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Drop the failure narrative surrounding English and maths teaching - Dr Alice Eardley

5th January 2023

By Dr Alice Eardley, English Curriculum Manager, Get Further

A few years ago, I got into a robust discussion on social media with a high-profile English teacher working in a school who told me I wouldn’t know anything about teaching GCSE English Language because I taught English in an FE college. I was pretty taken aback by this. From my position immersed in a college, it seemed inconceivable that someone wouldn’t be aware of the scale of GCSE English Language delivery that routinely takes place in colleges up and down the country. The exchange highlighted the lack of widespread knowledge there is outside the sector about what we actually do when we deliver English - and maths - in FE and about our expertise in those subjects. But it also got me thinking about how those of us within the sector share information about English and maths and about the stories we tell – to each other and to those around us.

When we hear about English and maths in the FE sector, we hear a lot about the big issues – and we hear a lot that is negative. There has been considerable focus on the rights and wrongs of the resit policy, on whether the qualifications we offer are the right ones, on student motivation – or lack of it - and, potentially the most damaging of all, on “failure”. These conversations are often circular and they just don’t get to the heart of what really matters: the things we are, and should be, doing to support young people to develop the skills and get the qualifications they need to progress in their lives and careers. As we come out of the years most directly impacted by the pandemic, it feels like a good to time to switch up our conversations and refocus on our successes and on the positive stories we have to tell. Looking to the future, we need to explore and acknowledge our current, collective, expertise as English and maths specialists, share more ideas, and continue developing our practice for the benefit of the young people we support.

Let’s start with the successes. The Condition of Funding has been in place since 2014 and every year, the proportion of young people over the age of 16 who achieve a grade 4 or equivalent in English or maths has gone up. Between 2013-14 and 2020-21 there was an 83 per cent increase in the number of young people achieving level 2 in English and maths between the ages of 16 and 19. We regularly hear resit results presented as a failure, and of course there is more to be done – we cannot and should not rest until even more young people achieve the grades they want and need – but an 83 per cent improvement in achievement is something we should really be celebrating. In less than a decade, and through a pandemic, we have almost doubled a young person’s chance of securing their essential grades in English and maths. And we know that many many more who haven’t yet achieved that grade 4 or equivalent have made progress from lower starting points.

Digging deeper, a quick look at the gov.uk comparisons site reveals the individual colleges that have steadily and considerably improved their results since the introduction of the resit policy: their efforts are making a tremendous contribution to the national picture. Additional support and interventions can also have a positive impact. At Get Further, we have seen how successful colleges can be through the use of the tuition fund. Our small-group tuition programme has helped students be twice as likely to gain a grade four than the national average. If we could further distribute the expertise represented by these localised figures, then the positive impact on the young people supported within FE colleges, significant numbers of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds and/or who have SEND, would be phenomenal.

This leads me to the importance of the conversations we should now be having to consolidate our shared expertise. We often spend so much time looking for a silver bullet that we forget that the real magic happens through the consistent and effective delivery of well-honed essentials. From an English perspective, there are so many things it would be good to explore in real depth and, if necessary, have some impassioned debates about. What are the right texts to be presenting to students? Are we dumbing things down if we teach The Hunger Games instead of The God of Small Things? Should we be teaching set structures for analytical paragraphs or are they limiting our students’ potential? How much exam revision is too much? How do we develop vocabulary in nine months? And cultural capital? Should we even be trying? And how exactly does one teach the awarding body’s Paper 2, Question 4?? We need to keep developing and sharing this kind of crucial knowledge so we can reach a much sharper and widespread collective understanding of what real excellence in post-16 English and maths delivery looks like. If we do that, I don’t think it’s out of the question for us to more than double the post-16 national achievement rate in those subjects by 2025.

When we have finished exploring these things for ourselves, we should also be thinking about how we showcase our expertise on the national stage. How do we ensure that these subjects and their delivery in Further Education settings receive the high-profile political and financial support and interventions they deserve? We should be talking louder about the specific, rather than the broad and general, challenges and successes of delivering English and maths in FE, creating vocal communities, and generating the kinds of stories that will ensure that everybody, both within and beyond the sector, is aware of and deeply interested in the powerful work we are doing. I suspect that if schools had nearly doubled their achievement rates in seven years, everyone would know about it.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.