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Left behind?

Doors leading to an examination room for students to sit A level GCSE exams
Not every school or college student benefits from exam-based courses

By Sanchia Berg
Today programme

How will plans to slash the number of vocational courses that are included in the school league tables in England affect students with low literacy levels?

Stockport, Cheshire, early afternoon, midweek. A group of teenage boys slouch in their chairs in a college classroom, cracking jokes, playing with their phones. They're learning to be car mechanics, and an English language unit is compulsory.

On the white board is a description, in the style of a simple newspaper article, of last summer's riots. It is a topic the teacher knows will keep these youths interested, close as they are to Manchester, where disturbances lasted several days.

She goes through the passage first, then asks them to read the questions which follow. One pulls down his baseball cap. "I can't read," he wails. Another boy echoes him, they all laugh.

But these boys, aged 16 and 17, really cannot read very well. On arrival at the college, four months ago, they were assessed as having literacy skills of entry level two - which the college told me equates to skills expected of a seven- to nine-year-old at primary school.

One boy reads "riots" as "roots". When it comes to the meaning of words too, they struggle. None even tries to explain "catalyst".

A car mechanic drains oil from a vehicle
Vocational courses offered by colleges in England include car mechanics

I spoke to one student, who has a degree of dyslexia: not so severe, according to his teacher, that it explains his poor literacy.

He told me he had never enjoyed school - not even primary - and that he could never really read.

He said he did receive support from some teachers, but one, memorably was not sympathetic.

"She said, you can't read, that's YOUR problem," he told me. He reads better now, though not books or magazines. He's interested in boxing, and reading for fun means looking up quotes from Muhammad Ali on the internet.

In this college there are nearly 300 students taking this Functional Skills English: Entry Level course, meaning they only have skills expected of primary school pupils or below.

The teachers told me most students did not have any kind of learning disability. They had come to secondary school with poor reading skills and had never been able to catch up. Once at college, and motivated, they learned better. But it is harder to acquire basic reading and writing skills at 17 than it is at seven.

"It's a scandal," said one member of staff. But the class teacher did not blame the schools. "They have a lot to deal with," she added.

According to Greg Brooks, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield, overall literacy has improved in recent years.

However, there remains a stubborn problem of really low literacy affecting, he estimates, about 17% of school leavers. This, he explains, means they are unable to function fully in a modern society.

In her report on vocational qualifications, for the Department for Education, Professor Alison Wolf identified this as a serious concern. She found that, as a society, "we are failing" these teenagers year on year.

Her own estimate was slightly higher than Professor Brooks's: she suggested about 20% of all school and college leavers have very poor literacy. That would equate to about 140,000 young adults in a year.

Professor Wolf believes that her reforms should go some way to address this. They would make it compulsory for students who fail GCSE English and Maths to continue with these subjects to 18. In addition, they would end the practice of steering low achieving students into relatively easy vocational courses, which are GCSE "equivalents".

Students in university library
Experts say a fifth of school and college leavers have poor literacy skills

The number of GCSE equivalent vocational qualifications taken by 16-year-olds rose from 15,000 in 2004 to 575,000 in 2010. Some of these are considered equivalent to several GCSEs when it comes to league tables.

They can be easier to pass than GCSEs in traditional subjects. So some schools have "gamed" the system, encouraging low achieving pupils into these courses.

Following Professor Wolf's advice, the Department for Education has decided that from 2014 96% of these vocational courses should be stripped of their equivalence, meaning they will no longer count in league tables.

Just 125 courses will retain their status. But they will only be worth up to one GCSE apiece. These are the courses the department believes are broad, challenging and externally assessed.

Professor Wolf thinks these measures should promote better literacy amongst the lowest achieving group. But, say some teachers, keeping these teenagers engaged with education is the challenge, and they are unsure whether this approach will succeed.

The boys in Stockport were all trying hard. They explained to me they need better English skills so they can read car manuals, and to conduct MOTs.

For many years now, governments have tried to address the problem of very poor literacy among a significant proportion of 16-year-olds. As Professor Brooks noted, it has proved stubborn.

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