Despite continuing improvements in education, too many young people are still leaving school with low skills in literacy and numeracy. This affects their confidence, their attitude to lifelong learning and leaves them with few choices in the labour market whatever the state of the economy. There is also a strong likelihood this cycle of disadvantage will be passed onto the next generation. Professor Alison Wolf has led the Government’s review of vocational education for 14 to 19 year-olds to consider how it can be improved in order to promote successful progression into employment, higher level education and training. Professor Wolf was unable to attend a recent NIACE seminar to discuss her proposals with colleagues, but she agreed to answer some of the questions raised via blog postings. Over to you Alison.
I am really grateful for the chance to open a discussion here about the teaching of post-16 Maths and English and to learn from people’s experiences. Of all the recommendations that I made in my Review, I think that continued teachingof Maths and English is one of the most important points and one that I cared about most. I’ll come back to the evidence later, but in my view – and I know I’m not alone – ensuring that young people and adults have good English and Maths skills is the single most important thing that education can do for them. If they don’t, doors everywhere shut in their faces and it is extraordinarily hard for them to come back into education, do well in training programmes, start businesses, win promotions, lead successful lives, manage their affairs.
Before I start this discussion I would be very grateful indeed for some more information about the evidence behind this statement:
Currently, there are not enough funded hours to support learners to pass a GCSE, for instance the gap between grades D and C can be huge and it’s not simply a matter of doing a bit of extra revision but learning new skills.
I’m not querying this: quite the opposite! But how would I prove the point? How many hours do you need? Why are the hours so inadequate? Are they calculated totally differently from the amount implied by the ‘Guided Learning Hours’ for a GCSE, and the time allocated when it’s taught at Key Stage 4? The sooner the better on this, please, as the Department for Education is discussing learning programmes and funding formulae right now and I’d like to try and feed this in!
To kick-start this discussion, I’d like to address one of the main questions posed:
GCSE is a strong and recognisable brand, but does it live up to it? Where’s the evidence that GCSEs are a ‘gold standard’ and is it appropriate for all sectors/industries? Does competence equate with qualifications? Employers are not finding this.
It’s worth remembering that the gold standard was a fixed point that everyone shared. It is not that gold is intrinsically valuable, whatever that would mean. But it was stable, quite rare and couldn’t be faked. If people had stopped believing in it, it wouldn’t have worked. Modern money also depends on us believing that it will keep its value (more or less). If you want to explain a run on the banks, and the loss of value, watch and use the relevant bit in Mary Poppins!
GCSE is really quite like that. It is the gold standard in the sense that people believe in it more or less, and more than the alternatives. (Quite like modern money, in fact.) They don’t think it is perfect, but they think it has some meaning, and compared to what – sea shells? I’m not being frivolous. We did some in-depth research on how employers actually hired, rather than how CEOs were telling ministers that they did. We found that employers today, many of them quite consciously, have given up trying to keep up with qualification changes. They use GCSEs (sometimes still referred to as O levels) because they think they are the most stable thing out there. They use English and Maths because they think they know what English and Maths are about, and because they care about them.
If GCSEs are not providing evidence of competence the answer is to reform GCSEs, not provide lists of competences or yet another totally unfamiliar award. Employers (and universities) have at least some faith that GCSEs are based on objective exams, even if declining. A list of competences, or a new qualification they have never heard of, is not going to be accepted as a substitute, however much they are complaining about GCSEs. (I’m personally a little sceptical about some of the extreme complaints that come from employers, as far as young people with GCSEs are concerned – especially in the Maths area. I’d be interested to know if you think the employers are right, and what the mis-match is.)
I don’t think it is the job of an education system to train young people for specific industries! If employers need an unusual and specific bit of maths (or English?), then they should attend to that. Our job is general education for a lifetime.
One other point. Maths and English GCSEs may not be perfect, but they are pretty highly correlated with performance on free-standing tests of English and Maths administered in research projects. And both of these – getting a good GCSE grade, and also doing well on tests that employers don’t know about, and which can therefore be taken as independent measures of attainment – are important in predicting people’s future success in the labour market. So employers really do reward both the bit of paper and the underlying skills.
Over to you on these – and I’ll be posting something on the next few questions shortly, which include:
Is GCSE appropriate for post-19 and how would a different qualification achieve the same currency?
Is a linear approach to GCSE (and taking away opportunity for re-takes) appropriate for the 25,000 adults who take them each year? Could skills be marked separately and shown on the certificate?
How do we motivate young people who have already failed GCSE or who are dealing with complex lives (caring responsibilities, living independently, issues with drugs and alcohol etc.)?
What is your view on functional skills?
Literacy, language and numeracy are not assessed in all vocational qualifications, should they be?
Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London, where she directs the MSc in Public Services Policy and Management.
In March 2011 she completed an official review of vocational education for England’s Secretary of State for Education, whose recommendations were accepted in full by the current government. Alison Wolf is a visiting professor at the Institute of Education, London, and an academic member of King’s College Council; has advised both UK awarding bodies and overseas governments on assessment; and was a founding member of the editorial board of Assessment in Education (academic journal).