'We must acknowledge the importance of private GCSE and A-level candidates'

The A-level and GCSE results of second-chance learners matter as much as the results of students at school and college, Ros Morpeth writes

Ros Morpeth

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It wasn’t only teenagers celebrating – or feeling downcast – after this year’s A-level and GCSE results were published last month. An estimated 50,000 people each year, most of them second-chance learners, take the exams under their own steam as so-called private candidates, keen to gain the vital qualifications they missed out on at school.

To education charities such as the National Extension College (NEC), the Open University and the Workers’ Education Association, people who want a second chance at learning have always mattered. But this year, there are more reasons than ever for these hard-working and motivated second chance learners not to be overlooked as we get our heads around the grade trends.

Last year, NEC’s campaign "An Exam System That Works for Everyone", was successful in bringing about a change in the way non-examination assessments for the new A-level and GCSE qualifications are carried out. As a result of the changes in procedure made by the exam boards, private candidates can now study mainstream subjects such as A-level sciences, English language, English literature and history, and GCSE English language on an equal footing with pupils in schools and colleges.

As well as their grades not being published along with those of school and college pupils, second-chance learners studying A levels are now confronting the barrier of the move to linear A levels. The de-coupling of the AS-level (A1) from the A-level (A2) students means that these often self-funded students are now being asked for a bigger up-front commitment in both money and time. The benefit of the AS level for less-confident students was that it enabled them to test the water and be more adventurous with their subject choices. That’s why NEC supports calls for the return of the AS level as a standalone qualification.

Making a difference

NEC is asking the exam boards in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to acknowledge the importance of private candidates, as individuals and to the nation, by publishing their A-level and GCSE results from next year onwards. It’s been done before – it was stopped in the early 1990s – so we know it can be done.

Increasingly, second chance learning doesn’t just make a difference to individual lives and families.  It makes a difference at a national level, too.

First, second chance learning makes a difference to the long-term viability of the UK’s publicly funded health and education provision. People going into teaching and nursing as a second career need GCSEs and A levels.

Second, as a nation, we need second chance learning to make a difference to increasing skills levels so that there are enough people to fill the 15 million skilled jobs on offer when Britain leaves the European Union. At the moment, Britain has three million fewer skilled workers than it will need in 2019, including some without GCSEs in English and maths.

Third, the government and universities need second chance learning to makes a difference to the aim of halting the steep decline in the participation of mature students in higher education. Figures published last year by Offa (Office for Fair Access) last year showed a 50 per cent drop in the number of students aged over 21 between 2006 and 2016. The same report shows that universities failed to meet a third of targets relating to mature students in 2014-15.  

Access to flexible provision at GCSE and A level is vital if candidates are to meet entry criteria and be offered a place on their course of choice. Just one example: in February, the government launched a recruitment drive to attract the best graduates into nursing as one way of addressing the well-publicised recruitment shortfall. Nurses have to have a GCSE in English Language or Literature, maths and a science at grade C or 4. Many universities also ask for a science or social science A level, to study for an undergraduate degree in nursing.

Equal weight for private candidates

Like nursing, teaching is a profession struggling to recruit. The most recently published data in the government’s school workforce survey in England shows a fall of 14.9 per cent in the number of full-time classroom teachers working in secondary schools between 2010 and 2016. Figures cited in a report published by the House of Commons Education Selection Committee in February this year show that one-third of teachers starting jobs in English state schools in 2010 had left the profession within five years. To apply for a place on a teacher training course, candidates need GCSE English and maths at grade C (4 under the new grading system) or above.

With colleges of further education preoccupied with supporting the government’s apprenticeship programme, online learning is the obvious way for adult learners to study a new GCSE or A level subject or increase their grades in one they did at school, whether they want to change career, progress in the career they already have, or go on to higher education.

The history of second-chance learning has its roots in the Mechanics’ Institutes established in the early years of the 19th century to provide education to working men. The National Extension College and the Open University – both inspirations of the social entrepreneur Michael (later Lord) Young – and the Workers’ Education Association, and are their 20th-century successors.

In the 21st century, it’s time to give equal weight to the public examination achievements of pupils and private candidates by publishing the A-level and GCSE grades of both.

Dr Ros Morpeth OBE is chief executive of the NEC

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