A traditional solution to an age-old problem

No one should doubt Professor Alison Wolf’s words when in her review of 14-19 education she said that ‘English and Maths GCSE (at grades A*-C) are fundamental to young people’s employment and education prospects. However, as we once again focus on improving the English and Maths skills of the flow into and stock of the workforce we must not forget that for many the leap from failure to success in GCSEs remains a step too far. In Wolf’s own words ‘… less than 50% of students have both (English and Maths)at the end of Key Stage 4 (aged 15/16); and at aged 18 the figure is still below 50%. Only 4% of the cohort achieve this key credential during their 16-18 education.

The strength of the learning and skills sector is that whatever a learner’s previous achievements, it will set about removing doubt and uncertainty and replacing these with confidence and capability. So as we prepare for the deregulation of the Skills for Life qualifications and given the Government’s own data and admissions of systemic failure colleges, employers and training providers can be excused for once again asking, ‘why should the learning and skills sector step up to the mark and accept the challenge of addressing the shortcomings of compulsory schooling’. The answer of course is simple: it is because we can and because we must.

Lifelong learning may have become an outmoded phrase yet it still describes the importance of ensuring that as individuals, as communities and as a society we work cooperatively and collaboratively to realise the potential of everyone at whatever age or stage they feel able to commit to, and engage in, developing their skills. But we need more than belief, and commitment, we must have access to the resources and the tools we need.

Functional Skills are important tools and will provide part of the solution. Having evaluated the Functional Skills pilots for the Government I remain concerned that this summer’s deregulation of the Skills for Life qualifications will leave a large hole in the developmental and progression framework for English and maths and, as a consequence, potentially disenfranchise many young people and adults.

This is not to make the case for the retention of these literacy and numeracy qualifications, the time has long passed when they could be updated and refreshed.

Like the Key Skills of communication and application that they nested within they were of their time and have fulfilled an important role in re-engaging those furthest away from learning with low or no qualifications as well as providing evidence that contextualised and inspirational teaching and learning can re-invigorate even the most reluctant learners.

The Coalition Government also acknowledged that GCSEs, and Functional Skills may for some be a bridge too far, at least in the first instance. In accepting Wolf’s recommendations Michael Gove, said that the Government would … ensure that all young people study and achieve in English and mathematics, ideally to GCSE A*-C, by the age of 19. For those young people who are not immediately able to achieve these qualifications, we will identify high quality English and maths qualifications that will enable them to progress to GCSE. This approach will be even more necessary if the latest ideas around re-introducing ‘explicitly harder’ ‘O’ Levels in 2014 are implemented.

It is not just at secondary and post 16 level that we can see demonstrations of the political will to secure sustainable change in how we address the fundamental pillars of learning; for example in the consultation on the revised National Curriculum at Primary Level Michael Gove has asked for a greater focus on proficiency in English, maths and science. And on assessment, the expectation that there will be a direct relationship between what is taught and what is assessed.

So why in an article focused on the needs of the learning and skills sector am I taking up valuable inches commenting on the new primary curriculum? The answer is straightforward, many of the issues that we have to address at post-16 in colleges and post-19 in the workplace owe their legacy to poor teaching and learning at primary level as it is there that the foundations in English and maths are laid and it is there where the insecurities and uncertainties of adult learning begin.

To return to the challenges for the learning and skills sector what are these ‘high quality English and maths qualifications’ that can eliminate illiteracy and innumeracy and replace them with fluency and proficiency? Also will the post-Wolf qualifications eliminate many of the competing and conflicting demands and expectations that have bedevilled their predecessors, where English and Maths qualifications are required to:

1. be demanding but capable of engaging the disaffected and disinterested
2. develop and demonstrate knowledge, skills and understanding for a diverse set of contexts and settings but be easily readily comparable and credible
3. be accessible and flexible but reliable and valid as national qualifications
4. be taught and delivered by a diverse range of teachers, trainers and supervisors yet there remains no sustained incentive or requirement for the professionalisation of this workforce
5. be easy and inexpensive to administer and deliver to a mass audience but provide rigorous and valid assessments of capability and competence.
6. be valuable to candidates and valued by employers yet there remains little recognition and understanding of what capability is guaranteed by these qualifications.

Future solutions for English and maths must bring clarity, coherence and cohesion to a range of competing yet equally important requirements. They must balance the ambitions of the Government to increase the literacy and numeracy skills of the adult population, raise the number of individuals both 16-18 and 19+ participating in the apprenticeship programme especially at higher levels and at the same time bring credibility, rigour and validity to the development of English and maths capability at all levels. For this balance to happen there needs to be greater recognition of, and greater focus on, the fundamental elements of these subjects and skills together with the development of a deep understanding of the rules associated with their application.

I am convinced that we need to return to a time when everyone recognised that learning brought with it some challenges, that overcoming these challenges was important if progress, reward and success were to be achieved and that these challenges required commitment from, and effort on behalf of, those seeking to improve their capabilities as well as those providing leadership and management of the learning process.

This does not mean that the valuable learning of the past 12 years must be ignored, lost or rejected:

• Skills for Life proved that there is a genuine appetite for qualifications from those at the very beginning of their learning journey
• Applied, digital technology has secured its place as a learning enabler and facilitator whether it is the flexibility of access or the ability to support scalability and volume
• Employers and Employees recognise the importance of English and maths competence their expectations and requirements differ according to sector, roles and responsibilities
• Contextualisation is essential for meaningful and motivational teaching and learning but too often becomes a barrier to acceptable and accessible assessment under test conditions
• People who are proficient in English and maths skills are competent and confident people and confident, competent people are prepared to invest in their own learning to realise their potential.

For Wolf’s analysis of vocational education to be sustainable and viable, the learning and skills sector must have access to a progression framework for English and maths that is realistic and relevant. My belief is that Functional Skills and GCSEs are insufficient to provide a solution that is acceptable to, recognised by and relevant for, all learners within the sector. My interpretation of the policy context is that the so-called ‘stepping stone’ qualifications can become the final piece of the progression ‘jigsaw’. The danger in identifying the need for a further set of qualifications is that what is developed are parallel programmes of study or qualifications that compete with, and therefore undermine, Functional Skills or dilute the requirements of GCSE.

Again let me return to the latest developments within the primary curriculum for English and maths where proficiency is the focus and capability and confidence the required outcome. The commitment is to make sure that future generations develop a clear understanding and recognition of the subjects’ basic elements. If it is good enough for the future why should it not be good enough for the present?

If GCSEs or their replacements are the gold standard for general education, and Functional Skills provide proof of application and problem solving, surely what is needed from ‘stepping stones’ is a guarantee of competence, capability and proficiency in the fundamentals of English and maths. With proficiency the current ‘leap’ will become a manageable ‘step’ and the potential failure will become a confident and capable individual.

Barry Brooks
Group Strategy Director, Tribal


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