It’s back to school…and back to basics

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This week pupils up and down the country will be starting, or returning to, school for the new academic year. Those embarking on Key Stage 5, may find their 2013/14 planners looking a little different than usual – pupils may for example be about to embark upon the new Study Programmes which were formally announced last year, following a public consultation.

It seems that each academic year brings about another Government announcement and this year is no different. Michael Gove and Matt Hancock are jointly ringing the school bell to announce that students that fail to pass English and maths at GCSE will have to keep on studying these subjects until they get them right.

This reform was proposed in 2011 by Prof Alison Wolf in her review of vocational education. The Wolf Review revealed that thousands of young people were leaving school or collge without good English and maths.

Moreover, for young people aged 19 in 2012:

  • 285,000 had left secondary school age 16 without a C or above in both GCSE English and maths
  • By the age of 19, 225,000 still did not have a C or better in both GCSE English and maths

These figures give a clear indication that we are still way off the mark from achieving EEF's benchmark set out in our Route to Growth report - that 65% of school leavers achieve five GCSE A* to C grades including English and maths by 2015.

If manufacturers were scribbling on the blackboard the message to pupils would be simple - young people leaving the education system must have a good level of numeracy and literacy to succeed in the workplace. Employers would also add that such skills are fundamental to a young person's future success whatever pathway they choose – whether full time employment, an Apprenticeship or other programme of training.

In a classroom full of manufacturers, three-quarters of companies would raise their hand when asked: who prioritises English and maths qualifications when recruiting Apprentices?

Labour doodled a light-bulb on its notebook back in 2012 when the Party stated that all young people should study English and maths until 18. Whilst numeracy is extremely important, particularly in manufacturing and engineering and we must encourage as many young people as possible to study maths at Key Stage 5, I am struggling to find a strong case for forcing young people to study a formal maths qualification for those that have already achieved Level 2. I would be tempted to suggest then that Labour rub out part of their proposal and instead explore options to incorporate maths and English into existing qualifications, for example if a college or sixth form requires pupils to take General Studies.

English and maths provision for pupils that have already achieved Level 2 (GCSE grades A* to C) or above is more appropriate when it is more ‘practical'. English that supports young people to write a CV for a job or Apprenticeship, and maths that ensures they can handle their finances (financial literacy) and undertake a job which requires basic arithmetic.

Now there may be cases in which studying elements of English and maths complements a young person's programme of study or training, such as the new Study Programmes or proposed Traineeships – but again the reason behind numeracy and literacy provision in these models is that those young people are unlikely to have attained Level 2 prior to this point.

Credit where credit's due – the Government has done just that. But there are mumblings from the back of the classroom that suggest not all in the coalition government want only those that haven't attained Level 2. Only last year Schools Minister Liz Truss made calls for maths to be taught to accompany raising the school leaving age to 18 in 2015.

A teacher's pet response to this week's announcement would be to say that requiring young people to study English and maths and re-sit these qualifications until they achieve them will be widely welcomed by manufacturers – and to some extent that is true. But the rebel instead of me, at risk of getting detention can't help but ask – why isn't Government focussing on pupils gaining these qualifications beforehand?

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Head of Education & Skills Policy

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