GCSE exam results day is almost here once again. Cue pictures of delighted and defeated teenagers across the country and the stories of 11 year olds getting A*s, or claims that the success of learners and teachers must surely mean the dumbing down of certain subjects.
The most important thing to do tomorrow, of course, is congratulate all of those young people who’ve achieved their desired grades. This particularly applies to those who have had to retake maths and English to get the necessary A*-C grade that allows them to move on to further study or a job. Learning that you’ve made the grade is a huge achievement and GCSEs provide a recognisable marker of such success.
However, what happens next for those young people who haven’t managed to get an A*-C grade in maths or English? As we know, the previous government decided they must re-sit and re-sit their GCSEs until they achieve an A*-C or turn 18, whichever comes first. For some, a re-sit will be a welcome chance to get the grades but for others it will end in complete disillusionment with education, finding themselves without the qualifications needed to work or progress in education and even worse believing that maths and English is beyond them.
While the education sector is set up to focus on qualifications and progression to higher levels of study, employers are more interested in the applied skills someone needs to do their job. And we all regularly hear comments from employers that many are concerned that school leavers, even those with good GCSE results, are unable to apply maths and English skills effectively in the workplace.
These concerns are why the main alternative to GCSEs, functional skills qualifications, were developed. Functional skills qualifications focus on helping learners apply their skills in a workplace setting and they go much further than GCSEs in that respect. Everything is taught in a real-world context so that learners can clearly relate what they are learning to their everyday lives and jobs. This type of contextualised learning and assessment suits some people much more than GCSEs and we know that employers value it and are often critical of the lack of application found in GCSE maths and English qualifications.
Alternatives to GCSE maths and English, and in particular functional skills qualifications, were given a further boost by the Education and Training Foundation (EFT) in March 2015 in its report Making maths and English work for all. The report highlighted that employers increasingly value and recognise functional skills qualifications, liking the focus on problem-solving and applied skills as well as the flexible assessment approach they offer.
The difficulty for employers with these alternatives to maths and English GCSE is how to quickly and effectively benchmark skills and achievement when choosing candidates. While it’s clear that employers value skills and attitude over qualifications, the fact that GCSEs have been around for 30 years means they are familiar as a measure of success. The alternatives to GCSEs number many hundreds and while functional skills qualifications make up the vast majority, they are still gaining recognition among employers. To combat this we need to put the emphasis on the level outcome of the qualification rather than the qualification itself. A level 2 achievement in maths and English shows that a candidate has demonstrated their ability to understand concepts and apply skills learnt up to a certain level, regardless of whether these concepts and skills are gained through a GCSE or other qualification.
There is also another argument to be had that putting so much focus on achieving a C grade at GCSE ignores the fact that maths and English are lifelong skills. Rather than telling learners the only thing that matters is a grade C, the focus should be on continuously developing and refining our maths and English skills throughout life – adapting to new situations as we do.
While there is still way too much focus on GCSEs, I welcome the government’s recent softening in its position on functional skills and recognition of them as valuable qualifications in their own right rather than just stepping stones to GCSEs. The ETF’s report was also fulsome in its praise of functional skills and we look forward to working with them and others to further strengthen the offer. As is always the case in FE, to really shift perceptions we need to help as many people as possible understand the alternatives available and ensure that quality remains high.
With the message coming loud and clear from employers that the type of qualification achieved is less important than the skills it delivers, let’s stop our reliance on a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone and focus instead on the more valuable target of level 2 competence in maths and English for all young learners. That is the platform on which to build a productive and prosperous nation and ensure that young people are ready for further study and/or employment.