Alison Wolf: Post-16 alternative to maths GCSE needed

Compulsory maths is vital, insists Baroness Wolf – but a different curriculum is needed in post-16 education

Wolf: Maths GCSE stumbling block for adult education

The government should remove “regulatory roadblocks” that prevent a post-16 alternative to GCSE maths being introduced, Baroness Wolf of Dulwich has said.

Addressing a Commons Education Select Committee inquiry into adult skills and lifelong learning, Baroness Wolf said that there was a huge demand for adults to return to education and improve their maths – but when they did, they were faced with a single curriculum.

As the author of the seminal 2011 Wolf report on vocational education, Baroness Wolf was the architect of the GCSE English and maths resits policy. Under the condition of funding rule, students who achieve a grade 3 in either subject are required to retake the qualification, while those with a grade 2 or lower have the option of taking functional skills qualifications instead.

In February, Baroness Wolf , the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London, told Tes she hoped the government’s announcement that students with a grade 2 or lower in either subject who went on to achieve a functional skills level 2 would not be required to work towards a GCSE or take another “stepping stone” qualification would not “signal further, future retreats from the teaching of maths and English to 16- to 19-year-olds”. 

But today, she stressed that alternative approaches should be made available.


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GCSE maths: A new curriculum?

Baroness Wolf told the committee: "One of the problems is that Ofqual says that you only can have one maths GCSE. There is this great big stumbling block.

"When adults do want to come back into adult education and improve their English and maths – there’s huge demand for it – they are faced with a single curriculum. This is one of these regulatory roadblocks that possibly only you guys can shift."

In January, it was announced that the Nuffield Foundation had awarded about £60,000 in funding to maths education charity MEI to investigate the feasibility of a new maths GCSE curriculum for post-16 resit students.

Baroness Wolf said it was clear that a different curriculum was needed in post-16 education. She also emphasised that she believed maths and English should be compulsory, but said England should follow the example of Sweden and Germany, and have a clear set of alternative curricula that went up to 18. 

“What we know…is that if you don’t have a decent level of English and maths, then everything in life is stacked against you. There was a period where uniquely in Europe, we allowed our 16-year-olds to drop English and maths totally," she said. "That was a scandal.”

'A passport to life'

Baroness Wolf said that there was no question that maths and English were a “passport to life”, but she insisted that a more systematic approach to the maths curriculum was needed post-16.

“I think we should be like the rest of Europe – I think everyone should do maths until we let them out," she added. 

Labour MP Lucy Powell agreed and said the evidence was really clear that young people needed to continue with English and maths.

However, she did highlight the concerns from many colleges about the challenges of GCSE resits. “When you sit the very hard new GCSEs alongside the comparable outcomes issues  – 40 per cent every year have to fail – it’s not like taking a driving test or sitting a music exam where there’s a point you get to and you pass. You’re always being compared to that current cohort,” she said.

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