The government has declined to rule out a new GCSE “stepping stone” qualification for struggling apprentices.

The Department for Education (DfE) last month said new English and maths GCSEs would be incorporated into apprenticeships from 2017.

They are set to replace functional skills, which will be scrapped.

But FE leaders warned that vocational learners who couldn’t get GCSE grades C or above might struggle if they faced resitting the same exams to pass apprenticeships.

They have called for an interim qualification which, it was claimed, would boost confidence and knowledge, and improve the chances of passing full GCSEs.

A DfE spokesperson told FE Week: “No decision has been taken on this.”

She added: “It is our ambition that once the reformed GCSEs are implemented, all apprentices will use GCSEs rather than functional skills to meet the English and maths requirements in apprenticeships.”

The Association of Colleges called for stepping stone qualifications in a consultation published last month on the new GCSEs.

Senior policy manager Teresa Frith told FE Week she was pleased to hear the association’s suggestion had not been ruled out.

She said: “There is an opportunity here we will be pursuing to make sure new-look GCSEs meet the needs of apprentices and other students.

“We would certainly not support any system that prevented a young person from accessing an apprenticeship based solely on their ability in maths and English.”

Carol Snape, chief executive of awarding body OCN Eastern Region, said: “If the Prime Minister’s aim that everyone should either go to university or an apprenticeship is to be achieved, it is vital the design of the new apprenticeships includes stepping stone qualifications.

“With good use of bite-sized qualifications, learners can gain formal recognition as they

Stewart Segal

 progress towards, ultimately, taking their GCSE.”

Stewart Segal (pictured), chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “Although our submission to the consultation [on the new GCSEs] did not specifically call for ‘stepping stone’ qualifications, we called for flexibility and expressed concerns about single exam and terminal assessment not suiting all candidates.

“We would also want to keep functional skills until the content, assessment strategy and flexibility of exam structure is appropriate for the work place.”