Why we can't save our top teachers for GCSE high-fliers

Vulnerable students taking functional skills English and maths would benefit most from their help, says Roshan Doug

We can't just save the best teachers for GCSE high-fliers - functional skills students need their help, says Roshan Doug

Many colleges and training providers have specialist lecturers to teach functional skills. But sometimes resources are such that colleges have to allocate inexperienced staff to teach on such courses.

Here are a few reasons why functional skills students deserve the most skilled, experienced and empathetic lecturers:


Background: Pass marks could drop in reformed functional skills

More on this: Functional skills changes 'could be a real mistake'

News: Reformed functional skills specifications released


Why functional skills students deserve the best

  1. Our model of formal education has failed functional skills students. Schooling focuses too much on academia and not enough on vocational skills/courses. And you, as an English or maths lecturer, are a reminder of your students’ failure because you represent the very subjects they don’t understand.
  2. With many schools having class sizes of 25-30 students and, all too often, a frantic focus on attainment, success and achievement, challenging and low-ability pupils can often be left behind. Recent figures reveal that a third of all our 16-year-olds have failed GCSE English and maths. That’s a tragedy. But sadly, it seems it has become accepted as education’s equivalent of "collateral damage”.
  3. Many functional skills students come from families with little or no education, and may not have been encouraged or supported at home. In some households, often books are not prioritised, bought or valued and, sometimes, little attention is given to homework or students’ progress. Although such cultural deprivation is difficult to fathom, you should not be surprised if your students say they’ve never read a book. Equally, their parents may show no interest in parents’ evenings.
  4. A high proportion of students have learning difficulties that have either been ignored or undetected at school. Over the years, these may have become mental stumbling blocks that prevent classroom engagement. These difficulties may include dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, etc. And it is only with patience, perseverance and hard work that you are likely to help students to remove these barriers.
  5. In comparison to other courses like BTECs and A levels, a significantly large number of students on functional skills courses come from abusive/troubled backgrounds that may result in behavioural problems or short attention span. They may appear withdrawn or self-conscious. Such characteristics may prevent them making friends, establishing relationships or trusting people in authority. It is partly your job to build their interpersonal skills and develop their confidence.
  6. At school, many students who go on to later take functional skills may struggle to make association between academic skills and the world of work. Often their frustration lies with the irrelevance of what they’re learning in class. So your teaching needs to be purposeful and contextualised at all times.
  7. Let’s be honest: many functional skills students are only enrolled at college because they are compelled to be there by law. They don’t really have much of a choice. In an ideal world, they’d rather settle for half-decent paid work. And who can blame them?
  8. Many students come from socially deprived or economically challenged backgrounds where parents and older siblings have low-paid jobs. Their households may be part of a vicious cycle of poverty – a dependency culture – where members of their families rely on social security benefits. As such, within the wider community, they may also be vulnerable, at risk of abuse or susceptible to crime or radicalisation.
  9. Many functional skills students haven’t been exposed to “otherness”, difference and/or diversity, and so may require specific education to build their awareness and understanding of our multicultural society. It is your job to help them see different perspectives and recognise their own potential.
  10. Many functional skills students haven’t had decent role models to guide them. A growing number of students come from “broken homes” where there is an absence of a father or father figure. They may live in social or emotional isolation because they haven’t had anyone they can look up to. If you’re understanding and patient, you could be their trusted and reliable reference point, someone who could make a real difference to the way they see life and the role of education.

    Dr Roshan Doug is a visiting professor, strategist and educational consultant at the University of Birmingham

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