The FE sector wants to play a key role in improving literacy and numeracy levels, but it could be undermined by restrictive government policies, according to Joy Mercer

No one doubts how important English and maths are to leading a productive life as an employer, employee, parent or citizen.

Governments have launched countless initiatives to ensure everybody leaves education with the necessary English and maths skills.

However, in the 14 years since the Moser Report, which found that 20 per cent of adults lacked functional literacy and numeracy skills, 49 per cent of young people are still leaving school at 16 without 5 A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths.

A survey published this year by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills showed that 24 per cent of adults (8.1 million people) lack functional numeracy skills and 15 per cent (5.1 million people) lack functional literacy skills.

The recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report concluded England has below average literacy and numeracy levels.

This puts us in the Championship not the Premier League — which is better than the USA, Spain and France, but well below the Scandinavian countries, Japan and South Korea.

The fact that colleges pick up the baton after nearly 11 years of school-based education is demonstrated in the numbers.

In 2010/11, there were around 400,000 students taking basic maths and English and a further 134,000 at level two.

The government must listen to the advice of college staff and unleash the enthusiasm.”

The focus on English and maths will become even stronger from 2014, as English and maths become compulsory for all students aged 16 to 18.

Yet, the government has not asked schools to alert students to the changes post-16, nor has it encouraged employers to beat the drum of English and maths to prospective young employees.

Ofsted insists on portraying achievement of GCSE maths and English qualifications by 18-year olds in colleges as dismal, when colleges have focused on functional skills achievement to give young people success rather than failure.

The GCSE reform plan is designed to raise the standards and will also result in the withdrawal of the old qualification.

The reform of GCSEs maths and English must have functionality to ensure they are based on evidence of how maths and English skills are both developed as concepts and retained in practical applications.

The recent announcement of £9m of bursaries to support the best graduates to teach English, maths and students with disabilities or learning difficulties and enter the post-16 teaching workforce is welcome.

However it is only available for pre-service training.

Why can’t training of new college teachers reflect the in-service model favoured by the government, such as Teach First and Schools Direct?

Colleges will make this work and they have common timetable slots so all students who need it can access maths and English provision and are organising programmes to upskill all their staff.

But they also report large classes, some reluctant students and a desperate need for more qualified and able teachers.

The government must listen to the advice of college staff and unleash the enthusiasm they have to give young people and adults a second chance.

Ministers must not tie their hands behind their backs through poorly targeted bursary schemes, punitive performance measures and expenditure on spare spaces in new academies and free schools when this resource could be channeled into improving the life chances of the 49 per cent.

Joy Mercer, director of policy for the Association of Colleges