Post-16 learners need stepping stone qualifications to build up their confidence and skills before they re-take maths and English GCSEs, claims Carol Snape.

There has been a lot of debate generated by the latest OECD report on numeracy and literacy skills.

But in the rush to blame and shame, are we in danger of missing the key point in this issue — how to meet the learner’s needs?

Issue has been taken with the government’s apparent ignorance of functional skills.

There has also been acknowledgement that, if employers require GCSEs to judge job and, increasingly, apprenticeship applicants’ numeracy and literacy skills, something has to be done.

While that debate may be required, we also need to address the needs of those for whom achieving either of these feels a long way off.

As highlighted by National Institute of Adult Continuing Education chief executive David Hughes, if a learner has already had a bad experience with GCSEs, simply making them retake them is unlikely to see improvement in most cases.

This is why a different approach is required to boost learners’ confidence and address specific areas of weakness.

A key benefit of enabling learners to achieve in small bite-sized chunks is that it can quickly boost their self-esteem and sense of achievement

Indeed this has already been recognised by the Skills Funding Agency, which, in February last year, announced it would fund a new set of English and maths qualifications within the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) to support learners’ progression towards GCSE English and maths A* to C or a level two functional skills qualification.

Such qualifications are now available and should form the basis of adult numeracy and literacy teaching, as they provide the necessary flexibility and responsiveness required by adult learners in particular.

The new QCF English and maths qualifications are bite-sized units of assessment covering the adult core curriculum.

They are designed to allow for targeting of specific needs of learners.

A key benefit of enabling learners to achieve in small bite-sized chunks is that it can quickly boost their self-esteem and sense of achievement.

Experiencing early success through the achievement of a small award in a skill area they had previously struggled with can inspire individuals to continue with the challenge of acquiring more skills.

These qualifications can be used creatively to address the specific needs of learners in different contexts.

This could for example be achieved by embedding them into vocational or academic courses of any length and over any period, or studying them as stand-alone awards.

They could also be used to support family learning, by providing formal recognition of the skills gained by parents learning numeracy or literacy skills to support their children.

Otherwise, they could be used as short, sharp boosters to provide bite-sized focus on weaker areas for students who just missed out on GCSE grade C, helping them to improve those areas while also providing an important confidence boost.

It is this flexibility that will allow learners to take highly personalised progression routes through the framework, moving vertically and/or laterally as they progress.

Giving learners the chance to take these new QCF qualifications can only benefit them and the future economy of the entire country.

Without this change in approach, we risk condemning these learners to repeating the same failures they experienced at school and turning them off learning for life.

Carol Snape, chief executive of
OCN Eastern Region