Why NCFE is launching the #FullyFunctional campaign

NCFE has launched our campaign #FullyFunctional, calling on the Government to allow learners who achieve Grade 3 in their English and maths GCSE (equivalent to Grade D in the old system) to be given the opportunity to study alternative qualifications such as Functional Skills.

Currently, all learners who achieve a Grade 3 in their English and maths GCSEs must automatically resit these exams due to the funding rules which do not currently fund providers to offer alternative qualifications to these learners.

Through #FullyFunctional, we want to see further parity of esteem in the funding system by asking the Government to provide funding for learners who fail to achieve higher than a Grade 3 to sit alternative qualifications, rather than re-sitting GCSE exams until they pass. By doing this, we are enabling learners to make the right choice for them individually and achieve successful outcomes for all.

Without this funding in place, learners are potentially exposed to a negative cycle of examinations that are detrimental to their confidence and mental wellbeing. In some cases, we’ve seen learners taking the exam up to nine times in order to pass.

This cannot continue.

Our survey, which tested the general public’s perception of alternative qualifications and GCSEs, demonstrates that learners have always, and still do, feel pressure to pass their English and maths GCSEs. 70% of the respondents who are currently at school stated that they feel pressure to resit their core GCSEs (science, English or maths) if they fail first time. Additionally, over half of respondents (53%) who are currently doing their GCSEs said that this is the most stressful time of their teenage years.

Mark Dawe, Chief Executive of The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), highlighted his support for the #FullyFunctional campaign by drawing on conclusions from his observations of GCSE resits as a policy. He said: “We are happy to support this campaign because every year we wonder how the government can accept another 150,000 GCSE failures and talk about a successful resits policy.”

Recent reports have claimed that achievement rates are on the rise as a result of the resit policy with the numbers of learners achieving both GCSEs after age 16 increasing from 9% in 2014 to 21% in 2018. Whilst encouraging, this still leaves almost 80% of learners reaching 19 years old without qualifications from which they can progress. This continues to be a worrying statistic, particularly with such a spotlight trained on the mental health of young people.  

Alternative qualifications, such as Functional Skills, enable learners to study the core elements of English and maths but in a more practical sense with a strong emphasis on problem-solving. It allows students to learn in a way that may be more suited to them compared to the traditional GCSE route. Our polling also found that 70% of respondents argued in favour of students being able to learn in a style which suits them, with 7 in 10 (71%) business owners also agreeing that maths and English qualifications should be applied to everyday life.

This leads us to ask, if this is the attitude of the general public, why are we continuing to restrict various learning pathways for learners who fail their GCSEs, including the opportunity to study alternative qualifications?

What we’re asking for isn’t a complete policy re-write. The current policy allows learners who achieve Grade 2 or below the opportunity to study alternative qualifications without having to resit their GCSEs, leaving learners who achieve Grade 3 as the only group who are unable to study alternative qualifications such as Functional Skills.

We are asking for more access to GCSE alternatives for learners. Many students often find themselves unable to move forward and progress without achieving a GCSE Grade C – a benchmark that has been widely adopted by HE, FE and employers. If there were more alternative and equivalent options for learners, we’d see drastic improvements in our students pass rates and, importantly, their wellbeing.

In education, we fully accept that a one size fits all approach is not appropriate. The sector has seen the Government implement recent policies such as T Levels to further emphasise the importance of vocational and technical education and creating greater parity of esteem between the two. So, why can’t we adopt the same approach for learners who are struggling with GCSEs?

We are doing all we can to shift perceptions and champion the importance of technical alternatives and vocational education. #FullyFunctional calls on the Government to address this issue and offer learners the opportunity to study in a way that suits them. Learners are at the heart of everything we do at NCFE and we want to ensure that every young person has the ability to reach their goals and aspirations in life.

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