'Very different' approach needed to GCSE resits, Milton admits

Apprenticeships and skills minister Anne Milton tells Tes the government is looking at functional skills as an alternative to English and maths GCSEs

Julia Belgutay

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Post-school maths and English courses should offer “something very different” to the GCSE courses taught in schools to avoid creating a "brick wall" blocking young people's progress, according to the apprenticeships and skills minister.

Speaking exclusively to Tes after her speech at the Association of Colleges (AoC) annual conference, Anne Milton said she was aware the funding condition that students with a grade D or 3 in GCSE maths and English in school had to resit the qualification in college was something the sector felt very strongly about.

“It is really important," she said. "I have had meetings about exactly this. I now feel I am getting on top of this brief and in a position to look specifically at that.”

'Something very different'

The minister added she had been "struck" by what she was told by a minister from Singapore while attending last month’s WorldSkills competition in Abu Dhabi. “I was very struck by what the minister in Singapore said about the fact that their strength in English and maths in school is what makes it easier after that. But also alongside [that] is employability of people – are we leaving that too late? Is 16 too late to start considering that?

She said the government was “looking at functional skills” as an alternative qualification to GCSEs.  “If someone has failed to learn English and maths by the age of 16, you have got to be doing something very different to find a way to teach them to do English and math after that, because you failed to do it for 11 years, despite your best efforts. So I have started a discussion about that, but I know the sector feels very strongly.”

She added: “It is very dispiriting for teachers, who are banging their head against what feels like a brick wall. So how can we knock a hole in that wall?”

The introduction of GCSE resits as a funding condition led to a significant increase in the number of people sitting the qualification in colleges. This has created logistical challenges for the sector, but has also meant young people are often forced to resit a number of times before finally getting the required grade.

Review welcome

Catherine Sezen, senior policy manager for the Association of Colleges, said the organisation would “welcome a review of the government’s approach to the condition of funding and the opportunity to explore different ways to improve young people’s English and maths”. She  added: “For some young people, GCSEs may be the right route, but for others, functional skills may be an option. But we are also looking forward to the skills plan and looking forward to how we embed English and maths in T levels, and, maybe more importantly, students on programmes at level 2 and below.

Speaking at the AoC conference yesterday, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “There has to be an assurance that every young person is competent in English and maths. So we have to ensure the teaching is good. There has to be a level met and it has to be encouraged.  Maths and English are very, very important.”

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “Rather than sentencing young people to mandatory retakes, there should be an initial assessment for learners who got a D or a grade 3, and then let those unlikely to pass have the option to do functional skills. Nor do we need to wait for ‘new and improved’ functional skills; if we make the change now and introduce fair funding for the alternative option, a further 150,000 young people will avoid being branded as failures.”

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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