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It’s time to give young people the Maths and English education they deserve

The discussion about poor levels of numeracy and literacy and the way young people are taught Maths and English in the UK, has been hitting the headlines in recent months. A study by the Sutton Trust showed that English teenagers are half as likely as those in the average developed nation to reach higher levels in Maths, whilst the charity, National Numeracy, released a report revealing that millions of people in the UK are so poor at Maths they are unable to pay a household bill. Meanwhile, results from last year's Key Stage 2 tests show that around 100,000 pupils in England failed to reach the expected standard in English. This means that around 16 per cent fail to master the basics of reading and 25 per cent the basics of writing at the end of primary school. The failings of primary schools create huge gaps in ability by GCSE and higher level. Collectively these studies provide a clear but shameful picture. Both poor numeracy and literacy are hidden problems that blight both the UK economy and the career prospects of young people.

At City & Guilds we looked into the views of young people aged 7 – 18 around education and employment, and found that overwhelmingly young people regard classroom Maths boring, difficult or irrelevant, despite 69% confirming that they believe Maths as a subject can help them become successful. The study, Ways into Work, also revealed that 54% of 16 – 18 year olds commented unprompted that taught Maths should be geared towards real life, relevant and practical scenarios.

It would be all too easy to blindly continue with the current Maths education system that our research clearly shows is putting so many young people off the subject and failing to meet their needs. However the time has now come where we can wait no longer to listen to learners who are telling us that the way Maths is currently being taught is switching them off the subject completely. We must listen and we must act now to change and repair the system, to avoid the problem trickling down to generations to come. And let’s not forget about the employers who frequently tell us that many candidates lack even basic levels of numeracy and literacy and are therefore leaving education without the skills they need for industry.

As the UK’s leading awarding organisation for vocational qualifications, City & Guilds is dedicated to improving numeracy and literacy skills in this country by the most effective means possible. We also feel it’s our role to contribute to easing the youth employment crisis by bringing together learners, businesses and Government. For us the two go hand in hand; improving Maths and English teaching to ensure learners are work-ready and closing the skills gaps in industry are both essential to lessening youth unemployment.

But before we do that, we need to take a step back and look at the education system, which should be the foundation for success in the workplace. We must focus on what the education system should be doing to prepare people for work and how it should be delivering the skills that young people need to succeed in commerce and industry. It’s not productive for schools to be constantly chasing high grades to boost their league table results, without thinking about what’s best for the learner and their future work prospects.

The apparent failure of schools to get young people engaged with Maths and English is an unacceptable situation. Both skills are vital to all jobs, to industry and to the economic health of the country.

To address this issue, we propose a substantial overhaul of Maths and English education in four key ways. First of all, we need to change the way these core subjects are assessed. The current GCSE model alone is not working for learners or employers, which must be taken into account if the Government goes ahead with its reforms to these examinations.

Secondly, teaching, assessment, and ultimately the qualifications themselves, have to address the needs of industry, not exam boards. A purely academic setting, such as that focused on GCSEs, does not meet employers’ needs. To achieve a more employer-focused education system, direct engagement with employers should be included in the National Curriculum.

Maths classes should also be more comprehensibly relevant to real-life; learners tell us that Maths is boring because lessons don’t translate to the real world and we need to stand up and take note. For this reason we’re hugely supportive of Government’s confirmed plan to open 15 new University Technical Colleges (UTCs) in the next two years. UTCs provide learners with a balanced mix of National Curricula and technical and vocational skills and they teach them in a practical way that provides learners with real-life experience that can be transferred to the workplace. As such, UTCs offer a high-quality alternative route to help young people progress in education, without stifling learners who demand a more vocational approach to learning.

Thirdly, we need to be more supportive in encouraging the teaching of Maths in particular, but also of English, critically in the primary sector. The current pool of Maths graduates is still too small to provide an adequate pipeline. Caps on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths undergraduate admissions should be removed from Higher Education Institutions and a premium on salaries provided to make Maths teaching more attractive.

Finally, we need a cultural shift so that poor Maths is seen as both unnecessary and unacceptable. It is essential that perceptions change so that ‘being no good at Maths’ is not viewed as ok. Good Maths skills are essential for many people and important for everyone; young people must be given the chance to find out if they like Maths, and that means improving the way it’s taught, and teaching it in context. Similarly, a total lack of acceptance of illiteracy needs to remain prominent. With children leaving primary school with poor reading and writing skills, we’re moving perilously closer to a cultural position where it’s not just passable to be deficient in Maths, but it’s also deemed normal to have inadequate basic literacy skills.

We also need to improve labour market information given to young people and their parents at the early stages of school, so that there is a more informed understanding of Maths and literacy application in a huge range of occupations. City & Guilds is committed to Britain becoming a nation of Maths and English-savvy workers, who understand and apply the practical and invaluable use of these two fundamental subjects. That’s one of the reasons why we’re introducing new qualifications in both Maths and English in the autumn of this year. To ensure that these qualifications are relevant for learners, they are based on National Standards for Adult Literacy and Numeracy. They have been built in close collaboration with leading employers to guarantee that the subject matter is applicable for the context of the workplace.

I also believe developing Maths and English teaching is crucial to overcoming the youth employment crisis. If we address the inconsistencies between education and employment and create a more logical path for young people to take from school to work, whilst tackling our nation’s apathy towards the subjects, I really believe this can be achieved.

Chris Jones is chief executive and director general of City and Guilds, the awarding body

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Comment by Nathan Pearson - Smith on July 20, 2012 at 10:40
You've raised some very important points here Chris, I certainly agree with you that these issues are hidden.

The way mandatory subjects like Maths, English and Science are currently taught in classrooms certainly needs to change. Apart from basic numeracy level skills how many of us have used a mathematical equation to solve a real-life problem. The fact that people there are people in the UK who are unable to pay for their household bills is more than worrying.

More focus to be on teaching individuals how to use maths in a practical way that affects them. Thanks for the article Chris.

Nathan Pearson - Smith
Twitter: @NathanPearsonWH

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