Colleges and providers are calling on the government to develop new post-16 GCSEs in English and maths that are more relevant to learners in further education.
Since last year, students in England who fail to gain at least a C grade in either subject must continue studying until they achieve this target, after a recommendation made in the 2011 Wolf report on vocational education.
But with almost half of school-leavers going on to attend an FE college or other post-16 setting, concerns have been raised that the current GCSE English and maths specifications are not "fit for purpose" for all learners. As a result, the Association of Colleges (AoC), the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) and exam board OCR are all calling for new qualifications better suited to students in the FE sector.
Joy Mercer, director of policy at the AoC, told TES: "There is a case to be made for new GCSEs for post-16 in maths and English language skills that are more aligned with the kind of vocational, skills-based courses these young people are taking and that will give them the skills they will need in later life.
"I think we need a reality check about whether the GCSEs in their current form are fit for purpose for post-16 settings. It might be more useful to have context-based, applied GCSEs with a modular approach to achievement that have an input from employers."
This year, English and maths accounted for the vast majority of the 35,000 increase in GCSE entries from students aged 17 and over. However, the rise was overshadowed by a drop in A*-C grades among the older cohort of candidates, from 50.4 per cent to 47.2 per cent. The proportion of A* grades in this age group also fell, from 3.7 per cent the previous year to 3.2 per cent. This compares with a figure of 6.7 per cent among the candidates overall.
Exam chiefs blamed the attainment gap on the switch from modular to linear assessment, with students who have previously failed to achieve a C finding it even more difficult to improve their grade in resits under the new approach.
Mark Dawe, chief executive of OCR and formerly principal of Oaklands College, told TES that the exam board had been lobbying the government to introduce a separate modular GCSE structure for older learners. "It's the [students] who are further away from the C grade that are going to be a real challenge for schools and colleges," he said. "You can't just hammer them with the same stuff over and over and expect them to pass.
"There's a lot of worry because the functional skills route was a way of embedding the maths and English within their learning, whereas the GCSE is more detached.
"We fully agree that, up to 16, free up the teaching time and have the exam at the end. But if that hasn't worked and we're talking about the same content [for post-16 learners], why not allow a bit more flexibility in the teaching approach?"
Mr Dawe said that FE institutions struggled to persuade learners to attend English and maths classes. "If you tell students, `You are doing a GCSE', they don't have to turn up for the lessons. What's the incentive for them to actually get through and pass? It just feels like going to back to school again."
Stewart Segal, chief executive of the AELP, said that GCSEs were not appropriate for a work-based learning environment. "It will be a challenge to teach what is quite an academic programme in a working environment where classroom time is limited," he said. "What we need is more practical, applied, vocational GCSEs that employers feel comfortable with."
A Department for Education spokesman said: "English and maths are the two most vocational subjects you can study. That's why employers demand them before all other subjects and why we now require all post-16 education providers to teach English and maths to those who have failed to achieve a C in their GCSEs. Colleges already have the freedom to tailor their teaching to focus on the application of maths to real-life situations."