GCSE Grade C: too much and yet too little for older students

Brian Creese

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.

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Posted in Education policy, Further higher and lifelong education
8 comments on “GCSE Grade C: too much and yet too little for older students
  1. Ian Lynch says:

    GCSE isn’t the only level 2 in town – there are Functional Skills in maths and English and from 2017 Substantial Vocational Qualifications for post 16 and Tech Awards pre-16. This is of course new but unless commentators stop referring to GCSEs as if there was no other alternative that myth will continue to extend. Its rather like those that think BTEC is the only vocational qualification. It is a dominant brand but it is just a brand and not the only option. I’m surprised academics have not been more critical of the Wolf report. It seemed to be accepted as a divine truth when there are lots of things in it that are arguable. I think part of the problem is that the historical polarisation of vocational and academic qualifications means relatively few people have real first hand experience of both. They are for different purposes. That does not mean one is better than the other, just that they are different.

  2. Ian Lynch says:

    PS I f you want to make GCSE harder, simply insist on an A* grade in maths to be a primary teacher. (Or better, an A level) Snag is you might not fill up your course. Making the exam harder is not going to make children learn better in itself and could well have the opposite effect.

  3. chriswq says:

    Agree with the article – from 2015 entry, our local University’s nursing course, which used to accept functional skills maths, will have C grade at Maths GCSE as the lowest level for entry.
    I can understand this as the nursing students have not entered with good maths skills because although the Functional Skills course covers a lot of what they will need, the pass mark is set very low so that students gain a pass without having the range of skills!
    If they were able to work successfully at Level 2 Functional Skills maths and gain 85% – 90% of the marks, most of the trouble would be avoided and a C-grade GCSE unnecessary and the qualification would be more highly respected.

    • Ian Lynch says:

      So why not just set your own maths entrance test? It’s not exactly that difficult to do and you could contextualise it to your business ie focus on the sort of calculations they will need to do as a nurse. The fire service set their own maths tests AFAIK. We have tested 50,000 children for free using an on-line computing exam so if it is important I don’t understand why people don’t just fix it as it is inexpensive and easy to do. Or alternatively, just say you must have a B or an A in maths to do this course.

      • Brian Creese says:

        The Royal Navy used to run its own English and maths tests, but realised that by switching to the old Skills for Life qualifications, they could get government funding…. Of course, the old tests were context specific and highly relevant to the RN trades. Currently they do Functional Skills, but Government policy will see them having to move over to GCSEs unless there is a policy reverse.

  4. Ian Lynch says:

    So is “getting government funding” more important than getting the right skill levels in your recruits? The point is that there are easy fixes and it can’t be that important if these options are not exercised. Government policy will not prevent them from insisting on a grade A* or offering their own supplementary test. I run a business and if I thought GCSE was not fit for purpose I simply wouldn’t use it to select recruits.

  5. Pythagoras says:

    Outrageous article.
    I’ve been a maths teacher for nearly 30 years, and I HAVE used my trig skills once in a REAL LIFE situation! (Making a flysheet for a tent).
    If I hadn’t been able to calculate the slant hypotenuse = verticleheight/sin(45) I would have had to measure it by hand.

    The top 10% of those doing ‘Foundation level Maths” are awarded a C. The other 90% get their first taste of failure – Probability(Unhappy_kid)=9/10.
    The plan is to add more abstract maths to the compulsory level; e.g. “rates of change” (calculus/differentiation to us in the know)

    Admittedly I haven’t used dy/dx in real life yet, but I wouldn’t have turned out to be the well balanced individual I am today without those pearls of wisdom.

    • Phill Peall says:

      Sorry Pythagoras, but I believe your thinking is blinkered and (dare I say it?) biased in favour of your subject. Even such a fine mind as your own would probably take longer and use more resources (that would probably not be available at the time) than the simple measure you offer as the poorer alternative to your tent flysheet!

      Further, in the real world of work, do you think that a person with excellent people and childcare skills and a good working knowledge of functional maths… but who is not academically gifted enough to gain a GCSE A-C should be prevented from being able to work in childcare? Does the ability to perform relatively esoteric maths calculations, at a level completely beyond any expectation for the target care group, trump the actual people/organisational/EQ etc skills that are actually required to do that job well? And what happens to the poor people (often in both senses) who are unable to find work as a result – and may become an increasingly disenfranchised and dependant minority

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