English and maths: “the most important vocational skills a young person can have”?
Authors: Katy Jones
03 September 2013
Yesterday (2nd September), the Department for Education announced that young people who fail to attain good grades (at least grade C) in their English and maths GCSEs will now be required to continue studying these subjects as they enter post-16 education. From 2015, this will impact all young people up to the age of 18, as a raised ‘participation age’ means they must remain in some form of education or training.
The announcement follows one of Alison Wolf’s recommendations from her 2011 review of vocational education, which exposed the limited value of many of the vocational qualifications currently on offer for young people. Education Secretary Michael Gove has said that English and maths “are, quite simply, the most important vocational skills a young person can have”, and the news has been broadly welcomed by educationalists including the NUT and AOC.
Achieving a good level of English and maths is important for young people to compete in today’s labour market. Surveys repeatedly show that employers are dissatisfied with the literacy and numeracy skills of school and college leavers, and many use these qualifications as a filter in their recruitment processes. For young people leaving education without a good level of English and maths, their chances of finding employment are lower, they are likely to earn less, and they have limited opportunities for progression into further education and training.
Ensuring young people attain a good level of English and maths before they leave education is critical. Whilst there must be opportunities for adults to continue to develop and renew their skills throughout life, persistent inequalities in the take-up of adult learning make it difficult to turn low skill levels around after leaving full-time education. A recent survey, for example, found that only around a quarter of adults who left school before age 16 are currently engaged in any form of learning, compared to almost half of those leaving full-time education, aged 21 and above.
Whilst there are clear benefits to these reforms, there are some doubts over how they will be implemented which mainly centre around funding and capacity. The AOC estimates that this reform will require an additional 1,100 maths teachers and 1,000 English teachers. This is combined with wider uncertainty around the rising 'participation age' and, for example, the impact it is likely to have on more disadvantaged pupils, particularly following the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance.
There are also arguably limits to what this reform can achieve, if it is merely a continuation of standard school-based approaches to teaching English and maths. More of the same is unlikely to address what will often be more deep-seated problems if, after more than a decade of full-time education, a young person has been unable to achieve the expected level. Alternative teaching methods may therefore be required. Support also needs to be in place for those who still to do not make the grade post-18.
Moreover, it is important to note that improved qualifications are only part of what is needed for young people to make successful transitions into the labour market. In 2011, our research found that more than a third of young people not in employment, education or training had GCSEs, and around a fifth had A-Levels. So, whilst there are clear benefits to ensuring young people have good qualifications including a good level of English and maths, this must be part of a holistic approach for tackling the youth unemployment challenge and improving labour market prospects for today’s young people.
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