Adult GCSEs, anyone? We need qualifications that really work for students and employers

Brian Creese, NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy)

I spent a very interesting day a couple of weeks ago at the IOE London Region Post-14 Network Research and Policy Working Day. A very healthy gathering of FE managers and practitioners were doubtless encouraged by keynote speaker Alison Wolf. Although the Wolf Review had more than 20 recommendations, the one which has had the greatest impact on the ground is the policy of ensuring that all students who are in education continue to study English and maths until they get their Grade A*-C. This has many ramifications for schools, sixth form colleges and FE colleges, including the creation of a desperate shortage of suitable staff to teach these subjects to a high standard.

Then last week a dry little document passed my desk, a Statistical First Release from the DfE: ‘Level 1 and 2 Attainment in English and mathematics by 16-18 students’. This tells us about those students who, despite the best efforts of school teachers and Secretaries of State, fail to attain the cherished grade. There are around 220,000 students who fail to get the A*-C grade in English first time around and 244,000 students who do not get their maths. What I found astonishing is that after subsequent study at school or college a mere 17,000 students from each cohort go on to obtain their required GCSE grades. This means that over 90% of those students who did not achieve the benchmark for English and maths initially have still not achieved it when they finish school or college.

The paper does a further breakdown according to the type of provider students go on to after taking GCSEs. Just over 20% go on to attend school, an academy or sixth form college. Of these about 60% are re-entered for GCSE, and success rates vary: from 22% to 42% in English and from 18% to 33% in maths. The picture is very different in FE where a large majority of the cohort attend: here, less than 10% are re-entered for GCSE with about 4% achieving A*-C.

What is unremarked in the statistical release is that most students in FE are studying Functional English and Functional Maths. Colleges widely believe that it is pointless plodding away at GCSE English and maths, which most learners will still fail, when there is a qualification that delivers the skills required in the workplace which can be delivered in ways that will engage with this cohort. The current success rates for Functional Skills level 2 are around 55% to 70%, which means that a much higher percentage of students attending FE colleges will leave with a level 2 qualification which makes sense for them and their employers.

So why do we continue to put students and teachers through this torture? The answer is not that GCSE is the ‘Gold Standard’ but that GCSE is the ‘Gold Brand’. Wolf is correct in saying that it is the only level 2 qualification that employers really understand and they have lost patience with learning the ins and outs of new and different types of qualifications foisted on them by hyperactive policy-makers.

However, is the curriculum content of school GCSE English and maths the best for young adults? If GCSE is the required qualification, perhaps we should think about a different GCSE for post-16s? One that concentrates on the skills needed by adults in work and home life? Not ‘functional’ perhaps, but ‘applied’? Adult Applied English/maths has a fine ring to it!

Developing a new GCSE qualification better suited to post-16s would be a long and hard path, but perhaps by creating a clear adult curriculum for GCSE English and maths we can finally provide a qualification that works for young people and adults and is recognised by employers.

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Posted in Further higher and lifelong education
3 comments on “Adult GCSEs, anyone? We need qualifications that really work for students and employers
  1. sybil says:

    thankyou brian. a very useful contribution

  2. Phill Peall says:

    Excellent article Brian, and I agree that the expectations for GCSE A-C achievement are completely out of touch with the realities of working life. As a careers advisor, I regularly see people of all ages who want to go into childcare. In many but not all cases, they have excellent life and personal skills but relatively low English and/or maths qualifications. They will now be barred from working in their preferred career option for no other reason than their inability to gain the Golden Calf worshipped by Wolf et al. I feel this is a political drive and has no basis in the real world of work. What happens to this disenfranchised majority? Will they be more fulfilled? Will they be more likely to be working or less?

    I would argue that some powerful, highly intelligent people may sometimes not understand that what comes easy to them may be difficult or impossible for many others. If they fail to address this underlying bias against those with some level of learning issues – and it seems that many ordinary people may now be considered as failing – then the power these people wield is frightening..

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