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'Students need different routes to English and maths success, not re-treading the same old path'

Charlotte Bosworth, director of skills and employment at OCR, writes:

For some time, we, at OCR have highlighted that education is broader than just the exam syllabus.  So we’re delighted that the report by the Education and Training Foundation, Making maths and English work for all, recognises that the traditional learning approach leading to GCSEs can for some students present real problems often leading to disappointing results. 

With just 7 per cent of re-sits in English and maths obtaining the desired grades (after first failing to achieve them), it is clear that by simply re-treading the same educational steps, more often than not the same results are achieved. 

We have long been arguing that there needs to be an alternative to GCSE, one that suits greater contextualisation in delivery and supports the type of practical application of English and maths that is needed in the work place. 

So we are particularly pleased to see that the report by the ETF recognises that functional skills are an alternative to GCSE rather than a stepping stone to it and are emerging as qualifications that are valued by employers, learners and the education and training sector.

A more effective vocational-based programme will instead focus upon the identification of the learner’s weaknesses in their underpinning maths and English skills, teach them these skills, and then demonstrate how to apply such skills for GCSEs or further development of functional skills.

For example the GCSE supports the critical thinking skills, like analysis and evaluation; whereas functional skills supports process skills, like information processing and problem solving.  Each of these domains need to be supported by understanding of the fundamental underpinning skills, like spelling, grammar, comprehension, number, shape and space.  The acquisition of these underpinning skills is the purpose of qualifications designed to provide stepping stones to GCSE or Functional Skills, like OCR’s Cambridge Progression qualifications, which receive an explicit mention in the report.  These qualifications were designed to help identify and fill existing skills gaps to allow learners to successfully progress to GCSE or Functional Skills as appropriate for their own progression.

As well as addressing the weaknesses in students in order to deliver better English and maths outcomes, taking a different approach would also support teaching establishments when it comes to influential performance league tables. 

Recent changes to the school league table formats now means grades achieved through resits are no longer accepted.  This puts increased pressure on all stakeholders to ensure the first examination attempt really is the strongest.  OCR believes that this can be achieved by simply working alongside learners who may struggle in examinations in a way that plays to their strengths and does not reinforce their weaknesses.

Helping students to develop underpinning skills required for English and maths before progressing their process and problem-solving abilities means teachers can ensure a better in-depth grasp on such core subjects and thereby enhance the subsequent exam experience.

This can be practically delivered through a vocational focussed learning structure, which enables students to learn through ongoing assessment and provide a framework of bite-sized, credit-based units before progression to the GCSE format or further Functional Skills achievement.  A prime example would be the adaption of maths from something abstract to a process that helps solve everyday scenarios; making it both engaging and relevant for students and providing context for learning.

This approach would increase the opportunity for a  successful and rewarding academic journey for many students, and, with performance league tables in mind, also ensure that the teaching establishment is given proper and due recognition within performance indicators thanks to improved results. 

English and maths are viewed as critical subject areas - especially by prospective employers - and as such, we must collectively seek the best answers to ensure that all students are supported and have access to the most appropriate learning route for them so that they can fulfil their true potential.

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