Colleges cause confusion by stating need for GCSEs

An investigation by Nursery World has revealed that some colleges are incorrectly stating that Level 3 learners need GCSE passes at A*-C in English and maths to count in ratios or work in early years settings.

An investigation by Nursery World has revealed that some colleges are incorrectly stating that Level 3 learners need GCSE passes at A*-C in English and maths to count in ratios or work in early years settings.

It comes nearly a year since the Department for Education reinstated functional skills as alternatives to GCSEs for Level 3 qualifications following overwhelming pressure from the early years sector.

The GCSE requirement had contributed to a steep decline in students enrolling for Level 3 courses, and an ongoing recruitment crisis.

Nursery World visited the websites of 21 colleges across the country that run Level 3 Early Years Educator courses (including apprenticeships). Of these, Kidderminster and Leeds City colleges had not updated their diploma entry requirements to reflect the U-turn by the Department for Education.

After we contacted them, Kidderminster and Leeds City corrected the errors on their websites. Kidderminster College said it had previously updated the website but it had not synced properly, while Leeds City College admitted it was an oversight.

A spokesperson for Kidderminster College said, ‘The website is regularly updated, and although the new course information was listed within our Full Time Prospectus, on the website it appeared that the entry requirements weren’t synced.’

Margaret Shutt, deputy head of teaching assistants at Leeds City College, said, ‘We have amended our website to reflect the correct entry requirements for the Early Years Workforce Diploma. This hasn’t affected our recruitment drive and we accept students who don’t have GCSEs and inform them of their options for functional skills during open days and interviews.’

Harrow College stated on its webpage for the CACHE Level 3 Diploma in Childcare and Education that ‘New legislation requires all learners to have achieved a GCSE maths and English at grades A*-C’.

However, shortly before Nursery Worldwent to press, the diploma course disappeared from Harrow’s website. The college confirmed that following its recent merger with Uxbridge College, the course would be run only from Uxbridge.

Nursery World found that the information on a further two colleges’ websites, Carshalton for its Advanced Apprenticeship diploma, and Brockenhurst for its Early Years Workforce diploma, stated that learners need to have GCSE passes in maths and English upon exiting or completing the Level 3 courses. It is unclear whether that referred to a college requirement.

Both colleges were asked about the meaning of the wording on their websites. Brockenhurst refused to comment.

Carshalton amended its website information, and said, ‘Learners can come to us with one GCSE [English or Maths] but can gain the other GCSE or functional skills before completing the course.

In response to Nursery World’s findings, the DfE said it would contact the Association of Colleges to ask it to remind members of the change in requirements.

An Association of Colleges spokesperson said, ‘While we agree the information on websites should be kept up-to-date, most colleges’ best recruitment tool is face-to-face interaction, so using what is on a college website isn’t always the best barometer.

‘The Association of Colleges will always notify its members on updated policies/rules once it has been made aware.’


While the reinstatement of functional skills was meant to make it easier for learners to start Level 3 courses and boost the numbers completing the qualification, Nursery World’s investigation has uncovered another barrier – a rule that makes GCSEs a condition of funding for further education institutions.

The Education & Skills Funding Agency’s ‘Funding Guidance for Young People 2017 to 2018’ states that 16- to 18-year-olds with lower than a grade 4 in GCSE maths and English must re-sit their exams until they pass, which appears counteractive to the reinstatement of functional skills.

The guidance says that if institutions have students who do not meet this condition, funding will be removed. The funding rules only apply to 16- to 18-year-olds, not older learners.

Harlow College’s deputy principal Louise Turner told Nursery World much of the decision about whether its learners study a GCSE or functional skill is determined by Government regulations.

She said, ‘If a student studying with us is aged 16-18 and doesn’t have a GCSE pass grade in English and maths then the Government insist that they continue to study these subjects. If the student has a new grade 3 (or an old grade D) then they must be enrolled onto a GCSE re-sit course; we are not given the option of allowing them to study functional skills instead. If they have grade 2 or lower (E or lower) then we would suggest they study a functional skill qualification before re-sitting their GCSE in subsequent years.

‘Much of the decision about studying a GCSE or a functional skill is determined by Government regulations. The situation for adult learners is different and we would certainly encourage them to take a functional skill or GCSE qualification depending on their individual circumstances.’

However, Central Bedfordshire College said that it made learners who do not have passes in GCSE English and maths aware that, following an assessment, if they are found to be able to undertake GCSEs then they will do so, otherwise a functional skills course is available to them.

A spokesperson said, ‘We do have a proportion of learners registering interest that do not hold GCSE English or maths, and they are not put off because they have the option to enter with a functional skill.’

High expectations

On top of the funding rules, the majority of colleges specify that learners should have a minimum number of GCSE passes at A* to C (now 4-9), including maths and English, to do their Level 3 courses.

While colleges can set their own entry requirements, this could prove to be off-putting for potential students who do not have this number of GCSEs. Of the 21 college websites Nursery World visited, the majority said they require students to have at least four or five GCSEs.

All colleges were contacted about their course requirements, but only five responded.

For most of those that responded, the reason behind their entry requirements is to ensure students are able to cope with the demands of the course; however, they did say there was flexibility on this.

Harlow’s Ms Turner said, ‘Our entry requirements of five GCSEs at grades 4-9 (A*-C) reflect the challenges of the course. The Level 3 EYE course is equivalent to three A-levels plus substantial work experience. In our experience, students entering with lower qualifications struggle to cope with the demands of the course.

‘However, we will always look at a student’s individual circumstances.’

Kidderminster’s head of department James Ralph said, ‘Kidderminster College supports all our applicants in their career in childcare. Our entry requirements are a way of establishing competency upon entry. There is flexibility within this and all applicants are viewed as individuals with equivalent and alternative qualifications taken into account.’

Sector comments

Kate Hersey, owner of Chrysalis Day Nursery and Pre-school in Loughton, Essex, told Nursery World that she thought the funding rule – and colleges’ requirements for learners to have a number of GCSEs – would be off-putting for students.

‘I have noticed a huge reduction in Level 3 applicants since opening in 2012 when I was inundated with CVs and spending hours reading them and short-listing candidates. Now I just hope that I get at least one qualified and knowledgeable applicant apply for a position.

‘I think the functional skills tests are sufficient for the level that is required to work with under-fives, and enforcing GCSE re-takes will certainly put off students applying for the course. If college courses are delivered well, there is no reason students that haven’t gained numerous GCSEs cannot become influential and effective practitioners. If the passion to work with children is present, they will excel.’

Kate Mundle, director of Purple Dove Recruitment, described the situation as a ‘complete and utter mess’.

‘Nurseries currently need the colleges to produce the supply, so if we cannot get them from there then what will happen?’ she added.

Julie Hyde, associate director of CACHE, said, ‘It is crucial that centres provide full information, advice and guidance to learners to inform them functional skills are accepted, as well as GCSEs in maths and English, as an entry requirement to be employed as an Early Years Educator.

‘The addition of functional skills as part of the Workforce Strategy was significant for the recruitment of learners into the sector. Some colleges, however, have their own entry requirements irrespective of the workforce strategy. It is important that this is made clear to the learner.’

The Pre-School Learning Alliance's director of quality improvement Michael Freeston said,' Whilst it is up to colleges or training providers to set their own entry requirements to early years courses, it is essential that they provide potential learners with accurate information about the regulatory requirements of EYFS to be counted in the ratios. It is not acceptable that outdated information about what are acceptable English and maths qualifications is still being presented to potential learners a year after the changes were made. Such inaccuracies may turn them away from an early years training course and a career in the sector when there is nothing short of a crisis in recruitment. As such it is to be welcomed that the DfE is seeking to address the confusion around entry requirements with colleges

'That said, ensuring that there is clarity in this area isn’t in and of itself going to fix the sector’s recruitment problems. I think most providers would agree that it is the lack of adequate government funding – and the impact that this has on the ability of childcare employers to pay fair wages – that has left the sector fighting a losing battle to attract and retain a high-quality workforce.'

A Department for Education spokesperson said, ‘In 2017 we expanded the early years qualification requirements to include functional skills for those who work in early years at Level 3. This has been very well received by the sector and encourages recruitment of people into the sector who have a passion for childcare and early years education. Employers and training providers remain free to set their own entry requirements.’

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