Let’s start by being clear: maths and English are critical and everyone should strive to achieve as high as they can and, as a minimum, be functional at level 2.
Having worked as a civil servant in the education department on Skills for Life in the early 2000s, I know the many personal, social and economic benefits of literacy and numeracy. I also feel rather depressed that the situation with young people and adults seems to have got so much worse again after a period of focus, investment and success. At the moment, more and more evidence comes to light every week about the disastrous impact of the government’s GCSE retake policy on the half of school-leavers who don’t achieve a good grade at the first attempt. The fact is that the vast majority of retakers fail again and again. And the most recent data is now showing the policy is actually working against social mobility.
Each year, I wonder how the government can stomach and accept another 150,000 failures and talk about a successful policy. I am told it is worth it for the 26 per cent that pass but is this really how education policy in this country is designed – the success of the few at the cost of the many? On reflection, maybe it is because that is the way a number of the policies seem to be going; for example, let’s not worry about level 2 apprentices or having level 2s in T levels. Instead, allow nearly half of the teenage population to feel a sense of failure.
'Not FE's fault'
I don’t think many of those outside the provider world understand the negative impact retakes have on the individual’s main programme of learning and the engagement and success in something they might actually be good at. Instead, it’s "stick them in a classroom and try to achieve in one year what schools have failed to do in 10". That will only work in a quarter of cases. It is not FE’s fault that GCSE retakes don’t work; it is what providers have inherited and the design of a qualification that isn’t fit for purpose alongside the development of real workplace skills.
All we need is one change. Let’s do an assessment for those 16-year-olds that get a D or grade 3. This is common practice in FE anyway, and every provider can tell you who has a chance of passing and who has very little chance. Having been involved in the awarding of GCSEs, I feel qualified to say that the awarding of maths and English GCSEs, indeed all GCSEs, guarantees a set level of failure every year. Indeed the comparable outcomes policy of Ofqual, which they are very proud of, is designed to ensure that this failure happens consistently year on year. If we work on the basis that roughly 30-40 per cent of those stand a chance of passing a retake, let’s assess who they are with the rest required to do an alternative level 2. And that is code for functional skills, a qualification awarded on what someone can do with relevant skills for the workplace rather than how they perform relative to everyone else.
It is incredibly hard to teach GCSE in the context of the many skills sectors, whereas one of the key strengths of functional skills is their satisfying the new specifications and demands. I am not sure there is much Shakespeare in hairdressing or plumbing literacy requirements, or quadratic equation demands in childcare. No employer complains about the maths and English of apprentices when they are doing functional skills.
'Condemned to failure'
When employers complain about school leavers’ maths and English, they talk about those with a GCSE pass that can’t even do percentages – can I emphasise those with GCSE - but this isn’t the case with level 2 functional skills learners. And this is the current functional skills specification, not the "new and improved" version. So forget the “we have to wait until 2019” nonsense. Make the change now before we condemn another 150,000 young people to failure.
Furthermore, I have found no one who can justify why apprentices needing functional skills should be funded at half the rate. If this government is really serious about helping the most disadvantaged and the importance of English and maths, the funding needs to change now – again, no waiting around for September 2019.
With GCSE retakes and other skills policies, the ministerial commitment to social mobility is in danger of getting lost, guaranteeing yet another generation a disadvantaged start to adulthood. So abandon the resits policy and put the assessment process for doing functional skills instead in its place.
Mark Dawe is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, and former chief executive of the OCR exam board