Further education leaders have lined up to defend the sector after Liberal Democrat Schools Minister David Laws claimed new figures “exposed” colleges for allowing learners to “give up” maths and English.

Figures published for the first time by the Department for Education (DfE) show almost three-quarters of school students who achieved an English GCSE grade D, and two-thirds who achieved a maths GCSE grade D, were not re-entered for the exam.

Mr Laws said: “Colleges and [school] sixth forms should be clear with their students that these are essential subjects and must be continued.

“These figures expose the vast number of young people allowed to give up these subjects after so nearly achieving the level employers demand.

“With just a bit more teaching, these students could have achieved the grades that would make all the difference to their job prospects.”

A DfE spokesperson added the figures underlined why the government now insisted all post-16 education providers must teach English and maths to young people who fail to achieve C grades in their GCSEs.

But Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive at the Association of Colleges, was quick to highlight school sixth forms were also in the frame, telling FE Week: “The statistics confirm more than 100,000 16-year-olds who don’t get GCSE at grade C in maths or English at school do not then reach this grade in their two years in sixth form.”

He added: “Many colleges dropped GCSE retake courses in the last decade because of low pass rates.

“The new funding condition and the new emphasis on core skills in study programmes, traineeships and apprenticeships makes this a priority for colleges which is why they are taking action across a broad front, including recruiting, re-deploying and retraining teachers and informing and educating students.”

Others also pointed out that it was “wrong” to imply learners were no longer studying English and maths.

Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group, told FE Week: “For many, the key to success in English and maths lies in contextualised study [such as functional skills qualifications] rather than simply resitting the GCSEs that perhaps did not inspire them at school.

“It is wrong to imply that students are not making progress in English and maths just because they are not resitting their GCSE exams.”

The point was echoed by David Hughes, chief executive of National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, who said: “We can take them [learners] to water but we can’t make them drink — so the challenge all too often is to motivate them and engage them in different ways to school.

“That takes creativity, time and skill from the teaching workforce and we believe that there is a need to review the funding available to support what can be a tough challenge.”

And Mike Hopkins, chief executive of the Middlesbrough/Gateshead College Confederation told FE Week: “I would estimate that 20 per cent of the FE budget is spent on deficiency. This is not the fault of students and so until professionals and government face up to their responsibilities, we’ll witness a horrible loss of potential.”

Mr Laws’ comments the same day Conservative Skills Minister Matthew Hancock appeared to suggest in the House of Commons that schools should take responsibility for numeracy and literacy failings.

Reflecting on the Organisation for Economic Co-operaton and Development’s damning report on skills in England and Northern Ireland, Mr Hancock said: “We have learned that, above all else, alone in the developed world, our 16 to 24-year olds are not better educated in English and maths than those aged 55 to 65.

“Yes, money is important in solving the problem, but money alone is not the answer.

“Expectations, rigour and challenge matter too. The solution will not happen quickly. It takes years to turn around schools, but then it takes years for those turned around schools to educate the next generation.”


Editorial: FE — don’t wait to be told

Schools Minister David Laws clearly had the “post-16 education” sector in his cross-hairs when he said government figures “exposed” “vast numbers” of learners being “allowed to give up”.

And while this includes school sixth forms, clearly colleges are in the frame for the bulk of his criticism. But was he right?

What Mr Laws fails to point out is second chance learners typically study functional skills and before that key skills, as opposed to GCSEs.

However, that does not mean colleges are completely off the hook if you agree that an A* to C grade at GCSE is more valuable to the work prospects of an FE learner than an equivalent non-GCSE qualification.

If the lack of an A* to C grade at GCSE really is a barrier, and you only have to look at an increasing number of apprenticeship adverts with pre-entry criteria to see that it is, then colleges do need a rethink.

That rethink should not be just because the funding rules are changing, but because, like it or not, it will improve the life chances of learners.

If that means learners study contextualised functional skills to stay engaged and learning, and then sit the GCSE exam to claim the currency of a certificate, then so be it.

Nick Linford, editor