Educationalists and employers in Wales have long bemoaned the low levels of literacy and numeracy among a proportion of school leavers. But new figures from the Welsh government suggest that efforts to improve basic skills may have stalled.
Statistics show that the number of enrolments on college courses at level 1, the equivalent of GCSE grades D-G, or lower has stayed remarkably consistent at about 37 per cent for the past four years. In the same period the number of enrolments at level 2, equivalent to GCSE grades A*-C, has fallen by 2 per cent, and stood at 34 per cent in 2010-11.
ColegauCymru, which represents the FE sector in Wales, has seized upon the figures as evidence of a need for school leavers to "go back to basics".
"Everyone above 16 years of age is expected to have achieved the level 2 benchmark," said chief executive John Graystone. "To have 37 per cent of enrolments at further education colleges, community learning or work-based learning at level 1 is shockingly high. It indicates that a very large proportion of school leavers as well as adults who have long since finished compulsory schooling need to go back to basics."
But Gareth Jones, secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, said that the figure may have more to do with a lack of planning between schools and colleges than a dearth of skills.
"Students who leave school to study A levels at college usually have a planned progression route," he said. "But there are those who don't take that route and may apply to a college on an individual basis, not knowing what courses are best for them. Their choice of course is unplanned and often unsuitable."
Philip Dixon, director of the ATL education union, said that while some school leavers do need to go back to basics, some colleges have pushed applicants on to unsuitable level 1 courses because they don't know their abilities and achievements.
He said that the ongoing qualifications review in Wales should look in detail at the type of level 1 courses on offer in colleges and whether some students are on a "carousel" of courses, taking one after another but not progressing.
The Welsh government said that the data reflects a number of "complex and interrelated issues", but does not support the notion that more young people are leaving school without key qualifications. "Results in Wales indicate that an ever increasing proportion of our young people are gaining the equivalent of five good GCSEs including English or Welsh and mathematics," a spokesman said. "The education minister has been clear about the need for further and sustained improvement and has set out a clear agenda to secure the necessary improvements."
A separate set of figures released last week revealed positive news for the FE sector in Wales in terms of attainment and completion. According to the statistics, in 2010-11 some 81 per cent of students who started a course completed it and attained a qualification, and of those who sat an exam, 90 per cent passed.
TAKING A TUMBLE
New figures show a dramatic drop over the past five years in the number of part-time FE students in Wales.
ColegauCymru said that colleges have closed many part-time courses as their priorities have shifted, and it called for a detailed investigation into the figures.
189,300 - Number of part-time learners in 2005-06
124,095 - Number of part-time learners in colleges in 2010-11
43,420 - Number of full-time learners in 2005-06
45,850 - Number of full-time learners in 2010-11.