Resists, Reformed Functional Skills and T Levels – the future of post 16 English and maths in a changing landscape

Catherine Sezen, Senior Policy Manager, the Association of Colleges (AoC)

The vision

There is widespread college support for the ‘Wolf analysis’ that English and maths are gateway skills and qualifications for employment, FE, HE and life. There is also continued strong support within the college sector for the theory that all 16 to 18-year-olds without GCSE grade 3/C+ should continue to study English and maths more formally and that English and maths should be embedded throughout the post 16 offer. This is reflected in the significant investment, not met by any additional funding, by the sector in implementing the condition of funding. But the consistently poor results mean that a new approach is needed to ensure young people have the skills they need. We celebrate with those who do achieve a GCSE in the 16 to 19 phase, but for many more others it is another three years of perceived failure, despite individual progress.

The context

Over the past five years we have seen a huge cultural shift in college approaches to English and maths.  It is important at this point to stop and highlight that colleges have always offered English and maths (Functional Skills, GCSE or other stepping stone qualifications) to young people, but the introduction of the condition of funding for students entering college with a grade 3 or below means that there are now many more students taking GCSE and as a consequence far fewer taking Functional Skills. GCSE requires more hours and more teachers and as we have seen over the past couple of weeks far more space to accommodate the thousands of students resitting in colleges.

Colleges have of course taken on the challenge of how best to approach this mammoth task and over the past five years we have seen clear strategic focus on a whole college approach supported by posters, badges and internal policies that place English and maths at the heart of the curriculum offer; ‘you can’t live without ME’ (maths and English).

A recent AoC survey reflects the sector’s feelings about the policy and the challenge. The ambition to support every young person to improve their English and maths skills is widely shared in the responses, but the policy and delivery issues are complex. Lack of flexibility in the condition of funding, inadequate funding, challenges to recruit and retain staff, student engagement and motivation featured heavily in the majority of responses.

The present

We are now coming towards the end of the 2018/19 academic year and English and maths cycle and eagerly await the GCSE results in August. But what light do last year’s GCSE results shed on the impact of the policy for the part of the sector that delivers 90% of resists? In maths there were nearly 100,000 16 to 18 entries with a high-grade pass rate of just over 18%. In English there were just over 100,000 entries with a slightly better high-grade pass rate of nearly 28%. Before moving on, it is important to contextualise these figures.  2017/18 was the first year that all post–16 students had to take the reformed GCSE specs. In English the high-grades (4 and above) were in line with the previous year’s legacy results. Anecdotally teachers say that the removal of controlled assessment for a resist offer means a focus on skills rather than re-teaching texts and completing course work, which didn’t make much impact on the overall grade, is welcomed. In maths, the high-grades dropped possibly because of the additional content. It is also worth noting that some colleges put all grade 2 and 3 students in for GCSE which may supress the results in both subjects.  This is not a decision taken lightly, but after careful consideration of what is right for students.  Students and parents/carers recognise GCSE; to move to Functional Skills and then back to GCSE once achieving a Level 2 is not a logical journey (this has been amended in the new Department for Education progress measures); a move from grade 2 to grade 3 GCSE is progression and much more satisfying for a student than failing to achieve Level 2 Functional Skills.

An analysis of the data also indicates that students are much more likely to obtain a high-grade when they retake at 16 than in subsequent years; that females have a better chance of achieving English than males, but that in maths it is fairly balanced; that students on A Level or other classroom based Level 3 provision are more likely to achieve high-grades than those on construction and or services courses which is probably a reflection of a student’s overall pattern of higher grades on entry in some subjects.

Functional Skills – will reform make a difference?  

Perhaps the most interesting statistic for Functional Skills pass rates for 2017/18 is that while there were many thousands of students taking Level 1 and entry Level the numbers for Level 2 are small, nearly 6,500 for maths and just over 7,500 for English. The pass rates at Level 2 were significantly lower than for the other levels at just over 40% for maths and 50% for English. It could be argued therefore that the reformed Functional Skills will make little impact all the while the grade 3 condition of funding is in place; the jump is too high for grade 2 students. We will have to wait and see how the reformed Functional Skills perform. What we do know however, is that students with a grade 2 on entry no longer have to continue working towards GCSE, achieving Level 2 Functional Skills is sufficient. This change is underpinned by the 2020 performance tables which sees an increase in the relative progress points for attaining Functional Skills Level 1 and Level 2 qualifications.

Improvement initiatives

There has been a flurry of improvement initiatives in maths. Additional funding should be welcomed in the current climate, even if it is ringfenced for one area. There are 21 Centres for Excellence in maths which are focusing on research and dissemination of good practice within networks.  Some colleges and other providers have also received funding through the Basic Maths Premium Pilot designed to show that additional funding makes a difference. At AoC we are working on another maths initiative funded by EEF, the 5Rs project which is based on the 40 most common topics in GCSE exams and common exam pitfalls. You can find out more by emailing [email protected].

English has felt like the poor relation in comparison. After all, good literacy and communication under pins all learning, even in maths! However, over the past few months I have been honoured to be the post-16 representative on the ASCL English Commission. We will hear more about the recommendations in a few months, but it was a privilege to work alongside others who are passionate about getting English ‘right’ from nursery to post 16 and beyond, especially for the forgotten third who do not achieve a high grade at GCSE.

English and maths – The Future?

While we don’t anticipate much let up on the focus on English and maths in the next year or so, policy changes elsewhere will impact on this area.  The new Ofsted Education Inspection Framework means that it will be more important than ever to have a clear rationale for which English and maths qualifications are being used to deliver on the Condition of Funding, especially for students with grade 2 and below grades on entry. The focus on curriculum and pedagogy may lead to more questions on embedding English and maths and how the study programme is designed for students without (and with) GCSEs in English and maths.

The introduction of T Levels from 2020 in a small number of providers presents an interesting tension in a joined-up curriculum offer.  T Levels will not be subject to the condition of funding; students can work towards GCSE or Functional Skills, but achieving both will be a requirement of the overall programme. It is proposed that English and maths will be funded in addition to the T Level Study Programme at a rate of £750.

English and maths – a future vision

All the above leads to concrete AoC policy asks for delivery of 16 to 18 English and maths. Firstly, English and maths needs to be funded properly, in line with T Levels, in order to make a greater positive impact.  Colleges struggle to recruit and retain staff in a competitive market and there could be greater individualisation through digital and small group support if there were more money. Secondly, the condition of funding for all study programmes must reflect the T Level requirements.  For many students GCSE is the qualification of choice and appropriate to meet their progression or career aims, but others need flexibility; time to build up confidence, fill the gaps in learning and consolidate knowledge through an appropriate level Functional Skill. As a result of AoC and college discussion with the Department of Education we have seen positive changes to the progress measures, though students and colleges can still get negative achievement, which is demoralising.  Finally, we would like to see greater recognition of the hard work of staff and students. It is not for lack of trying and commitment that students don’t achieve, but that the jump is too high, too soon.

It is time for a rethink. This is a policy which impacts on colleges, their students and staff and colleges are ready to contribute expertise and passion to thinking that will see greater improvement of skills.

Find out more about our #FullyFunctional campaign for a level playing field for English and maths inlcuding fair access to alternatives for young people so they can get on in life. 

Fully Functional

About AoC 

The Association of Colleges (AoC) is a not-for-profit membership organisation established in 1996 by colleges, for colleges. Acting as acollective voice, the AoC represents and promotes the interests of colleges, and provide its members with high-quality professional support services, including training, events, and recruitment.