Headlines ignore the real story on English and maths

Between the summer of 1963 and January 1966 I took my GCE English five times, eventually passing two Boards at the same time in January 1966 at the sixth attempt. As a result I read today’s story about the need to continue English and maths beyond the age of sixteen with more than a passing interest.

The headlines seem to suggest that those who don’t pass at sixteen drop both subjects. Now I am sure that is true in some cases, but it certainly isn’t for all. The DfE has good evidence of what is happening, and shared it with us in March 2013 as part of Statistical Bulletin 13/2013.


These results may come as a surprise to those reading the BBC and other headlines that seem to suggest everyone who doesn’t pass immediately drops any further study of these subjects. That clearly isn’t the case. Although in 2012 there was a small drop, for the first time in some years, in the percentage achieving both English and maths post-sixteen, it was still around one in six of those without a Level 2 at sixteen, and higher for those young people without special educational needs. As the Bulletin writer observed: ‘The gap in attainment at age 19 between young people with a Statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN) and those with no SEN continued to widen at each of Level 2, Level 2 with English and maths, and Level 3.’

The failure rate also seemed to be higher in the FE and apprenticeship sectors than in schools; with academies posting a small improvement, although it may not be statistically significant. Perhaps this ought to have been a BiS story rather than a DfE one. One might also ask how well those 16-18 year olds in the care of the Ministry of Justice have fared in improving their literacy and numeracy levels: but that’s another story entirely.

One of the most interesting stories lies in the ethnicity figures. The Bulletin writer states that: ‘The change in the relative performance of the Black summary ethnic group between 16 and 19 at Level 2 is notable. In the [age] 19 in 2012 cohort, attainment of Level 2 in the Black group was 4.6 percentage points lower than the average for all known ethnic groups at age 16, but by age 19 it was 3.1 percentage points above the average.’ Maybe some young people come to recognise the value of education later than others. The challenge now is to work with this group to persuade them of the value of schooling before sixteen.

So, overall, there is still more to be done to achieve better outcomes in the key basic subjects of English and maths for all pupils, but for some this is already a good news story rather than story of a failure of our schools.

Perhaps the real story, and it has become mangled somewhere between the idea and its execution, is those who pass English and maths at Level 2 by sixteen but then drop the subjects for ever. Should we be providing a means for them to continue to enhance their knowledge and understanding, or is GCSE enough? I think not.


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