What maths and English skills count in the workplace?

Unionlearn with intergenerational learners at Surestart Centre, Maryland, Stratford
Unionlearn with intergenerational learners at Surestart Centre, Maryland, Stratford ©unionlearn

Employers value GCSEs more than any other qualification in maths or English, but I wonder if this is because it's the qualification they've heard of rather than any intimate knowledge of the curriculum, standards and methods of assessment?

Perhaps they don't need to understand the detail as they just want to recruit people with the skills they need for the workplace. In the main, they want to ensure a baseline of generic skills so that all staff can confidently read information, answer phones, write emails, understand graphs, timetables or charts and manipulate figures or use money. Basic stuff.

But many employers find that low levels of literacy and numeracy mean that staff may avoid certain tasks that require confidence in spelling, punctuation and grammar or using maths. Staff may not apply for promotional opportunities – even though they have the requisite vocational skills and experience to do the job well. Unions realise this and, through unionlearn, have instigated lots of workplace learning that focus on building confidence in these skills.

However, there is a lot of work to do as the latest OECD skills survey for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) finds we are 15th, out of 24 countries, in literacy and 17th in numeracy. So what's best for learners to improve their maths and English in and for the workplace? Re-engage them with GCSE or offer an alternative route where learning can be contextualised to their vocational area?

Currently, GCSE is, without doubt, the qualification of choice that we want for ourselves and our children. It leads to better outcomes for learners. But, for many reasons, some people fail to achieve this at school and, whilst they want to improve their skills, they want to do so in a more flexible, relevant way and not repeat earlier failures.

A challenge for 'Making maths and English work for all', the Foundation-led review, is to define the standard for these subjects, ensuring there is a pathway for all young people to improve their skills and achieve a qualification that will be valued by their future employers and enable them to move onto higher level learning. This is no easy task.

For example, should alternative routes to improving maths and English lead to valuable qualifications in their own right or is it important for them to be stepping stones to the "gold standard" of GCSE? Is it possible to do both? Also, if Functional Skills qualifications are deemed good enough to keep, update or improve, should their name be changed?

Is there a name that is more meaningful to employers (and hasn't been used before!) or is the brand already gaining traction and should therefore be left alone? We need to engage employers and educators in all aspects of this debate. We have come a long way since the Wolf Report and the focus on maths and English as a necessary part of vocational education is welcome, but important decisions need to be made.

To date, we have sent out dedicated emails to over 6000 employers to complete an online survey that closes on 24 February 2015 and have received responses from 30 employers in the first week. This is a unique opportunity to shape future policy and ensure the next OECD skills survey shows a marked improvement in our performance; find the time to join the conversation.

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Sue Southwood

Sue Southwood is the Programme Manager for Professional Standards and Workforce Development at the Education and Training Foundation.

She is currently managing "Making maths and English work for all", the review of what employers and learners need from the maths and English qualifications taken by students who are not studying GCSEs.