Friday, 13 May 2016

The importance of getting the basics right

Just a couple of weeks ago campaigners from a group called ‘Save our Early Years’ announced that there would soon be ‘catastrophic’ staff shortages in nurseries. Why this dire prediction for an entire industry – and one which is of critical importance? English and mathematics.

In September all nursery staff will be required to have at least Grade C GCSEs in these subjects, with Government deeming numeracy and literacy skills an essential component to work in this sector.

There is little doubt that these subjects are two of the most basic, and yet fundamental skills a person can have in our society. The importance of a good knowledge of both is clear. After all, English, both written and verbal, is critical to communicating successfully, and as a person who chose to train in maths, the importance of a decent understanding of its principles is all too clear to me.



You could say that these two areas of learning, above all others, are the building blocks for growing a person’s knowledge in other subjects. If a student is unable to communicate clearly and accurately, how can they progress their studies in other areas?

But despite that importance, there is a real struggle in FE to help our learners’ progress in both English and maths to Grade C at GCSE level. It isn’t a lack of desire on our part, nor is necessarily a lack of resources. Instead, it is a battle to inspire students who, having left school without the all-important Grade C, simply do not want to learn these key subjects.

And while there is – in my College, and many others – a real emphasis placed on the importance of learning these basic skills, improving results is neither easy, nor simple. Our maths and English tutors are being asked to achieve something in a mere 36 weeks which the pre-16 education system has failed to do after 11 years. And they are being asked to achieve this with the most challenging students; those who have already failed to achieve the required standard in these core subjects. That’s no criticism of the schools – rather the system itself – but it does place the issue into context, illustrating just how difficult it is for the FE sector to perform in this key test.



And yet FE is beginning to win the battle, with the Department for Education recently publishing a report (Level two and three attainment in England: Attainment by age 19 in 2015) which found that students achieving level two English and maths had risen from 67.8 per cent in 2014, to 70 per cent in 2015. Hardly meteoric, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

And our college has also seen some successes, with good levels of achievement in a blended learning pilot we delivered last year. In fact, at East Kent College our students managed to achieve a fantastic 585 qualifications in English, and 588 qualifications in Maths. As a mathematician, it’ll come as little surprise that I’m particularly proud of our achievements in that subject, with a cross-campus rate of A* to C passes for 16-18 year olds at 31.8 per cent in 2014-15. During that academic year our Broadstairs Campus performed best, with a solid 37.2 per cent of all 16-18 year olds entered into GCSE maths getting the targeted A* to C grade. It’s also an area which Ofsted, at their recent visit to our Dover and Folkestone campuses flagged up, stating that “the focus on English and mathematics remains unrelenting, and the college’s determination to get this right is beyond reproach.” There is still more to do to meet the GCSE maths and English challenge, but FE – and East Kent College – is improving.

That’s good news for learners, for FE and for college principals across the country; but it’s not nearly good enough, and in fact a recent study of skills in England by the OECD has shown that the UK is still far below other countries in terms of numeracy and literacy. In fact, it sits very close to the bottom of a list with more students who’ve progressed to university with weak literacy and numeracy than most countries. And that’s the learners who have progressed to higher education – the story is worse between 16 and 19-year-old learners, with one third of them considered to have low basic skills.

So what now? What do we do as a sector to continue to grow these achievements? I suppose in many ways, we should treat maths and English studies as a bedrock to a student’s learning, because more than any other skills they may develop, these are the foundations for everything else. And our students can’t just be expected to learn these skills in a subject specific vacuum. Instead, we need to embed this core learning into everything we, as a sector do with our students. In order to grow their skills in their chosen areas, we need to ensure that high quality maths and English learning is emerging in all of their study. That means if we have a student on a professional catering course, tutors need to build functional maths and English skills into their everyday learning.

The challenge though, becomes even deeper when – as is the case for East Kent College – the areas in which it is located are economically deprived. Much of a student’s educational results are dependent on parental background, with those from disadvantaged areas less likely to achieve a high standard in core skills like maths and English. In constituencies with high levels of deprivation, the challenge to teach these skills to the required level becomes even greater. There is as yet, no clear solution to creating equity with more affluent areas in this respect, and that will continue to make the teaching of these core skills more challenging for colleges such as my own. Despite that, I’m proud to say that our commitment to promoting these basic skills is unwavering, and in fact has never been stronger than it is right now.

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