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'Functional skills: a credible alternative to GCSE'

Labour is right to present functional skills as an alternative to English and maths GCSE resits, writes Roshan Doug

Functional skills are a valid alternative to GCSE English and maths

Labour is right to present functional skills as an alternative to English and maths GCSE resits, writes Roshan Doug

Angela Rayner's recent announcement that if Labour were to win the next general election, they'd abandon the current government’s policy of GCSE resits in English and maths, leaves a lot for educationists to contemplate.

The Conservatives have been offering everyone – the young and old alike – the chance to improve their English and maths to a recognisable level.

Irrespective of your political persuasion, perhaps that should be applauded – especially in the light of the fact that over a quarter of all school leavers every year fail to obtain GCSE English and maths.

So, over the years, the Conservative administration has been pumping millions of pounds into this component of education policy. Some see this as an example of their commitment to social mobility. Or is it?

GCSEs seen as a 'kite-mark' of achievement 

Is it not rather an endorsement of a particular barometer of success? Governments since 2008 have suggested that the main measure of achievement in schooling is the GCSE kite-mark. Isn’t this elitism of a kind, a particular thinking about the theory of education and knowledge, that one size fits all?

Similarly, some might question whether Rayner’s announcement suggests that Labour is proposing a two-tier system – GCSE for the brightest students and functional skills for the less able ones. And if so, is this really a helpful way of seeing diversity and inclusiveness?

If we are to provide employers with a competent workforce we have to focus on students who – for whatever reasons – did not achieve their GCSEs. We have to reconsider alternatives and feasible options.

Moreover, I would argue, isn’t the policy of "resit GCSEs until you pass" frustrating and demoralising for many people – students and teachers alike?

'Conceptualisation isn't for everyone'

Students fail GCSEs for many reasons including some who can’t see the relevance of Shakespeare or the iambic pentameter; in maths, Pythagoras' formula, finding the largest prime number or the string theory. Conceptualisation isn't for everyone.

In 2008, I was part of the team that spearheaded a government consultation with educational establishments and examining boards regarding the formalisation of key skills into a viable alternative to GCSE.

We looked at various barriers to learning and how schools could help their learners to overcome them. Relevance and usefulness of knowledge were relatively top of the list.

We were commissioned to devise a formal course that could be a decent substitute for students who found it difficult to conceptualise or to think in an abstract way – something which, of course, is required at both GCSE English and maths.

Years of functional skills teaching 

So we enlisted the support of a select group of colleges to work with us by identifying core “functional” skills and objectives that could be assessed and graded. Later this qualification became known as functional skills.

Over the last decade or so, education institutions and training providers have been successfully offering functional skills to students who find it difficult to engage with literary texts and/or abstract questions.

In doing so, slowly but surely employers and universities are recognising a level 2 as equivalent to GCSE grade 4.

Functional skills are 'very credible'

Rayner is right, therefore, to move the focus away from GCSE by giving credence to functional skills. Her statement is indicative of how far we have moved on in a few years.

I remember how at the beginning there was tacit resistance from college lecturers and tutors who couldn’t see the purpose of providing an “inferior” qualification to GCSE.

Often, my colleagues and I used to be up against stark snobbery. Coupled with the ignorance from curriculum management – who knew little of the purpose, composition and nature of functional skills courses (often timetabling staff with the least experience to teach disaffected students) – it often felt we were banging our heads against a brick wall.

Today the education landscape is different because functional skills have developed into a very credible qualification that provides students with practical and transferable skills.

Making education applicable to work

After all, why should it be that GCSE English and maths should monopolise progression routes or be the sole indicator of competence or academic success?

Writing as someone with a doctorate in English literature and a strong passion for poetry, I recognise that not everyone is turned on by characterisation, rhyme, discussion of themes or the use of the third conditional.

Functional skills courses are concise, relevant and practical. I am also aware that we have to engage with people by making education and learning applicable to the world of work.

Roshan Doug is a reader in English and education at the University of Birmingham

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