Natasha Porter is deputy head of education at Policy Exchange.
As the Prime Minister has said, the UK is in a global race. In order to remain competitive within this race, employers need not only high quality graduates but also school leavers who are numerate and literate.
Although at the top end English education can be world class, the country has had an issue with a “long tail” of underachievement – often amongst the poorest students and families. This is bad for any society that believes in equality of opportunity.
Since 2010, the education agenda advanced by Michael Gove, and now continued by Nicky Morgan, has been whole-heartedly determined to address this.
Reforms have included changes to assessments and curriculums, as well as shifts in school performance measures and school structures.
Since 2013 the participation age for compulsory education has been raised to 18, and alongside this it is now a requirement that any students who do not achieve a C in GCSE maths or English are required to continue studying it post-16.
This is absolutely the right approach. Studies show that the most common shared characteristic between young people who are not in education, employment or training is that they have failed English and maths GCSE.
Literacy and numeracy are essential skills for adult life, and GCSE English and maths are qualifications with currency in the workplace
This policy affects hundreds of thousands of students who do not attain a C grade in English or maths each year. In 2014, 27 per cent of the cohort who took English GCSE did not achieve a C grade or above (126,700 pupils) and 31 per cent of the cohort who took maths GCSE did not achieve a C grade or above (178,600).
Of those who do not achieve a C grade in maths and English, most choose to leave school at 16 and attend a Further Education college.
This is typically either because their school requires a minimum number of GCSEs at A* to C to attend (often including English and maths), or because their experience of school hasn’t been successful.
In 2011 (the most recent data available), FE Colleges took five times more students who failed to achieve a C grade in English than schools, and almost six times more in maths.
The students who choose FE Colleges are also much more likely to be further behind when they arrive, with a much greater proportion having achieved below a D grade. It is not only the sheer numbers of students who need to continue English and maths that puts enormous burden on FE Colleges, but also the lower level they arrive at.
FE Colleges do need to improve their efforts with these students. Pass rates are low across all institutions at under 40 per cent, and provisional 2015 data show they are getting lower.
Colleges also enter a much lower proportion for GCSE qualifications compared to schools and sixth form colleges. Instead, even students who achieved a D grade in their first GCSE attempt often study maths and English at sub-GCSE levels. These other qualifications lack the workplace value of GCSEs.
Although some weaker students might need easier qualifications to act as stepping stones and build their knowledge, the goal must be that as many people as possible pass the threshold of a C in GCSE English and maths.
Thankfully, from this September, students who achieve a D grade in their first effort will have to be entered for GCSE qualifications, but it is important that expectations remain high for those who achieve lower qualifications, and that rates of GCSE entry increase for them too.
But the biggest ongoing challenge for FE Colleges is that they are less well funded than schools to take on this challenge.
Since 2009 the adult skills budget (a core part of FE College budget) has been cut by around 35 per cent, and is expected to face a further 24 per cent of cuts in 2015/16. Funding for 18 year olds has been cut by 17.5 per cent and, unlike schools, FE Colleges do not have their VAT reimbursed.
The outlook for this part of the education landscape is also dark – the funding for 16-18 year olds (including those on school sixth forms) is unprotected, unlike the main school funding for 5-16 year olds, so we might expect to see further cuts in the upcoming spending review.
The only way that employers are going to get employees with the skills they need is if more people are better qualified in maths and English. But to do that means supporting FE Colleges to make sure they can carry out their remedial role.
That’s why our report today recommends that schools are required to pay a ‘resit levy’ to FE Colleges for any student that fails to get a C in GCSE English or maths, who has also failed to make expected levels of progress through their time at secondary school.
Schools are improving standards year on year. Yet there are some who are unfairly passing the buck to FE Colleges – who are already facing extreme funding pressures – to fix a problem they have not caused themselves. Our levy ensures that they make a financial contribution towards raising standards for everyone.