Halfon raises hopes for a modular ‘adult GCSE’

Skills minister says he is willing to consider introducing the new qualification

Stephen Exley & Julia Belgutay

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New apprenticeships and skills minister Rob Halfon insists he is “open-minded” about proposals to create a modular “adult GCSE” in English and maths, TES can reveal.

The idea was among recommendations made by Dame Sally Coates in her review of prison education published in May.

But despite the review’s recommendations being accepted in full by the government at the time, Dame Sally told TES that schools minister Nick Gibb informed her in a subsequent meeting that he would not be approving new forms of the qualifications.

‘Two tiers’ fears

Although the recommendations have been broadly supported by the new justice secretary, Liz Truss, moves to approve any new GCSE qualifications would need the backing of the Department for Education.

“After the report was published, I had a meeting with Nick Gibb at the Department for Education,” Dame Sally said. “He said he was concerned that introducing an adult GCSE would lead to two tiers of GCSEs, with one not as prestigious as the other, and [he] would not be approving this.

“I completely agreed that it was right to get rid of modular GCSEs in schools, but I still believe there’s a strong case for having a modular approach for older learners and prisoners, to allow them to take the qualification in a flexible way and help them to progress.”

Speaking to TES this week, Mr Halfon said he was “completely open-minded” about the idea of an adult GCSE. “I’d need to look at it and I’d want to take advice,” he said. “My main view is anything that helps with the rehabilitation and education of prisoners would be welcome, but we’ve got to make sure it’s the best option. I obviously don’t want to go against what Nick said before I’ve discussed it with him. I’d like to see what other options there are.”

An Ofqual spokesman said it was up to the government to decide how to respond to the review, but added: “Our rules, which we have no current plans to change, require all new GCSEs to be linear, with exams taken in the summer at the end of the course.”

In Unlocking Potential: a review of education in prison, Dame Sally argues that awarding bodies should work together to develop a core basic skills curriculum for prisoners, with consistent standards and supporting materials. “This might include new ‘adult’ modular GCSEs in English and maths,” the report states.

It adds that “the potential for a flexible ‘adult’ modular GCSE should be considered as part of the curriculum, as the GCSE brand is more familiar to some employers”.

Proposals to bring back a modular form of GCSE in English and maths have also been backed by senior figures across the FE sector, with many arguing that a different approach to English and maths could help learners who struggle with linear qualifications.

Last month, TES revealed that GCSE English and maths entries in colleges were up 40 per cent on last year, topping 200,000 for the first time (bit.ly/GCSE40).

Overwhelmed by exams

Two years ago, the Association of Colleges (AoC) called for a modular GCSE to be introduced, arguing that it would be more appropriate for many FE learners. This week, David Corke, the AoC’s director of education and skills policy, gave his backing to Dame Sally’s proposals.

“There is a chance that her recommendation could be blocked by the government, but we would ask [ministers] to seriously consider a flexible modular qualification as a way to help people meet the standards and skills which are required by employers,” he said.

Asfa Sohail, vice-principal for teaching, learning and success at Havering College of Further and Higher Education, said that its adult learners often had no previous exam experience and felt overwhelmed by a traditional GCSE. “A modular course works much better for them and is helpful in building up their confidence as well, so they should have that model,” she said.

David Hughes, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, said: “Having the GCSE label might achieve strong employer recognition of the qualification but only if adults who achieve it can function well in the workplace in terms of their communication and numeracy skills.”

Jonathan Simons, head of education at the thinktank Policy Exchange, said that a modular version of GCSEs would be difficult as it “cuts across the wider set of reforms to GCSEs, which have rightly moved to an end-of-course assessment to allow pupils to gain mastery of a subject over two years”.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice said: “The secretary of state will set out her priorities in due course, but has already committed to delivering prison reforms at pace and this includes education.”

A DfE spokesman told TES that it would be working with all interested parties, including awarding organisations, to consider flexible approaches to testing and certification of achievement for prisoners.

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Assessment rules risk creating barriers for distance learners

Changes to the way science practicals, oral exams and coursework are assessed for GCSEs and A levels will create additional barriers for distance learners, the National Extension College (NEC) has warned.

The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) has announced that any non-examined assessments must be submitted through one exam entry in a single location.

This means that distance learners will now have to find exam centres that will allow them to not only sit the written papers but also have their coursework assessed.

Ros Morpeth, chief executive of the NEC, which provides home-learning opportunities for about 4,000 students, said that most private candidates were adults and young people whose circumstances made it difficult for them to attend school or college.

“Putting up barriers makes it that much more difficult for them to go to university, get a good job and earn more,” she added. “The proposed changes to non-examined assessment will give private candidates yet another hoop to jump through. I appeal to JCQ and its members to look again at the plans.”

A JCQ spokesperson said all students should be treated equally. “It’s always been the case that, for GCSE controlled assessments, the school or college that makes the entry must arrange for supervision, authentication and marking,” the spokesperson added. “To maintain the standard and integrity of qualifications and a consistent system for all students, this has now been extended to cover non-exam assessment in reformed GCE and GCSE qualifications.”

This is an article from the 29 July edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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Stephen Exley & Julia Belgutay

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