Do bricklayers really need GCSE maths?

14th November 2014 at 00:00
We should not force students to achieve that elusive C grade when functional skills based on their career goals are far more useful

I want to start by being honest about my standpoint: I believe that the current policy of pushing all students towards gaining GCSEs in English and maths is not in their best interests and should be urgently reviewed.

I like to think that I have had a successful career, albeit with my fair share of lucky breaks, as my family likes to point out. At various times I have been a bricklayer, a sixth-form college and further education college principal, a director of education and head of Ofsted's post-compulsory division. I do not have a single CSE, O-level or GCSE to my name (although I did obtain a 10 yards swimming certificate at my primary school). However, I have always striven to ensure that I have the necessary English and maths skills to fulfil these roles.

As an apprentice bricklayer, I attended what is now MidKent College and part of my studies included maths. The teaching was contextualised and appropriate to what were then my career aspirations. We were given various projects, ranging from building a simple garden wall to erecting a single-storey extension, and tasked with working out the materials needed and the costs of labour. This involved addition, subtraction, multiplication, percentages, calculating areas and volumes, and making judgements about aspects such as wastage (with most brick types, approximately 5 per cent will be broken or chipped and not suitable for good quality facework).

The work wasn't easy but it was relevant and motivating. We knew that we would benefit if we gained these skills and the lessons were purposeful and focused. This was in the early 1970s but this practice is still going on in the best functional skills classes today. My personal experience relates to construction, but at MidKent College, where I am now chief executive, students in hairdressing, plumbing, electrical, engineering and any number of other vocational areas are taught English and maths in an integrated way that reflects their career goals.

The new policy requires schools and colleges to ensure that all students without a minimum C grade in English and maths are working towards GCSE. The common practice seems to be to require any student with a D grade to do retakes.

The minimum C grade is a formal requirement in some industries, meaning that retaking GCSE is in the best interests of the student. However, for the vast majority of FE students this is not the case and the current policy is not serving them well.

The sting of `failure'

Our pass rate for GCSE retakes in English and maths is in line with the national average, with about 50 per cent achieving a C grade. Most of these students have already had two failed attempts at achieving the elusive C grade before coming to college. We are in an area of selective education and nearly all our students, like me, "failed" their 11-plus selection test. Understandably, they don't always join us with the self-belief and motivation to commit to a third attempt at GCSE English or maths.

What does motivate them is their employment choice. They arrive at college wanting to succeed in areas such as animal care, beauty or hospitality and catering. Our vocational courses include functional skills at level 2, and while external exams test the candidates' skills in a generic setting, we can tailor the curriculum to reflect the vocational pathway.

It would be naive to suggest that young people do not question the value of functional skills, as that is patently the case (not least because a lot of work remains to be done on strengthening the brand). However, it is much easier to make a compelling case for job-related English and maths skills than it is to ask students to re-engage with a curriculum they have spent the last five years following.

It is frequently cited that employers prefer GCSE to functional skills but this is simply a reflection of brand awareness. I am confident that if we summarised the skills that can be developed by studying functional courses, and then did the same for GCSEs, the former would most closely match employers' stated requirements. Skills minister Nick Boles has written to exams body Ofqual asking them to review functional skills. Any research with employers as end users should focus on what skills they believe young people need rather than which qualification is best known.

At MidKent College, the numbers retaking GCSE have increased from about 180 to nearly 900. We have some great staff teaching GCSE who are doing their level best to find new ways to engage our learners and drive up their grades. Yet even on my more positive days, I envisage that only about two-thirds will make it, which leaves about 300 who, despite having made demonstrable progress, will be deemed to have "failed" again.

For too long, this country has had an academicvocational divide which has undermined the value we place on vocational education. There is some evidence (for example, the commitment of all three main political parties to apprenticeships) to suggest that things are changing for the better. This provides us with a window of opportunity to reinvigorate functional skills so that they become the leading qualifications for English and maths post-16.

Stephen Grix is chief executive of MidKent College

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