The debate about English and maths provision from further education and skills providers rolls on, both in the media and at the providers we inspect across the country. It is pleasing for me to hear inspectors report that young people and adults are improving their skills in English and maths, and growing in confidence as they learn and apply new skills. I think most people in the sector would agree that developing and improving English and maths skills is the right thing to do.
In the Ofsted annual report for 2015-16, the chief inspector highlighted national concern about the high proportion of young people who leave school without achieving at least a grade C in GCSE English and maths. Of those young people, only a small minority go on to achieve those grades by age 19.
For some, retaking English or maths GCSE is the right decision, and those students should definitely be given that opportunity. For others, however, retaking these courses, after the intensive support they received at school, can be demotivating, especially when they see little or no relevance in the qualification.
Overall quality of provision
It surprises me when I hear from providers who tell me that their inspection grade fell below their expectations because their English and maths GCSE results were low. Why? Well, because inspectors look for so much more than just qualification achievement rates and grades – they seek to judge the overall quality of provision.
As you would expect, the quality of English and maths provision is taken into account when making grading judgements – along with many other factors. Depending on what inspectors find, the quality of English and maths provision could make the difference between a grade 3 and a grade 2, or a grade 2 and a grade 1 – it will certainly be a consideration, as will many other factors. Without doubt, inspectors expect to see students developing their skills, knowledge and behaviours through teaching, learning, and assessment. Put simply, inspectors look for what learners can do now that they couldn’t do before, what they can do better, or what they know now that they didn’t know before.
Ultimately it comes down to one question: “Do learners improve their skill levels in these subjects compared with their starting points?”
We are more concerned with establishing how well students can apply their English and maths skills
Sure, inspectors will seek evidence to demonstrate that students are on the appropriate English and/or maths course and will want to know the progress students have made/are making towards achieving qualifications. But they will be more concerned with establishing how well students can apply their English and maths skills consistently and confidently, especially within the context of their main course of study.
This will also be the case with apprentices. Inspectors often see English and maths skills developed in apprenticeship provision through vocationally relevant and specific examples, experiences and activities.
The best providers expect all apprentices to develop their skills in English and maths through well-structured teaching, learning and assessment that is linked directly to their technical and vocational development. Through this, apprentices are able to apply these skills at work, and employers are assured that they have the English and maths skills they need.
For me, this seems to be a better approach to developing the English and maths skills that help students to progress while ensuring they gain the skills that employers want and need.
Paul Joyce is Ofsted’s deputy director for FE and skills