How compulsory should English and Maths be?

Jonny Walker's picture
I saw earlier this week some of the findings made by Alison Wolf, Professor of Public Sector Management at King's College London, in her review on vocational education.

"We have told young people in the UK that [non-GCSE qualifications] are equivalent to GCSEs in English and maths and when they arrive at college they have discovered they aren't. It is immoral."

She questions the possibility of making a GCSE in Maths and English compulsory up to 19, meaning that those who do not make the grade at 16 must resit until they do.

This is an issue I've been thinking about quite a lot recently, as one of the kids I work with is deeply disaffected from his school and has a reading age 5 years below his actual age of 12. We were talking about why he doesn't want to go school, and it certainly isn't because he lacks aspiration - he spoke passionately about looking forward to starting college in 4 years time, where he could study things he enjoys and is good at, like mechanics.

I am no fool and I am completely aware of how important it is for as many pupils as possible to get their GCSEs in Maths and English, but faced with this particular boy who is so firmly set against his academic education, which seems to have let him down to some extent, I found it difficult to explain why it is so important that he pushes for the grades.

I found myself arguing that it is something he needs to 'get over and done with' and that is absolutely not my actual view of education - I am one of those types who sees education as being primarily about developing and sating the thirst for knowledge - but I could find no better way to engage him.

What do people think? How could we engage pupils of very low 'academic' ability to get those vital grades in Maths and English? And when the child in question, like the boy I work with, is technically and practically very competent, gifted even, does this make things even more difficult?

I know the virtues of Maths and English, but when the child in question would be able to develop himself, enjoy school again and fully engage in his learning, given the opportunities for vocational hands-on learning, I find it difficult to tell him to rest all his hopes on the former.
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H & F Parent's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 09:58

Maybe find a way for him to link maths with his technical ability. Can he measure accurately, can he work out angles, is there a link between size, shape, and power? I bet he's good at snooker ...
On the wider point, maybe we should be looking at the technical/vocational school model which is so successful in Germany and Switzerland. There, trades are valued as much as grades. Being a window dresser is a skill. Sweeping a chimney is a skill. Having a C in maths isn't important.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 13:29

Forget the C in Maths. Frank's advice is good: link maths to his ability and interests. Below are links to a couple of sites with free resources (NB I don't know how suitable they are, but they might give you some ideas).

Good luck

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 19:12

There's interesting stuff in the Royal Society's Brainwave report.
It says (, page 14):

"...research has identified poor grasp of ‘number sense’—having an intuitive sense of, say, fiveness—as an underlying cause of arithmetical learning disability (dyscalculia)...
games have been designed to give
learners practice in understanding
numbers that adapt to the learner’s current
skill-level; for example, by introducing
larger numbers as the learner gets better;
or by matching dot arrays with digits or
number words. Adaptive game-like
programs make use of the individual’s
natural reward system (see Section 2.3):
they show the difference between the
outcome the learner expects from an
action and the outcome they actually
observe. This helps them to learn which
action has the most valuable outcome.
Adaptive programmes emulate a teacher
who constantly adapts to current learner
understanding. Thus they enable far more
practice than is often possible through
one-to-one teaching."

Jonny Walker's picture
Mon, 07/03/2011 - 13:00

Thanks for this - I am aware having read a few more of the other Views on the site this morning that I am the one person who is treating LSN as a collectivist Agony Aunt - I will strive to be a bit more relevant.

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