English and maths – whose failure is it anyway?

English and maths pic

Blog by Sally Dicketts, Group Chief Executive, Activate Learning
Follow me on twitter @sallydicketts

Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw dealt a well-documented body blow to the further education sector last month when he suggested 16 to 19-year-olds would be better off in schools.

When quizzed on his comments to the Education Select Committee, he cited students’ poor performance in GCSE English and maths retakes as a key indicator of the sector’s failings.

Young people who don’t do well in these subjects at 16, rarely improve two years later, he complained.

If schools have failed to prepare these young people for GCSE success in 11 years, why are colleges being criticised for failing to reverse their fortunes in just two?

Last summer the think tank, Policy Exchange, published a report suggesting schools pay a levy to colleges where pupils joined having failed to secure good English and maths grades. The levy would help to ease colleges’ growing budget pressures over what could be seen as “passing the buck” of under-performance.

While many are still reeling from Sir Michael’s comments on further education, engaging in the blame game isn’t really going to help anyone.

No one doubts that English and maths are vital life and employability skills, but for me the question is whether GCSEs are the right indicator of success at all.

If a young person has struggled with English and maths at school, simply asking them to repeat the same exercise for another two years is only likely to reinforce failure.

Our emotions are the biggest barrier to effective learning and our emotional roadblocks are immediately raised when we are presented with a situation we have failed in before.

To break a habit we need to do things differently. We have seen a clear difference in our colleges where English and maths is embedded in the vocational curriculum. A student in hospitality and catering may struggle to see the relevance of writing an essay about their summer holiday, but can appreciate the need to present a clear ingredients list and explain a menu’s nutritional value.

This approach serves to demonstrate the value and impact of English in a vocational context. Students see the relevance and immediately feel motivated to put in the effort required to achieve.

While I absolutely disagree with Sir Michael’s comments about further education, what I hope it provokes is a further debate about how we teach and measure English and maths.

We need to stop being lazy in the way that we make judgements about student attainment, and instead understand the literacy and numeracy skills required for success in employment and life.