Alex Stevenson is Head of English, Maths and ESOL at Learning and Work Institute

Good GCSEs in English and maths are essential for young people’s progression in learning and into work, so last week’s vigorous debate on how this year’s grades should be awarded simply reflects what is at stake. Yet GCSEs are not just high stakes for young people. For adults returning to learn, GCSEs are crucial too, with 55,000 adults in England taking GCSEs in English and maths in 2018/19 alone.

For adults who missed out at school, getting your GCSEs represents a key personal educational milestone. Whilst the current focus will understandably be on younger people, it’s worth reflecting that many adults will also benefit from the new clarity on how their qualifications have been awarded. In contrast to schools, most adults have been taking their GCSEs in a one-year programme, much of it disrupted this year. Adults are also likely to have been balancing their study commitments alongside the extra challenges to health, work and caring responsibilities created by the pandemic.

Despite the availability of good alternatives, such as Functional Skills, many employers rely on GCSE grades as a proxy for workplace English and maths skills when recruiting. In some professions, GCSEs in English and maths are an entry requirement and many adults become motivated to improve their GCSEs when considering a career switch. So ensuring that adults don’t miss out on hard-earned GCSE grades is essential at a time when many are facing the prospect of having to find new employment, or consider re-training.

OECD research suggests that in the UK, over 5 million adults who are in work have low basic skills.  As the stark economic impact of coronavirus on the labour market becomes clear, we must ensure support is there for adults to address essential skills needs, including literacy, numeracy, basic digital skills and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). L&W’s research shows that low paid workers, including those with lower levels of qualifications, face greater job insecurity as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is wound down.

We need a new national mission on adult English and maths, to ensure that everyone has good English and maths skills needed for life and for work. Adult participation across all kinds of English and maths provision is falling – including GCSEs and Functional Skills – despite the availability of fully-funded courses. New initiatives in policy, such as the Government’s National Retraining Scheme, should ensure that people who would benefit are effectively signposted to English and maths learning opportunities, as a core part of the offer to those needing to retrain and upskill.

L&W has long made the case for additional investment in adult basic skills. In some areas, devolved commissioning of the Adult Education Budget is now starting to respond. In London, for example, the Mayor has committed to increase funding by up to £2.7m for statutory entitlement qualifications in English and maths at Levels 1 and 2, where achievement is currently lowest.

Investment is always welcome, but there’s also a need to ensure a broad range of learning options is available to adults, based on the evidence about what works in adult basic skills. There’s a clear role for GCSEs in this, but flexibility in the offer to adults is needed too. This includes Functional Skills qualifications, non-accredited provision to engage people in community settings, and online learning options for busy adults, all of which can help respond to the different motivations and aspirations of adults returning to learn English and maths. 

Alex Stevenson is Head of English, Maths and ESOL at Learning and Work Institute, an independent policy, research and development organisation dedicated to lifelong learning, employment and inclusion. He is an executive board member at the European Association for the Education of Adults.

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