Deprived teens revolt over pen-and-paper exams

22nd April 2011 at 01:00
`We've never seen anything like it,' says provider of reaction to formal skills assessment

Training providers working with some of the most disadvantaged teenagers are reporting students walking out of exams or breaking down in tears after recent changes to literacy and numeracy tests.

After the national roll-out of new functional skills tests last summer, students in foundation learning - which is designed to help some of the 190,000 teenagers who have dropped out of school back into education or work - faced traditional pen-and-paper exams instead of more informal online tests.

The change has prompted a revolt at some training providers. One, which is rated outstanding but asked to remain anonymous to avoid discouraging future students, said it had seen nearly one in three students refuse to take the exams on some occasions.

"The most severe one was where the learner completely broke down, was in floods of tears, stormed out of the room. We tried to calm her down, but she wouldn't come back to take the test," the provider said.

"We've had others just sit there and look blankly at it. We've never experienced anything like it."

Paul Warner, director of delivery at the Association of Learning Providers, said enrolments and results were likely to suffer as a result of the move to functional skills tests.

He said last summer's rush to enrol students on the final entry to employment courses, which preceded foundation learning, may mask the drop in numbers at first, but he expected retention and achievement rates to have fallen.

"We've said all along that starts in functional learning have gone down, and when the retention and achievement rates are out they will have started dropping too," he said. "The system that failed them in compulsory education is just failing them again."

But colleges, which generally attract students who expect a greater degree of classroom learning and testing, said they had not experienced the same problem.

Debbie Ribchester, curriculum manager at the Association of Colleges, said: "Functional skills are certainly seen as more academically rigorous, and there may have been some initial resistance from students on courses not traditionally associated with high levels of literacy and numeracy." But she said colleges had embraced them.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education, which has already postponed the spread of functional skills into apprenticeships, said it was considering recommendations made in the Wolf review about the tests.

Professor Alison Wolf, in her report on vocational qualifications for under-19s, said functional skills had much lower pass rates than the previous key skills system, which was itself "valueless" when it came to progression.

She said the functional skills system had "major fundamental flaws": it aimed to "embed" literacy and numeracy qualifications in a range of vocational options to make them relevant, and it tested them in a common, external exam. "This is not a circle which can be squared," she said.

She recommended that the system should focus on bringing students up to GCSE level. "The crucial thing is to recognise the central place of English and mathematics GCSEs in English life, and the duty of post-16 education to prioritise them. If this is clear, teachers will be best placed to choose intermediate qualifications for use," she said.

Original headline: Tears at test time: deprived teens revolt over pen-and-paper exams

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