Ministers give ‘biggest hints yet’ of GCSEs U-turn

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Students in all sectors should have an alternative qualification to GCSEs, Robert Halfon said yesterday.

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Robert Halfon

The apprenticeships and skills minister conceded that GCSEs were not ‘appropriate or achievable’ for everyone, at a conference yesterday hosted by the Association of Colleges.

'It is clear that we need a credible, high-quality option for students for whom GCSEs are not appropriate or achievable,' Mr Halfon said. ‘This is why we are reforming functional skills to make sure that they are genuinely relevant to employers, and consequently have credibility and prestige in the jobs market.’

A major review of functional skills, not currently allowed in early years, is underway, after concerns that they weren't robust or as valued by employers as GCSEs.

Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening added, 'We all need to think quite carefully about how we strike the right balance between a system that really pushes people, so we’re not giving up on someone being able to reach their potential…but also a clear sense of getting them from A to B quickly so they’re not spending time running upwards against a brick wall that they’re not going to get over.'

In response Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers said, ‘[These] were the biggest hints yet that there will be changes. The Secretary of State spoke of the need to get the balance right between a system that pushes people, but at the same time a system that enables those people to get from A to B (i.e. achieve the relevant maths and English skills) without hitting a brick wall that they will never get over (I think that was code for GCSE assessment!).’

Early years employers have long been calling for functional skills to be reinstated as an alternative to GCSEs after their removal in September 2014 with the new Level 3 Early Years Educator (EYE) qualification, which was designed to raise standards.

Functional skills were then removed from the early years apprenticeship framework, leaving GCSEs as the principal entry (later changed to exit) requirement.

Ofqual figures analysed by Nursery World and Cache show that the childcare workforce is now shrinking fast, with nearly a third fewer students completing Level 3 courses than a year ago. Apprentice numbers have been decimated, with some training providers reporting near 100% drops in recruitment.

The Government has now launched a consultation on the literacy and numeracy qualification requirements for EYE courses, which acknowledges that informal consultations have shown the sector ‘ha[s] advocated level 2 literacy and numeracy functional skills qualifications as an acceptable alternative to GCSEs [for EYE]’.

The consultation contains a number of options, including developing a bespoke literacy and numeracy qualification for the childcare sector.

Early years minister Caroline Dinenage, also told the Nursery World Business Summit last week, ‘I’m very clear that exam grades, while important, are not the only proof of quality in this sector and I very much look forward to hearing your views, your experience on the ground on what numeracy and literacy skills are needed to enable staff to perform their level 3 roles effectively.’

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