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I read a very interesting article recently. It suggested that GCSE (IGCSE as we know them here) are becoming increasingly more difficult and out of reach of some students, and because of this the GCSE course content is less relevant to a job than the applied literacy and numeracy that some employers require for parts of their workforce. It suggested maybe it’s time to rethink. This could be a really positive move, where employers recognise the value of functional skills and applicants are better equipped to meet the needs of the role they are potentially undertaking.

Once again this year, here at MTA, we have many year 11 students currently studying for a series of maths, English and science examinations due to start in April. This week some of them will definitely be struggling with the intricacies of Pythagoras, expanding brackets, simultaneous equations and other academic rigours. So when they ask the tutor yet again, ‘Why do we have to do this?’ We cannot generally think of a very exciting answer apart from it helps prepare your processing skills and the very lame, ‘Because you have to get through the exam!’ Of course many of them come back with the fact that they won’t be doing biology or Pythagoras ever again once they leave school.

Obviously it’s the preparation for developing critical thinking, problem solving and numeracy skills that is really important in real life, whatever age you are, not particularly whether you are a whizz at algebra.

Often by the nature of the role we play at MTA we do see those students for whom learning is more difficult and maths is particularly challenging. We do our best to help the process and get the students to actually enjoy their learning but it is not always an easy task. The recurring thought by most of them is why on earth do I need to know this anyway!

What alternative is there?

A recent report by the Education and Training Foundation stated that as educators we must make maths and English work for all and it described that the traditional learning approach leading to GCSEs can, for some students present real problems, often leading to disappointing results. With just 7% of students who resit their GCSE in English and maths obtaining the desired grades (after first failing to achieve them) and only 1% of resits being successful where the student originally scored E grade or below, there must be an available alternative. The report recognises that functional skills are a suitable alternative to GCSE, and are emerging as qualifications that are valued by employers, learners and the education and training sector.

Functional skill qualifications have been developed by the UK government as part of an initiative to improve the country’s literacy, numeracy and ICT skills. The key difference between IGCSE and Functional Skills is that the former are there to test your academic ability and the latter exist to see how you can apply your knowledge in everyday situations.
It offers a more vocational based programme which focuses on the identification of the learners weaknesses in their underpinning maths and English skills. IGCSE / GCSE supports critical thinking skills, like analysis and evaluation; functional skills support process skills like information processing and problem solving. Each of these need to be supported by understanding the fundamental underpinning skills such as spelling, grammar, comprehension, number, shape and space.

Many people argue that the GCSE qualification is more rigorous, more demanding and therefore more valuable and respected by employers; to enter students into a lesser alternative would be to do them a disservice because their future prospects will be less bright if they do not have an IGCSE / GCSE. However, I think that based on the statistics of those who fail on retakes, from an employer’s point of view an applicant who has functional skills will be in a better place than one who has neither functional skills nor GCSE.
I believe that we should teach maths as a process that helps solve everyday scenarios rather than the abstract. Making it both engaging and relevant for the students and providing context for the learning. I would suggest that those of you reading this today know how to work out the discount on a sale item but can you remember how to do quadratic equations!?

Let’s not run away with the idea that this alternative is a new phenomenon and we can rest assured that these skills are now integral in all IGCSE curriculum for maths, English and ICT programmes of study, but a more effective vocational based programme which is more suited to some students aptitudes may offer a better route to a pass for E-U students.
I know that in this day and age that most students think of the next academic steps as A level and then onto university, but there is still a world out there where there needs to be qualifications that help those who have underperformed previously prepare for the workplace.

This approach increases the opportunity for a successful academic journey for many students and takes away the stigma of failure. Students need to be realistic and face the facts, the most academic route might not be the right one, and you can be a successful person without academia. Remember that there’s always an alternative. Perhaps the next step of A Levels will lead to more heart-ache; there’s quite a big jump from GCSE to A Level. Consider the possibility of a vocational qualification, like a BTEC – this might be a better option.

Of course, I am most definitely not advocating we all rush off and find an alternative of something that has proved successful for many years but as parents and educators we must collectively seek the best answers to ensure that all students are supported and have access to the most appropriate learning route for them, only that way can they fulfil their full and true potential. If you do have a child who has previously failed IGCSE this may be another route to consider.

Above all, something as an educator I must add is that whether you chose one route or the other there is no substitute for hard work.

Proper preparation prevents poor performance and in the first instance we must ensure that the right amount of effort is made by the students in order to achieve any of their goals.