Bacc to the future: don’t get stuck in a time warp of old ideas when we need new solutions

Published: Monday 2 Oct 2023

Numeracy, literacy and digital fluency are the skills that will future-proof our young people and should be the focus for policy makers, says AQA in a report published today.

The traditional building blocks of reading, writing and arithmetic remain imperative, but we need a more modern interpretation.

If we were writing them now, the ‘three Rs’ would be numeracy (including finance), literacy (including oracy) and digital fluency - because they are the passport skills for modern society, work and life.

AQA believes there is a clear and persistent problem in England with low levels of numeracy, literacy and digital fluency. Large numbers of young people continue to leave formal education without a firm grounding in these core skills, leading to poor outcomes in work and life.

AQA says this long-standing problem isn’t going away and must be tackled.

With political conversations focusing on ‘Maths to 18’ and the ‘British’ Baccalaureate, AQA argues that people are looking in the wrong place for the answer.

There are lots of good qualifications and assessments out there, but they do a different job: they are there to rank order, and differentiate, whereas we need something where everyone can show their competence.

Repeatedly resitting maths and English GCSE or requiring young people to study maths A-level are therefore not the right solutions to the problem.

AQA says the new assessment can be thought of like a driving test. Not everyone who gets behind the wheel of a car needs to be Lewis Hamilton, but they do all need to demonstrate the same fundamental skills.

And the reverse is also true. Whatever his performance on an F1 circuit, Lewis Hamilton also needs to meet the same fundamental skills and pass a driving test to drive on a regular road.

In the same way, having a good grade in English and maths GCSE doesn’t necessarily mean your literacy and numeracy skills are up to scratch: we could all benefit from a refresher course to maintain, or improve, those skills.

The call from AQA comes today as it launches a proposal to develop a digital, on-demand assessment of core competences, focused on the fundamental skills and knowledge required to be literate, numerate and digitally fluent.

AQA will present its proposals in a report at the Conservative Party Conference this evening during a public panel discussion it is running in partnership with the Education Policy Institute (EPI): How to make ‘Maths to 18′ a reality

The report explains that while maths and numeracy, or English and literacy, are linked, they are not the same.

Literacy is a suite of skills and knowledge that enables people to understand written information and to communicate clearly and persuasively both orally and in writing, in person and when digitally mediated.

Being numerate includes being able to understand and make good decisions about financial products, manage budgets, and make sense of tables, charts and basic statistics.

AQA also says that, in the modern world, young people need to be equipped with a third and equally important skillset: digital fluency.

Digital fluency is much more than reading and writing online or using the latest technology. With the dominance of social media, being digitally literate not only means being able to access and read online content but knowing how to navigate it safely, including cyber awareness and cyber safety.

To be digitally fluent, people are required to find, evaluate, create, curate and communicate information in a way that makes them effective digital consumers.

AQA sets out in its report the case and context for the new assessments:

  • England is one of the least numerate countries in the developed world, with more than 8 million adults having lower numeracy than a 9-year-old. Some estimates suggest that low levels of numeracy cost the UK over £20bn.
  • England is the only country where the older population out-perform their younger counterparts in the PIACC survey of adult skills: while the general trend in the OECD nations is for younger generations to have better skills than their parents’ generation, this is not the case in England.
  • Many good qualifications and assessments including GCSEs are out there now, doing different things, but there is a gap.
  • Constant re-sits aren’t a good experience for our young people, so we need something different.
  • The new assessment should be universal and available to everyone – we all need to make sure our numeracy and literacy skills are up to scratch.
  • The new assessment could potentially contain some ‘gamified’ elements.

AQA will convene an expert advisory panel in early 2024 to guide and shape the development of the new assessments of numeracy, literacy and digital fluency.

Colin Hughes, AQA’s Chief Executive Officer, said:

“Numeracy, literacy and digital fluency are critical skills and without them people are much more likely to struggle to gain employment, work out their weekly budget, or even read their children a bedtime story.

“But there’s a persistent problem - too many young people are leaving education without the skills they, and our economy, need. We’re having the same conversations about it every year, but it remains stubbornly in place.

“So we need a new approach, and we believe the new on-demand assessment we’re developing is the answer.

“We’re at the start of this journey and hope to provoke discussion and debate on this crucial area of education. To that end, we will be engaging far and wide as we continue to develop our plans.”

Reacting to AQA’s report and proposals, chartered accountancy body ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) said it supported AQA’s initiative and echoed the critical importance of numeracy, literacy and digital fluency skills to employers.

Will Holt, Managing Director, Education and Training at chartered accountancy body, ICAEW said:

“Too many young people leave formal education without the numeracy, literacy and digital fluency skills needed for life and the workplace. These core competencies are fundamental to the role of a modern chartered accountant and are demanded by employers across the UK.

“Everyone should have the opportunity to develop and practically apply these skills with confidence, so we support this initiative by AQA.”

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