The last word: this month in education - Paul Steer

The Last Word: this month in education - Paul Steer

Paul Steer

The DfE’s proposed changes to GCSE Religious Studies mark the latest in the ongoing march of consultations feeding into the seemingly relentless GQ Reform programme. Not surprisingly, there are a number of phrases littering the document that chime with the general direction of GQ reform, such as ‘deeper understanding’, ‘broader’, and, of course, ‘more demanding’. But each subject area is unique, coming with its own mix of stakeholders and passions, views about its importance in the curriculum and ways in which it is delivered prior to Key Stage 4. The Religious Studies consultation seems set to generate its own controversies, and the proposed emphasis on two religions, in particular, will generate a wide range of responses.

A Level maths teachers will have been interested to learn that one aspect of GQ reform which seems likely to slow down is the development of new maths GCEs, with ALCAB advising government that the redevelopment of maths GCEs should be delayed by a year for first teaching in September 2017 to allow progression from the new GCSE. Meanwhile, the coming changes to maths GCSE are already beginning to impact on school planning as is shown in the findings of the latest NFER Teacher Voice Omnibus Surveys. It reports that more than a third of schools have recruited additional staff to prepare for the new maths GCSEs; that half of schools are introducing additional maths training for teachers, and a quarter are boosting the curriculum time available for maths. None of this should come as surprise given that the maths GCSE will attract double points on the new Progress 8 school accountability measures, that the size of the new GCSE will almost certainly require more teaching time and that the qualification demands a ‘deep understanding’ of mathematics. We are also routinely reminded that maths GCSE is an important key to social mobility and that there is a national shortage of maths teachers for which all schools and colleges will have to compete. Perhaps it is more surprising how many schools, according to the NFER findings, are not putting any more of their admittedly scarce resources into preparing for the new maths GCSE.

The planned new Progress 8 measures may well punish schools who fail to deliver on the new maths GCSE, but the existing headline measure of pupils achieving 5 GCSEs A*-C, including English and maths, appears to show a declining trend in GCSE achievement in our schools right now. Most of this reflects changes in the rules, such as when and how often GCSEs can be taken, what counts as a GCSE equivalent, and the dramatic impact on subject choices that the EBacc is having. In some cases, as with the separate reporting of Speaking and Listening in English, the qualifications themselves have also changed. However, all of these changes to measures of school performance are as nothing compared to the likely recalibration that will come with the introduction of Progress 8.

Regardless of what happens in league tables, Government policy has been that a young person who fails to achieve a grade ‘C’ or above in maths or English at GCSE will be required to re-sit those qualifications as part of their post 16 studies. Fortunately, the Skills Minister has recognised that this would be a significant challenge for many who struggled with English or maths first time around. Also, the GCSE may not be the best way of developing English and maths skills in a way that links in overt and relevant ways to other post 16 study programmes.

That is why it was reassuring to see Nick Boles taking a direct interest in Functional Skills - qualifications which have a proven track record of developing functional literacy and numeracy. Functional Skills are currently subject to a review by Ofqual and now is about the right time to review these qualifications that have been around in one guise or another for a long time. Nick Boles has now opened the debate about the future of Functional Skills more widely by calling on the Education and Training Foundation to explore what types of qualifications might be needed for those likely to struggle to achieve at GCSE. Functional Skills have been around for years now and, alongside a range of predecessor qualifications, have been called on to serve different government policies from GNVQs to Diplomas and from Apprenticeships to Basic Skills. They have proven remarkably resilient and adaptable and although they may need some technical sprucing up and maybe a gentle re-brand, there is no need for the ETF to start all over again with a blank sheet of paper. As Glenys Stacey of Ofqual writes in her letter to Nick Boles about the Ofqual review of Functional Skills, we must consider “the benefits of change balanced against the benefits of stability”.

‘Meeting the English and maths challenge’ is one of the many challenges to further education highlighted in the Association of Colleges’ 2015 Manifesto. Read alongside the Association of Employment and Learning Providers’ Manifesto for Driving an Economic Recovery, and the OCR-sponsored Skills Commission report Still in Tune, what emerges is a great deal of consensus about the challenges linked to training, employment and skills – notably the importance of financial investment in skills development for UK plc, the value of real employer engagement, the positive social impact of developing skills, and the need for fewer, more strategic policy interventions.

Paul Steer
Director of Policy and Strategy at Oxford Cambridge and RSA (OCR)

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