GCSE resits: Is a new approach needed?

We need to take GCSE resit students’ views into account when looking at why they failed, says Elizabeth Draper
18th October 2019, 12:03am
Gcse Resit Results Revealed


GCSE resits: Is a new approach needed?


Students are, to an extent, as “expert” as teachers when it comes to educational processes and institutions. After all, they have years of knowledge and experience of what works, what doesn’t and why. And, as Michael Fielding states, “on occasions, and in particular contexts and circumstances, students might also teach their teachers” (Fielding, 2005). So, why don’t we spend more time asking their view on things?

Over the years, I have made it my business to seek out the student voice. And I recently took that a step further, putting students at the heart of a research project looking at GCSE resits.

The project examined the experience of some of our students who were resitting GCSE English and most vulnerable to failing. We focused on our construction students because they have consistently proved to be the most difficult to engage when it comes to English GCSE resits.

First, our pastoral managers helped to identify 41 students appropriate for the project, based on their student data profiles and courses of study. Initially, I devised a survey asking these 41 students about their school and college experiences. This survey was completed online and overseen by their vocational course teachers.

Next, a small group of student volunteers from the student council was coached and mentored in preparation for carrying out some student-action research into the experience of these 41 students. The volunteers digested the findings of the initial student survey before devising and conducting their own one-to-one interviews and focus groups with the 41 participants.

So, what did they find?

The initial survey provided a glimpse into the personal “take” on English that has evolved over time with this group of students, as well as an insight into their contrasting experiences of school and college. Here are the key themes that emerged:

  • The majority had a largely negative experience of English at school, including having lots of cover teachers and finding it hard to ask for help in lessons.
  • Most did not enjoy school in general.
  • Virtually all (94 per cent) felt that their GCSE English experience was better at college than at school.
  • Virtually all (98 per cent) said they were happier on their courses at college than they were on their courses at school.
  • The vast majority (90 per cent) felt more motivated at college to improve their knowledge and skills.

You may look at this and think: so, what was the issue? But it was the responses to the specific questions about English as a subject that were telling.

The vast majority (88 per cent) believed that good English skills would help them improve their chances in life and 93 per cent wished they did not have to resit their GCSE English. Half of all students said retaking their GCSE English was the hardest part of their study at college and 19 per cent had retaken GCSE English more than once.

So, students enjoyed college, wanted to progress, saw the point of English, but were almost unanimous that retaking GCSE English was something they did not want to do. The desire was there; the mechanism to achieve their goal was the problem.

The research group took the main themes that came out of their research to teachers and tutors, as well as to our curriculum and pastoral managers. Combining these insights and the survey findings, we put together a list of strategies that we are now implementing.

1. Engage with students’ prior experience of English

We are actively addressing the elephant in the room - these students “failed” English at school. We are embracing research in metacognition to find ways of getting them to think about their experiences of learning and, from this, deciding what they and we could do differently.

2. Change the conversation

The research demonstrated the need for us to “change the conversation”, especially in vocational classes, so that English is not seen as solely about “getting that grade 4”. English needs to be markedly different from the English these young people experienced at school, with stronger links to the student’s own elected vocational course of study. This is a challenge within the current GCSE English curriculum.

3. Target confidence interventions

As part of the GCSE resit experience, we recognise that there needs to be consideration of the emotional process involved. Self-confidence is low when it comes to English and we need to try to move these students from “learned helplessness” to greater self-reliance when it comes to studying. By taking ownership of their learning, they improve their self-esteem and confidence.

4. Continue online intervention

Our survey found that our use of the online learning resource GCSE Pod was viewed 100 per cent positively by students. We will continue to use the platform as a result.

With research continuing in 2019-20, we hope to build a more detailed picture of post-16 English in situ, with students joining us in the pedagogical conversation about the value of compulsory GCSE resits.

We need further evaluations of the impact that wholesale compulsory resit GCSE English has on students.

When it comes to English skills post-school, is it worth a more probing look? As the educationalist Pat Hutchings once said, “we need pedagogical intelligence that deepens learning through college and beyond”. Further education researchers, teachers and their students have a lot to contribute here.

Elizabeth Draper is director of English at Warrington & Vale Royal College

This article originally appeared in the 18 OCTOBER 2019 issue under the headline “Are you resitting comfortably?” The college’s project was supported by the Education and Training Foundation’s  Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment initiative.

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