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Primary Education News
News Yes, English and maths GCSEs are important. But not everyone can get a C | Lola Okolosie
Insisting on all students retaking exams until they pass will stigmatise those for whom that is not a realistic expectation
It is not often that I find myself applauding the policies of Michael Gove, the education secretary. Monday's announcement that 16-year-olds without a GCSE grade C in English and maths will be compelled to continue the subjects made me do just that. Yet, seeing the merit behind an idea does not mean it isn't flawed.
The reform, initially recommended by Professor Alison Wolf in her influential 2011 report on vocational education, seeks to address some shocking statistics. In 2012 alone, nearly 285,000 19-year-olds left secondary school without a C grade in English and maths. I am all for allowing low-attaining pupils continued access to the wonders of reading and writing. I am an English teacher and unsurprisingly consider the written word is the answer. As I've said, this is a commendable undertaking. But the devil is, ever annoyingly, in the detail.
The initiative isn't as groundbreaking as the media coverage of it might suggest. Most further education institutions already offer English and maths resits. Indeed, many students themselves recognise that both subjects are an integral element to their being considered employable and choose to resit these exams. Some are able to pass on their second attempt. Others try three times and remain unable to gain a C grade in either subject. What, then, are we to do with those who may have successfully completed a post-16 qualification but are unable to gain the prized Cs in English and maths? Is their achievement rendered worthless?
There is a vast difference between candidates who attain a D grade and those that get an E or F. In better preparing students for the world of work and social relationships, we need to recognise that for some, attaining functional skills in both subjects is far more realistic and preferable. This should be our aspiration. And to the government's credit, this is something they fleetingly concede to. Yet in the rush to appear bullish on education, the headline from their own press release loses all sense of nuance and complexity. All must continue "to study the subjects in post-16 education until they get" their C grades. The truth is that simply isn't possible.
Some may see this as mere nitpicking but in times of stretched resources schools and colleges will be forced to make tough choices about whether they are able to provide the same level of support to students unable to acquire C grades and those that should be pushed to do so. If we agree that our focus should be on students achieving grade C, we risk leaving the weakest students behind.
Nearly a quarter of school leavers are functionally innumerate, lacking the basic numeracy skills needed to navigate our world; 17% are functionally illiterate. Students struggling with basic literacy and numeracy skills do not need a GCSE grade C by the age of 19. They need the curriculum to be pared back, allowing them to plug the gaps in their subject knowledge and focus on the strengthening of key skills.
Furthermore, under Gove, major changes to the funding of post-16 education have taken place, leaving many schools and sixth-form colleges facing budget cuts of up to 15%. The policy, which begins this term, is worrying in its opacity about how this new initiative will be funded. The Association of Colleges estimates that an extra 1,000 English and 1,100 maths teachers will be required. Will institutions be provided with extra pots of cash?
In my experience, students who are not high attainers in a subject tend to meet it with loathing, sometimes passionate, sometimes reserved. Their dislike of that subject and desire for it to be over can often lead to a dangerous lack of confidence in and disaffection with education. They do not need more of the same – a fast-moving prescriptive curriculum culminating in an exam they believe they are likely to fail. The government should provide an increase in funding, focus on smaller class sizes and allow schools the freedom to move away from the curriculum when it suits the needs of their learners. As it stands, Gove's plan risks further stigmatising thousands seeking a brighter path through education.