Like them or loathe them, exams at the end of secondary school are a rite of passage. It is not just the act of sitting exams and receiving results, but the build-up, the post-exam celebrations and discussions about next steps. It is all part of the ritual transition to post-secondary education.
This moment in people’s lives matters in other ways – and more than you may expect. Young people who receive five good GCSEs are 10 times more likely to achieve a degree-level qualification than their peers. If a student misses an English GCSE pass grade by just a single mark, their chances of dropping out of education before they are 18-years-old increases by a third. And without five good GCSEs, a young person loses out on an average of £100,000 in earnings over their lifetime. Why? Because without GCSEs, in English and maths in particular, they are locked out of many university courses, apprenticeships and key professions.
They may not be aware yet but aged 16, our young people experience a sharp fork in the road. And yet, while teachers and politicians are grappling with many educational challenges in the coronavirus crisis, this group is largely being ignored.
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There are indications that the majority of teachers have reduced lesson time for current Year 11s – with many opting to not teach Year 11 at all now that GCSEs are cancelled. The new online curriculum hub, Oak National Academy, with filmed lessons from expert teachers – a fantastic example of collaboration in the system – is set to only cover children up to Year 10.
A catch-up tuition premium to support those at risk of falling behind is great. Better-off families are three times as likely to use private tutors since the lockdown than families on low incomes. But those calls don’t cover students in post-16 education. Not only is this an oversight, but it actively misses out those whose outcomes are most immediately at risk – with potentially lifelong consequences.
An unsupported gap
In August, when our current 16-year-olds are allocated grades for an exam they did not take, one in three – around 200,000 young people – will not achieve a “pass” for GCSE English and maths. These students will likely be disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many will need to retake these qualifications in the autumn – nine in 10 of them at a further education college. They will have just weeks to prepare after what will have been a six-month gap in their education. An unsupported gap, in many cases.
We only need to look to the current Year 12s, who were due to retake their English and maths this summer, to understand what is at stake. I lead Get Further, a not-for-profit that provides free tuition to students retaking their maths or English GCSEs in further education. In the past week, I’ve heard from a student, Aidan*, anxious that his previous GCSE attempt – the reason he was retaking – could be taken into account when his grade is calculated. Right now, he feels that his hard work – his energy and determination to improve and progress to his next steps in education has been wasted.
Next year, there will be more Aidans. And these ones may have stopped learning in March, have had no support all summer long, and then be catapulted into college with little hope of making that time back because it’s not on anyone’s agenda to do so. Aidan deserves better. Every Year 11 deserves better.
Now, more than ever, students in post-16 education who miss out on GCSE passes need more support to ensure young people can get back on track, as do the colleges who will support them. Rather than be overlooked, it is these young people who deserve the strongest possible offer to help that their misfortune to be 16 at this single moment in time doesn’t hold them back for the rest of their lives.
Sarah Waite is the founder of Get Further