Monday, 27 August 2012

The trouble with ALAN

It is not uncommon to read or hear statements by home educating parents to the effect of, ‘we have decided not to do GCSEs’. Since it is usually parents who possess both the money and knowledge to arrange the things, this may be better translated as, ’I have decided that my child will not be taking any GCSEs’.

I have discussed before here the disadvantages for home educated children of not having GCSEs. These range from difficulty in getting a place at college when they are sixteen to limiting the choice of university at eighteen or nineteen. Still, as I have been reminded, not everybody wishes to go into further or higher education. Some young people are eager to enter the world of work at once. Here too, problems can arise form the decision not to sit GCSEs. When over 99% of children in the country are taking GCSEs or IGCSEs, those without a single one to their name do tend to stand out somewhat and not in a favourable way. The news that a sixteen or seventeen year old has not attended school for some years and has no GCSEs suggests to many potential employers that he has either been excluded, has learning difficulties and/or has feckless parents. This is an unfortunate impression to be creating when looking for work! Not everybody is familiar with home education and even those who have heard of it can have difficulty working out whether or not a child who has been subjected to this experimental procedure has the necessary skills to make him a valuable member of the workforce. In short, how does the employer know that this young person can read and write, carry out arithmetical operations and so on? For many parents , the answer is for their  child to sit adult literacy and numeracy tests.

Here is some information about adult literacy and numeracy tests or ALAN for short:

These are pretty popular with home educating parents as a way of proving that their child is literate. They are supposedly the equivalent of a GCSE, although in reality they are nothing of the sort. They certainly demonstrate that a teenager can read, write and do simple sums, but that is about it. Still, surely this is better than nothing? It at least provides some evidence for an employer that an applicant is not utterly lacking in academic skills. Sadly, these things are not a brilliant advertisement for children. The very phrase, ’adult literacy’,  brings forth images and associations to the average mind which would better be left untouched.

For the ordinary person, the expression ’adult literacy’ is connected with ’illiteracy’. Adult literacy courses, adult literacy qualifications and so on are widely thought to be remedial activities undertaken by adults who did not learn to read and write while they were at school. This is not at all the impression that one hopes to make when applying for a job; that one was until recently illiterate! Most employers glance at educational qualifications and want only to see five ’good’ GCSEs. Anything less than this marks an applicant out at once and not in a good way. The thought that somebody has not attended school and as a result has taken adult literacy qualifications is not really a good start.

Parents might think a little carefully about how their child will present to the outside world in later years. It is all well and good that home educated children are, at least according to their parents, cleverer, more sensitive, spiritual, creative and compassionate than other children. None of this will be much use if they look to outsiders like hopeless dropouts that have been learning to read and write at remedial classes!


  1. Hmmm! I recently did the ALAN (my GCSEs are 20 yrs old) and the tutor said it proved i could get a gcse english & maths at C grade (which i already had) and it crossed my mind that my dd13 could just do this ALAN and then not bother with 2 years of studying our english & maths syllabus!
    but i was just joking. it was easy.

  2. I'd have to agree that ALAN is next to useless. Research has shown that it makes no difference to employment rates, but on the other hand, you are often required to take them longside other level 2 or 3 qualifications such as BTECs. At best they can be used to gain access to the college course you want, but I doubt they will be useful for uni or employment. Another example of parents (and not just HE parents) being fooled by government propaganda.

  3. I absolutely agree with your assessment of these qualifications.

    'These are pretty popular with home educating parents as a way of proving that their child is literate.

    Where did you get this impression from? I'd be interested to know. Most HE families I know are taking IGCSEs as the route through to Further and Higher Education. The only ones who aren't are those with actual learning difficulties.

  4. I haven't met anyone who has used these qualifications either. Those people I have met who aren't taking the i/gcse route are usually heading for college and btecs -or not doing qualifications at all at the moment.

  5. 'Those people I have met who aren't taking the i/gcse route are usually heading for college and btecs -or not doing qualifications at all at the moment.'

    This is how I came to hear of this, through the parents of home educated children trying to get their kids places at two local further education colleges. Like most, these colleges require GCSEs before they will allow children to study for A levels and they have had several parents in the last year who have claimed that the ALAN things are equal to GCSEs in English and maths. I have heard from various sources that some universities have had similar experiences, of young home educated people applying with a few OU credits and ALAN qualifications, among other random things. I think that some of these have been deceived into thinking that universities are more open than is actually the case to alternative qualifications.

    I don't know what lists other people are on, but it is not at all uncommon on some places to see people posting who say that their child is taking ALAN in order to demonstrate that he or she has had a decent education. It is less trouble than GCSEs!

  6. Once or twice I've noticed people talking about them on local lists and others have chimed in with advice not to, so I just don't see it as being prevalent. Certainly, you don't see much discussion of them on the HEExams list.

    Personally, I wouldn't advise risking trying to get into a BTEC course without some solid qualifications like IGCSE because you are quite likely to be bumped down to the Level 1 first, with many FEs.

    Having said that, our local FE college has this year begun simply screening students in Maths and English and starting them on appropraite level courses depending on the results. I was pleasantly surprised how some friends' children managed to start at Level 2, and even Level 3, BTECs with no qualifications.

    They could just as easily change their admissions policies again next year though, so I wouldn't bank on that process.

  7. 'I was pleasantly surprised how some friends' children managed to start at Level 2, and even Level 3, BTECs with no qualifications.'

    This is indeed encouraging news. many colleges are absolutely rigid and inflexible about the qualifications needed to get on their courses.

  8. Our three children were accepted onto BTEC level 2 courses at three different FE colleges without the required entry qualifications. Two had to take ALAN type courses alongside the BTEC, as did any schooled children who had failed to gain Maths and English GCSEs. The third college was better in that they offered Maths and English GCSEs alongside the BTEC for anyone that did not already have them. They have all gone onto the level 3 BTECs and then either into work or university.

  9. 'Two had to take ALAN type courses alongside the BTEC, as did any schooled children who had failed to gain Maths and English GCSEs'

    Thanks for posting that. I know that some colleges do this, while others are reluctant to accept anything other than GCSEs.

    1. Just to be clear, it's not that the college required the ALAN or GCSEs as entry requirements for the BTEC courses (despite their published requirements), they just had to be studied alongside the BTEC after they had been accepted on the courses. The impression given by the college is that it's a government requirement for anyone studying a level 2 or 3 course at college who does not already have a level 2 qualification in English or Maths.

      None of our children had formal qualifications of any kind before they started college. One gained entry with a portfolio, and another had to complete an assignment from the course they were applying for in order to gain entry. The other was just accepted because they applied late and there were places available.

      I suspect that availability of places makes a huge difference to how flexible colleges are prepared to be. We were half expecting to have to apply again a year later after sorting out some GCSEs, but luckily that wasn't necessary.

    2. our local college uses them for any students who don't have a level 2 english or maths to assess the ability of the student to manage the literacy and numeracy requirements of the vocation - that someone doing travel and tourism could fill out the booking forms etc that would be part of their job, or that a gardener could measure the area of his patch and cost his materials. They accept quite a low level to get onto the level 1 and 2 courses.
      They also use them to measure the student's progress on key skills during their course, by taking them at the beginning and the end.

  10. Not related to this article directly though exams do get a mention, but an interesting article, Though Simon may want to avoid reading it since there is talk of a 12 year old learning to read in 10 days!

  11. Worn out old Webb says- have discussed before here the disadvantages for home educated children of not having GCSEs. These range from difficulty in getting a place at college when they are sixteen to limiting the choice of university at eighteen or nineteen.

    Had no problem what so ever getting Peter into college to do various courses and Peter has no formal qualification.The college was very helpful and welcomes home educated children.telling me that it has found home educated children to be a joy to teach and are often very bright and want to learn.

  12. Our daughter is many years away from GCSE / iGCSE but we fully intend on her taking some. I know nothing of the entrance procedure for HE children - is it really so prohibitively difficult / expensive as to put parents off doing this or am I missing something? I guess what I'm trying to say is why *wouldn't* you put your child through GCSE / iGCSE? This isn't meant to be an attack on parents who choose not too, I am genuinely interested.


    1. We allowed our children to follow their interests and direct their own education (autonomous education). We discussed GCSEs and one of our children chose to enrol at the local college for some, but the others decided against them in favour of BTECs that related more closely to their interests and future work preferences. They felt that taking the time out for GCSEs would have been a waste of time that they would rather spend on other interests. One of our children is now working in their desired field and another is at University. The third is about to start a level 3 BTEC.

    2. Very interesting - thank you. I guess I'm so used to the "norm" it's hard to see a credible alternative but this is very informative.


  13. Our daughter is taking IGCSEs but I can think of lots of reasons why people might not take that path. Maybe the young person already has a clear plan of what they want to do next and it doesn't require qualifications, or they have a place offered at college on the basis of a portfolio or something. IGCSEs can be quite a commitment in terms of time and money (or not, it all depends on the child and local access to exam centres) and some people feel they don't need them. There are also young people who just don't want to do them and their parents are not inclined to battle about it.

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