Achieving a good standard of literacy and numeracy is vital. This is an assertion that not a single politician would take issue with. But, unfortunately, it all too often becomes a way of closing down debate around this highly complex area.
Much of this discussion in FE circles is dominated by GCSE English and maths resits. Both on the impact on students – who can end up in a spiral of repeated resits – and on colleges, which have understandably struggled to deal with the surge in entries caused the by the condition of funding making resits mandatory for those with a grade 3. This, the argument goes, is because GCSE is the currency recognised by employers, and to deny young people the opportunity to achieve this would be to do them a disservice.
As Baroness Wolf of Dulwich – the architect of the resits policy – put it to Tes, when explaining her concerns about the latest tweak to the funding rules: "In 2017, almost 70 per cent of 19-year-olds had 'level 2 with English and maths' compared to less than half of that age group just a decade earlier. And 69,000 (12 per cent) of those young people reached that critical level of achievement between 16 and 19 – after their main GCSEs. This is enormous progress and it would be terrible if we let it fall away."
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GCSEs: Repeated resits?
So far, so logical – even if you don’t necessarily agree with the argument. Or if you don’t believe it’s in the best interest of students to sit exams as many as nine times without success.
Giving young people the opportunity to retake their English and maths GCSEs at least once is vital. But there’s a group of students that is getting ignored in the debate – and, it seems, by policymakers. And it’s the most marginalised and disadvantaged of all – those who have not, and are unlikely to, achieve a standard GCSE pass.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t challenge and support all young people who didn’t achieve this benchmark during their time at school to continue striving to get there. But, inevitably, with less than a third of last summer’s 17-plus cohort in English hitting this target – dropping to less than a quarter in maths – there are many thousands of young people who leave our education system without having achieved functional literacy and/or numeracy.
The main danger of creating the cliff edge at grade 4, especially when combined with the condition of funding, is that it inevitably means that the greatest focus is given to those closest to it.
The point is made powerfully in the Learning and Work Institute’s Time for Action report, published today. It has calculated that, based on current trends, due to modest increases in the proportion of adults with at least level 2 in English and maths, England would actually see its place in the OECD league tables drop, due to greater progress being made in other nations.
The reason for this is clear: funding. Spending per 16- to 18-year-old student is now £700 lower in further education and sixth-form colleges than in schools, while total funding for adult learning has been cut in real terms since 2009-10.
Numbers not that daunting
The report calls for a £1.9 billion per year to be invested in improving basic skills until 2030. This would allow 90 per cent of adults to achieve functional literacy and numeracy, as well as increasing the number of people with level 2 and 3 qualifications to 20 and 30 per cent respectively. “This could be achieved by roughly doubling current rates of adult attainment in these skills and qualifications in England”, the report states.
The numbers sound daunting. But they shouldn’t: as the report points out, it “only returns the number of adults gaining full level 2 and level 3 qualifications each year back to the levels seen in 2010 – with a greater emphasis on level 3 within this and a 25 per cent increase in basic skills attainment compared to 2010”. And the institute has calculated that the investment would boost the economy by £20 billion annually – and increase the size of the workforce by 200,000.
The missing piece in the jigsaw that would allow the most disadvantaged young people to get to level 2 is an alternative qualification. This is why functional skills comes in. The reformed qualifications are due to be launched this summer. But just weeks before they launch, there’s still no sign of the specifications – and teachers could have to wait until the May half term to see them, leaving precious little time for preparing for the first classes in September.
The solution to the level 2 English and maths problem appears simple: offer an alternative qualification, provide adequate funding, and give teachers adequate time to prepare. None of these three targets has yet been hit.
Other countries have shown that progress is possible. There’s no reason that England can’t catch up. But without providers being given the basics - decent funding, qualifications and support, for a start - it doesn’t stand a chance.
Stephen Exley is FE editor at Tes