For most of my years working in and around FE and Adult education I have not spent too much time thinking about GCSEs. Although GCSE re-sits account for a large cohort in the 16-18 sector, we at the IOE’s NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy) have spent more time with the Skills for Life qualifications and working to develop and then bed in Functional Skills.
But following Alison Wolf’s report published in the early years of the current administration, GCSEs are the only game in town. I recently attended a consultation at BIS concerning the new English and Mathematics GCSEs and their impact on post-16 education. As I am sure regular Blog readers will know, there are changes to the content of both mathematics and English GCSE exams and these will be introduced for 16-18 year olds from 2016/17. Alongside this, all 16-18 students without A*-C English or mathematics now have to study for GCSE or an approved ‘stepping stone’ qualification. By 2020, the ‘ambition’ is for all adults (who now seem to be those over 19) to be on a GCSE path. As the DfE/BIS puts it ‘GCSEs are as right for adults as they are for young people’.
The Wolf report criticised the plethora of vocational qualifications and suggested that GCSE was the Gold Brand, the one qualification employers understood and recognised. Since then, and with remarkable rapidity, GCSE A*-C English and mathematics has become the benchmark for almost everything. So, for instance, all new nursery workers and early years educators now require English and mathematics of at least Grade C; increasingly the message from government is that employers demand Grade Cs, that there is an ever increasing demand for higher-skilled jobs in the economy and that those people with the cherished A*-C will ‘on average, earn 15% more over their lifetime’.
I wonder if employers really do know what a Grade C in mathematics means? When I did some work on the Mathematics Enhancement Programme last year, the staff development programme for numeracy teachers to teach GCSE mathematics, it was a shock to have to brush off my slightly dormant trigonometry. There are whole sections of the GCSE curriculum which are not covered in Functional Skills – not just trig but geometry, probability and more complex algebra. I wonder how much the skills of constructing loci or being able to answer questions about the curve constructed from y = sin (x + 90) really impacts on their work?
Most employers I speak to equate GCSE grade C and above with intelligence. It simply means that employees have passed the generally accepted standard of competence for those who are not going to be English or mathematics specialists. I doubt many actually know or understand the content.
I suggest that while passing the requisite GCSE may be important for employers, the actual knowledge gained is not. Sadly, for tens of thousands starting college this month, the trigonometry, algebra and geometry components of mathematics GCSE will be a great challenge. Barely 10% of those who re-sit their GCSEs will actually gain the coveted grade, but that does not mean they are not perfectly capable of succeeding in the workplace. For this reason, I would suggest that GCSE is too specialist a qualification for a large number of our young people.
On the other hand…
In order to become a teacher, students now have to pass supplementary skills tests in English and mathematics. Now these are all bright, academic graduates who will have gained their GCSEs a few years ago. The numeracy test is a contextualised test of numeracy and statistical representation. It includes a mental maths section where you can’t use calculators, to answer questions such as: “80 pupils go to an exhibition in two coaches. Each costs £160 to hire. The total entrance cost to the exhibition was £80. How much did each pupil have to pay?” Many potential student teachers struggle with this. I do find it astonishing that bright graduates cannot tell me what fraction 75% is equivalent to, or how many 3s there are in 210. The experience of struggling through that mathematics GCSE seems to have left them with little or no confidence in their number abilities. The idea of sending teachers with such a poor understanding of number into a primary classroom fills me with horror. So it seems to me that the current GCSE is nowhere near hard enough.
The clue is in the name, General Certificate of Secondary Education, the reference point for achievement of Key Stage 4 (which is 14-16). It makes no claim to do anything other than that, and yet a series of others have set up the qualifications as having extraordinary totemic value which is entirely inappropriate. Other qualifications may (and I think are) far more appropriate in certain situations than GCSE, but the current policy is to devalue their status at the expense of the one true brand.