Maths and English: If at first you don’t succeed…


The government's plans to make students continue studying maths and English post-16 until they achieve a C is welcome on a number of levels, says child psychologist Karen Sullivan.

Not surprisingly, a return to the classroom has coincided with yet another government initiative – teenagers who fail to score good grades in their English and maths GCSEs must now continue studying the subjects until they are 18.

Education secretary Michael Gove says the move will help to ensure that young people have a good grasp of the key subjects that employers “demand above all others”.

He’s right, but there are also a number of reasons why this new scheme meets with my approval. Let’s take literacy as an example. It is probably impossible to quantify the benefits of being literate. Not only does it improve future prospects on every level, but there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that people with higher literacy have much better health outcomes, are less likely to smoke and drink heavily (and divorce), are more likely to vote (and therefore participate in the democratic process and, through that, society), are better skilled and more flexible in the workplace, are more likely to participate in the community and more likely to live in a working household.

Literacy provides opportunities. More relevant, perhaps is the fact that on an everyday level, literacy enables people to process information and communicate effectively. Research from the University of Toronto shows that reading fiction develops social skills, like empathy, and Surrey University found that reading has an important role in the reduction of stress levels.

A recent study found that literacy increases self-confidence and self-esteem, including sense of potential, ability and achievements, as well as improving independence, levels of happiness, an ability to voice opinions and overall health. 

It goes without saying that students who finish secondary school with a decent grade in English (and maths) will have the basic tools they need to make a success of their lives, no matter what they choose to do. Ease with numbers and the written word will open doors and make any job easier, whether you are a plumber, an aspiring media executive, a shop assistant or a nanny. Our daily lives revolve around words and numbers, and familiarity and an ability to apply them will make every daily task that much easier.

It is useful that the government is suggesting an elastic timeframe. Putting pressure on already stressed students to achieve higher grades in a short space of time would be counterproductive. With several years to achieve the target, the pressure should be reduced. Equally, I hope that they will tailor the curriculum to suit the different learning styles, cultures, backgrounds and interests of the students.

Reading has to be accessible and inspiring, and appropriate books should be chosen to encourage this. Secondary-school students should be given works of literature that will make them want to read and write, and teach them the basics of grammar and other elements of literacy at the same time. Mathematics should be made relevant to daily life, perhaps through project work or work-experience initiatives.

Most of all, I love the idea that students will be given an opportunity to experience success, no matter how difficult they’ve found literacy and numeracy in the past. The fact that everyone has to do it will promote a “we’re all in this together” mentality and, together with sensitive teaching, encourage the development of goals and a programme of reasonable steps necessary to achieve them.

Finally, it’s worth noting that perseverance is a skill that every teenager needs to acquire. Learning from mistakes and summoning the courage and enthusiasm to continue with difficult tasks is an essential part of self-esteem, confidence and success.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email


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