Skip to main content

Better and earlier intervention would impact on English and maths results

14 October 2015

We’re now just over a month into the college year and more than 700,000 16 to 18-year-olds have started college courses. For many their A Levels, BTECs and other vocational or technical courses will also include GCSE English and maths. In 2014/2015 more than 65,000 16 to 18-year-olds re-took GCSE English at colleges and more than 63,000 re-took GCSE maths. Many more will have taken functional skills in these subjects; qualifications quaintly referred to as ‘stepping stones’ to GCSE. In reality as these have a more practical, applied focus they are quite different from the GCSEs they are supposed to lead towards. The numbers of students taking English and maths at GCSE level or below in colleges is a reflection of the fact that nearly 40% of young people still don’t leave secondary education with that gold standard qualification. Colleges, which have traditionally focused on preparing young people for a career in a specific vocational area such as media, horticulture or engineering, are now delivering English and maths in bulk. In some cases it represents up to 40% of the qualifications taken in a single college for the 16 to 18-year-old age group. English and maths are clearly vital for future employment and are fundamental life skills that we would wish everyone to have, but the sheer scale of the task facing colleges begs a question; why are so many young people leaving after 11 years of school without having secured these basics? Secondary schools invest huge amounts of time and energy ensuring that as many young people as possible achieve their English and maths. They run lunchtime and after-school revision lessons; some have started running revision sessions in the summer half term break prior to the GCSEs, but despite this nearly two-fifths of young people don’t achieve. Some young people see the employability value of continuing with the essential life skills of English and maths. However, more commonly colleges are faced with students who are demotivated and often struggling with basic concepts. Some young people enter college at the age of 16 with English and maths levels that would be expected for children entering secondary school as an 11-year-old. Colleges then have to try and turn this deficit around in a year, with an average of two hours per week for each subject. Some colleges allocate more time, but this eats into the main vocational programme which is the part which tends to motivate the students to attend. Classroom time is supplemented with online support and homework, but this relies heavily on the young person’s individual motivation to put in additional hours – motivation which is, more often than not, lacking. Perhaps the answer lies further down the system. Nearly 20% of children don’t achieve the expected Level 4 in Key Stage 2 SATs taken at the end of the primary stage[1]. This is an improving picture, but there is a link between ‘failure’ to achieve the required grade at 11 and achievement at GCSE at 16. Therefore, should greater remedial intervention be in place in the first years of secondary school during Key Stage 3 or perhaps during Key Stage 1 or 2 in primary schools? I would suggest it is far easier to motivate a child who is yet to experience failure to achieve the required levels than it is to do this when lack, and more often than not dislike and fear, of basic skills is entrenched. Catherine Sezen is the Senior 14-19 Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges. [1]