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Maths and English sentences increased


There is widespread agreement that Maths and English GCSEs are vital qualifications in that they are the two essentials that employers most often ask for.

Education Secretary Michael Gove obviously agrees too. In fact, he agrees so strongly that from next week, ALL 16 year olds who don’t achieve a grade C or above at GCSE will be required to retake the exams … until they pass.

What concerns me is that these young people have been in school, full-time since they were 5, they are normally taking GCSEs at age 16. So, whatever has been happening over the previous 11 years in teaching them English and Maths has clearly not worked. I am at something of a loss to see how another year, or even two years (as the education participation age rises from 16 to 17 and on to 18 in 2015) is going to help.

When we find something isn’t working and don’t have an alternative approach in mind, there is always a temptation to just do more of it. This strategy is, in any field, rarely any more successful than speaking louder at foreigners who don’t understand our language.

Yes, good English and Maths skills are vital, or rather, I would suggest that good communication and number skills are vital. What makes people effective and valued in any work role are their selection and use of a range of communication methods, whether that be speaking with people face-to-face, on the phone or whatever and using written communication in letters, reports, texts and emails and indeed in making good sense of different source documents. In other words, the functional communication skills that will enable them to thrive in all aspects of their lives in a future that is unlikely to much like the past. Similarly for the effective use of number in measuring, estimating, budgeting, calculating, etc. – and not just at basic levels.

English and Maths in this context however, are about passing GCSE exams.


The usual threshold of 5 GCSEs at A*-C may be fine for an academic route into further and higher education. Indeed that is the basis on which much education policy is designed, as though all young people should be aiming for Oxbridge and an academic career as the highest pinnacle of human achievement. So universal is 5 A*-C, that many employers still use it as a crude means of filtering out great swathes of job applicants who may, in many cases be eminently suitable for the role.

I’m not saying that the world doesn’t, and won’t, benefit from academics or that entrance to Oxbridge has no value, but I would suggest that since not everyone can get there or elsewhere in academia, alternative routes to a fulfilling life should be accommodated for the vast majority.

The numbers speak for themselves. Cambridge University accepted 4,138 students this year. Oxford took 3,233 last year (latest available) out of an 18 year old population of 802,033 (source ONS). OK, I fully accept that lots more went on to higher education elsewhere but my point is that, even at GCSE level, the curriculum and exams were, and remain, designed around the academic ambitions of a tiny 0.9% of each year group.

What’s the alternative?

It’s not as though the essential practical skills of number and communication haven’t been codified into qualifications. Under various guises such as Core Skills and Key Skills, they have been underpinning competence in work-related qualifications and apprenticeships for around 20 years alongside the equally valuable skills of problem solving and working with others.

It is unlikely that we’ll see much change under the current regime but perhaps someone will have the good sense to look at what’s gone wrong for those young people who haven’t achieved the required grade after 11 years, look into the future and use the insights to come up with alternative strategies of teaching and learning that will help them make the grade so that they are not sentenced to more similarly unproductive activity, with no hope of parole.


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