This may be the time of year when some people’s thoughts turn away from the cold winter weather to the sunshine of June. Especially perhaps if they are hosting a wedding or garden party and are considering hiring a marquee. If that is the case, then it might be a good idea to look at when the GCSE maths and English examinations are taking place – and avoid those dates. This is because many further education colleges will have already block-booked large marquees to cater for the thousands of students who may be resitting these examinations. Approximately 18 colleges entered more than 1,000 students for GCSE maths resits last year and even more colleges did so for GCSE English. Erecting huge marquees to accommodate students is often the only solution to this logistical problem.
Is this resit policy really necessary?
While the educational answer is no, the financial answer is unfortunately yes. The government’s ‘condition of funding’ rule means that all full-time 16–18 students (19–25 year-olds with an education, health and care plan (EHCP)) with a Grade 3 at GCSE maths and/or English must resit (students with a Grade 2 can take functional skills instead). For school sixth forms and colleges whose students do not comply, the full student funding will be reclaimed (typically £4,000 to £5,000 per student). So, the outcome is that students are forced to resit – in many cases again and again.
Why are the numbers of resits so high?
In 2019, about one-third of state-educated students did not score at least a Grade 4 in both English and maths GCSEs. And crucially this will always be the case because of the system of ‘comparable outcomes’ that keeps results broadly stable from one year to the next. This meant that, in 2019, 170,000 post-16 students sat GCSE maths and 152,000 sat GCSE English across the country. Only 21% attained a Grade 4+ in maths and 30% in English.
So, unless policies change, thousands of young people will have to continue to endure their own Groundhog Day nightmare.
What is the impact of this?
A report from The Sutton Trust has found that a disproportionate number of the affected students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and this poor experience means they leave school feeling demoralised about their prospects for onward progression to courses and careers (see https://tinyurl.com/sbgh3wb). So, the changes are further disadvantaging the disadvantaged at a time when young people move into further study and work. Even failing GCSE English by just one grade can have serious consequences, according to research by the London School of Economics (see https://tinyurl.com/rmc5vba). It found that doors to other post-16 courses are often shut; teenagers lose confidence, and this can lead to them being trapped as adults at or below the minimum wage or just struggling to work at all.
Might this change?
This scandalous situation led ASCL to set up its Forgotten Third Commission (see www.ascl.org.uk/ForgottenThird) that advocates an overhaul of GCSEs aimed at improving the prospects of those students who currently fall short of achieving that magical Grade 4 in GCSE English and maths. New ‘passport’ qualifications are called for in English, and in time maths that all students would take at the point of readiness, from the ages of 15 to 19.
Perhaps, though, the government has at last recognised that there is a need for change. In its T Level Action Plan, published in October 2019 (https://tinyurl.com/rjmksao), the first cohort of T level students who will start in September 2020 are exempt from the condition of funding rule. This means that if students starting their T level programme have a Grade 3 in GCSE English or maths, they can take functional skills at Level 2 as an alternative.
Is this just a necessary move to guarantee enough of a cohort to get the flagship technical programme off the ground? Or is it finally an indication that the government has recognised the need for change?
If we are optimistic and take the latter view then we will hear no more stories like that of City College Plymouth student Lauren Reid who achieved a Grade 4 in GCSE maths in the summer of 2019 – at the ninth time of trying. Perhaps as well it will mean the end to colleges passing huge sums of money over to the professional marquee industry. Let us hope so.
ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist