The government has set its sights on improving levels of literacy and numeracy. The Education Secretary reportedly plans a White Paper for 2022. The 2021 Budget saw the Chancellor announce a new, UK-wide £560m numeracy programme called Multiply.

There have long been concerns that new arrivals to the labour market in England, including graduates, lack basic skills. A 2019 survey published by the CBI found that one quarter of employers were dissatisfied with school/college/university leavers’ basic skills. A 2016 OECD study suggested around one in ten of all university students in England have numeracy or literacy levels below Level 2 - and recommended strengthening expectations for 16-19 education.

GCSE Maths and English are compulsory for all students in England and will inevitably form a key pillar of any literacy and numeracy strategy. As the government prepares its White Paper, it should reflect on two points in particular.

First: reformed GCSEs in Maths and English were taken by young people in England for the first time in 2017, with the reforms driven in part by concerns among employers about literacy and numeracy among workers.

The majority of this 2017 cohort are still in full-time education (indeed, it was this cohort that passed the symbolic 50% target for university entry in 2019). Many will only complete their education in summer 2022.

As such, it’s too soon to evaluate the effects of the reformed GCSEs in Maths and English on literacy and numeracy in the workforce. To really understand what effect these new GCSEs will have on new entrants to the labour market, we will have to wait until around 2023.

In the meantime, the Department for Education’s subject content for the reformed GCSE Mathematics and GCSE English Language set out what knowledge and skills students are expected to cover.

However, the time lag between students taking compulsory Maths and English qualifications and their arrival into the labour market points to a second important issue for debate on literacy and numeracy after 16: young people may forget what they have learnt.

A key feature of England’s education system is that while education or training is compulsory to 18 (with most remaining in education until their early 20s), Maths and English are only compulsory to 16 - despite literacy and numeracy being widely held up as essential skills by employers. 

Only those Level 3 students who do not achieve the government’s threshold for a GCSE ‘pass’ are required to keep studying the subjects, and a small minority choose A-levels in Maths or English. 

Put another way, England’s education system assumes that literacy and numeracy skills acquired by 16 are banked permanently by young people.

However, if young people don’t enter the labour market until another two to five years later, do they retain the literacy and numeracy skills they acquire when studying for their GCSEs?

When large employers report problems with the literacy and numeracy of new arrivals to the labour market, the issue may not be content – whether the right skills are part of the national curriculum – but rather, timing, i.e. when young people learn these skills.

This points to a number of options that should be considered in the coming White Paper on literacy and numeracy.   

For example: should there be more opportunities for young people to ‘top-up’ their literacy and numeracy skills through the final stages of their education after 16? What opportunities are there for young people to assess whether their literacy and numeracy abilities are falling behind? Should exam boards enable students to sit mini, follow-on assessments to ‘renew’ their GCSE Maths and English skills? While the government has reportedly considered a minimum GCSE entry bar to university, should the focus not be on retention of basic skills through higher education?

More broadly, do policymakers need to reframe the way we think about GCSEs in Maths and English from ‘snapshots’ of attainment at 16 to ‘living qualifications’ young people are expected to refresh and return to?

There are many ways in which policymakers might want to explore how to make more of GCSE Maths and English in tackling the literacy and numeracy challenge. AQi will be exploring them in the coming months.