Do English and maths qualifications really matter? That is the debate I am pondering as thousands of students have just received their GCSE and A-level results and following the suggestion – repeat, only a suggestion – that students will not be able to start a degree, any degree, without GCSE English and Maths.
It’s not a new idea, however. Over the past 10 years, similar ideas have been mooted. Politicians and academics have advocated making the subjects mandatory up to 18, or for all A-level students, on the grounds that it would be the “best protection” against unemployment for young people. But is it really a good idea?
I’ve always found English easy, but maths less so. My slide rule and logarithm tables have long since been relegated to the bin. Having said that I am pretty good at percentages, working out discounts in shops and estimating what my grocery bill is going to cost at the till. As a student chef, I can work out the ingredients needed if I want to reduce or expand a recipe. So yes, maths is important and has a function in my everyday life. But it is real maths, not some theoretical equation that seems to have no relevance.
English has practical applications too – from filling in student finance forms to understanding the instructions for flat-pack furniture.
And thereby lies the rub. If these subjects are to be mandatory requirements, they should be practical and geared to everyday usage and circumstances. At least then there would be familiarity and motivation to succeed.
In debates of this kind, I always think of Mozart for some reason. A musical genius and a child prodigy from early years, and, if there had been one, nobody asked him to produce his GCSE Maths certificate!! It was enough that he composed some of the most sublime music you will ever hear.
So, is it fair to demand that the next generation of artists, musicians, craftsmen, engineers etc. be held to account or held back for a piece of paper that has nothing to do with their area of expertise? It is a bit like saying an athlete has to be able to run the 100 metres in 12 seconds before they can be a shot putter or high jumper.
But I also understand that degree programmes usually demand an element of written work and analysis. If you have not reached a certain standard in English or maths, it could definitely hold you back when it comes to that assignment.
Moreover, there is always the case of a plan B. We all need a fallback just in case things don’t quite work out. Just look at England players Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka. Their brilliance lies on the football pitch but is matched by high achievement in the classroom too because they never know what is around the corner.
And at the end of the day, I will still want my doctor to be able to write a coherent prescription for me, I want to be given travel directions that are clear, concise and accurate and I want a carpenter who can make cupboards that actually fit my kitchen. So we can’t get around the fact that maths and English are important.
Therefore, perhaps the conversation should be more around how knowledge of English and maths is tested or assessed? Knowledge at degree level should not depend on the ability to write an essay but should be judged on understanding and application of the subject. Any thoughts welcome.