Minister attacks FE for allowing learners to ‘give up’

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

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  1. Julie Garrigan

    I have taught basic skills to young learners in an FE college and after 11 years of expensive state education they have very poor command of English and maths. I wonder why? All to often I heard them ask, ‘why do I need English and maths when I want to be a fireman, hairdresser or joiner? Exactly! Scary isn’t it! Schools need to embed these skills across every aspect of the curriculum as well as employability to make this work.

  2. Of course FE as a sector has a role to play and it does.

    However the Minister would be well advised to focus attention on the pre-16 stage. Why are so many young people leaving school without proficiency in english and or maths?

    And in the very week that the OECD Report demonstrates the appaling tail of poor performance in basic skills in the UK, ministers also need to consider the impact of poverty on young people’s lives. The report demonstrates that it is poverty and inequality that most explains why Britain and the US stand together as bottom of the performance tables amongst developed countries. It’s an interesting twist on the special relationship!

  3. Mick Fletcher

    Its a real pity that the Department has sought to deal with a tough and complex issue in such a ‘tabloid’ way. Throwing blame around won’t help. The starting point should be an analysis of the various groups of post 16 students sorted by GCSE attainment as in this post

  4. James Clarke

    Ministers like this fail to recognise the consequences of how the education system is funded and reviewed both in Schools and Colleges.

    The fact is we are receiving learners with increasingly poor English and Maths skills from schools. The statistics are saying the opposite but that is largely through selected and reduced exam entry especially at academies. Basically a student isn’t entered unless the School is sure they will pass.

    I am yet to see a student enter our college this year with the traditional 10/11 GCSE’s we getting people only entered for 7-9 GCSE’s in soft subjects let alone pass them. Then we get additional BTEC’s and Functional Skills where the student is weakest so the level of entry reduced to get a pass. I can’t blame the Schools for this they need to play the statistics game too unfortunately.

    When we do initial assessments on the students to indicate their Maths and English levels we are finding increasing numbers at Level 1 or Entry Level. That means putting them on GCSE’s is inappropriate for the learner and would be judged that way by OFSTED and our poor success rates in English and Maths. So what are we supposed to do?

    Perhaps the minister should take a look at the detail of the learners we are getting and not buy into a statistic with no bearing in reality and the effort Colleges do make to put students on English and Maths courses just not GCSE’s.

  5. I think this report is vastly unfair to FE colleges. I am a maths lecturer at a northern FE college and part of my job for the last 14 years has been to teach GCSE maths. We never let learners ‘get away’ from doing either Functional or GCSE maths if they do not already have a C or above in that subject. If the learner manages to avoid attending they will be picked up and made to attend the following year.
    It is not popular but is a condition of acceptance at the college.

  6. I find this even more difficult to take from a minister that should’nt even be in such a role following his previous mathematical “oversight”…..
    Cheap shot Mr Laws!
    Should have done your homework before making such a statement!!!