days of computer-based design systems, what is the relevance of using “the standard ruler and compass constructions to….bisect a given angle”? In what vocational context is a knowledge of “Fibonacci type sequences and quadratic sequences” useful? Where might we “Derive the properties of regular polygons” or “identify and interpret gradients and intercepts of linear functions graphically and algebraically”? When is the “multiplication of vectors by a scalar” going to be useful in the workplace?

This is not to deny that elements of the GCSE subject content are important for all learners: working with number, fractions, percentages and decimals, measures, graphs, ratio and proportion, mensuration, calculation, graphs, probability and statistics all have a fundamental place. But the totality of the GCSE subject content has not been designed to provide a foundation in numeracy — the understanding and application of numbers.

Rather, its purpose is to provide an important and (largely) necessary foundation for the further study of maths and its applications in the sciences and technology at advanced level and beyond. Pythagoras, trigonometry and quadratic equations are of great importance in the further study and application of mathematics but are largely irrelevant to the needs of most vocational learners.

Many learners will wish, of course, to strive towards a grade C (or better) pass at GCSE in order to qualify for a future professional study. But most of the learners who are struggling to move from a grade D to a grade C in maths are unlikely to progress to advanced level and beyond. For many of them, a grade D pass represents a hard-won and creditable achievement which may not, even with the best of efforts, be improved upon. Yet the new requirement imposed on these learners, and the FE sector, is forcing those learners through irrelevant learning hoops, when that time and teacher resources could usefully be employed in reinforcing their core numeracy skills. No-one denies the importance of developing core numeracy skills, but can anyone demonstrate that GCSE maths, as currently specified, is fit for this purpose?

So why has the attainment of a grade C pass at GCSE become the ‘gold standard’ to which all, irrespective of future career plans, must aspire? Not on the basis of any research evidence, and not on the basis of a proven link between subject content and vocational needs. As with other examples of ministerially-driven curriculum change, it seems to have been driven by personal experience and prejudice. It is sad that educational policy is made in this way.