Properly funded English and maths is a basic right

8th December 2017 at 00:00
Some GCSE resit students will never get a ‘good’ pass – but we can equip them with the skills they need to function, writes Anne Haig Smith

With another demanding start to the FE year under our belts, our new cohorts of GCSE retake students are settling into their classes. But the lot of these students is not necessarily a happy one. Hot on the heels of the disappointment of finding out that the longed for C or 4 grade has not materialised, students discover that a substantial part of their week is now filled with retake classes.

Some are eager to do well this time around – some are resigned to their fate, but as yet unconvinced they will succeed. Then there are a handful who are reluctant, posing challenges with attendance and engagement.

These students can find it difficult to foresee the impact that the lack of these qualifications will have on their future lives. They prefer to take a chance that their teachers are wrong and it won’t matter.

Nor is the lot of the GCSE retake teacher a happy one. How would a school-based English or maths teacher feel with a timetable full of year 11 lower sets – no delightfully enthusiastic Year 7s, no highly engaged A-level groups? It takes a special breed of teacher to take on this challenge with creativity and diligence, particularly in the face of intense criticism of low grade improvement.

I have had the privilege to work alongside many such teachers, who throw so much energy and enthusiasm into their classes, celebrate the successes and feel deeply every disappointing result. My metaphorical hat is off to every one of them.

And finally, the lot of the English and maths coordinator is not a particularly happy one, either. While colleagues survey robust application data, the English and maths coordinator polishes their crystal ball with a heavy sigh and wonders what impact the new specifications will have on enrolment numbers, how their team are going to cope with legacy GCSE students in classes alongside those fresh from the new specifications and how exactly to confront the business coordinator, who has re-timetabled a GCSE maths class to three hours on a Friday afternoon.

Herding the proverbial cats that are English and maths resits, this coordination role is potentially career-limiting, given the heavy lifting required to raise pass rates at C or 4 grade just a few percentage points above the “unacceptably low” – thanks Ofsted, for pointing that out for us – national average.

Casting magic spells

All of which brings us to the similarly unhappy lot of the senior manager, who forgot to duck when the responsibility for GCSE resits was dispensed a few years ago.

They alone bear the responsibility of possibly crashing the organisational achievement data, have to explain to governors why a nearly 50 per cent achievement rate is actually to be celebrated and wonder what magic spell they need to cast to transform 18 per cent into 81 per cent – certainly a powerful one.

You might take from this that I am advocating the removal of the conditions of funding and a return to the halcyon days of yore. Absolutely not. I started my FE career teaching in adult literacy classes. Anyone who thinks English and maths tuition up to the age of 18 is wrong should visit those classes and ponder the consequences.

We are far enough down this particular road to realise that a few more hours teaching on top of what has been received at school, like adding icing on the top of a cake, is simply not the answer.

Schools work incredibly hard to get their pupils through their GCSEs. Those who turn up to resit in FE are there for a reason. Unpicking and then remodelling their English and maths skills takes several years.

Firstly, let’s stop pretending that the £480 per head was ever a payment for the delivery of English and maths and accept that it was a pre-existing proxy for higher levels of need. Forcing colleges to squeeze both extra support and English and maths delivery out of the same small amount of funding further disadvantages those very students. Properly funded English and maths provision is a basic right for our FE students.

Secondly, instead of berating providers for low achievement rates, let’s start counting the number of lives transformed. Let’s celebrate the skills improvement of our students. Let’s compassionately acknowledge that some students will never reach the grades desired.

But let’s make sure that we equip them with English and maths skills, whatever qualification route we follow, so that they can confidently function in society and not get stuck in dreary employment – unlike Eric, one of my early basic skills students, who spent 30 years cleaning vomit and detritus from the inside of local buses because he was unable to write a CV to apply for a different job.

Anne Haig Smith is director of the Applied Learning Foundation at Activate Learning

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