In her seminal TED Talk on growth mindset, Carol Dweck tells us that “if you 'fail' you’re nowhere, but if you get the grade ‘not yet’ you’re on a learning curve.”
That’s what the GCSE resit policy should have done; in conjunction with an untiered, numerical grading system, and the progress agenda; it should have removed the word "fail" from the vocabulary we use in discussing English. It could have rallied students, teachers and all stakeholders to the flag of persisting with this vital subject until a common standard is reached, rather than just an arbitrary age.
However, the government has not only "failed" to make the case for this policy, or to support it, but it has actually confused matters further by introducing terms such as “strong pass” to something that is not really a pass/fail qualification. Of the 133,790 post-16 entries into GCSE English language last year, 91.6 per cent technically passed. Fact. Go on; check it. But not nearly enough students made progress from their starting point. Despite our best efforts, the policy is not a success… not yet.
Students are all capable of improving
The critics of growth mindset make much of the lack of replicability of Professor Dweck’s original trials. They mock, with justification, the absurd posters adorning classrooms and corridors that suggest anyone can do anything just by believing they can.
Less justifiably, they draw parallels between growth mindset and some of the truly-brainless edu-fads we’ve seen, from learning styles to lollipop sticks. I suspect this negativity arises from a minority of schools and colleges imposing the idea as another tick-box on the observation bingo card or garbling its message in over-simplified assemblies.
I think the negativity is unfair because a growth mindset can only do good. The belief that with appropriate support and enough effort we can get better at something is surely a prerequisite for working in education. Whatever sinister arguments might be made about genetic predestination on the swivel-eyed fringes, we have to keep the faith and keep doing our best for all students because the alternative is unthinkable.
GCSE English resit students are all capable of improving their grade.
A pupil premium for FE
But Tes FE editor Stephen Exley was correct last week to call the Department for Education’s failings over the policy “a scandal”. While promising millions in funding to expand grammar schools, a regressive move and an obvious nod to the nostalgic activists carrying the Conservative Party further from the centre, the bright future of the country as embodied in its diverse, dynamic, and vibrant colleges is quietly suffocated through lack of funding.
In one college I visited recently, through my work with the charity Shine Trust, more than 50 per cent of GCSE resit students were from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet, the additional thousands in pupil premium funding their schools received does not follow those vulnerable young people to college.
It’s not just about funding though. Ministers offer no moral support whatsoever for the resit policy. The job of justifying it has been left to those of us also having to deliver it in the classroom. It’s a pretty desperate position, to be frank; we don’t have the time, the mandate or the influence to do that as a hobby alongside the toughest job in FE. It’s disappointing that the architects of this policy, such as Michael Gove and Matt Hancock, can move on without a backward glance. It’s shameful that no current minister will engage meaningfully with it.
Appropriate support costs money
I know I can do better on an individual level to help more "not yets" grow towards success. My teaching isn’t perfect. Like all teachers, I wrestle with the demons of how I could have used the little curriculum time I have for greater impact, and why my feedback doesn’t just… you know… fix them. I wonder if my students’ attendance would be better if I found the time to make a few more phone calls home.
If I ever, ever catch myself thinking that a lack of progress is because the student isn’t capable of anything better, then it’ll be time to look for a new profession. Equally, I don’t want to hear any arguments that the GCSE resit policy doesn’t work because the students aren’t capable of GCSE English. They are. With the appropriate support and effort.
The appropriate support costs money and the necessary effort will only come from a culture where English resits are practically and earnestly backed by ministers. An equivalent to pupil premium should be put in place to support this group.
That’s what Impetus-PEF called for last year in its report Life After School: an extra £935 per resit learner, because as chief executive Andy Ratcliffe told me, these young people “deserve a second chance to succeed but are not getting it, with just one in eight free school meals pupils successfully catching up in GCSE English post-16. This is the crisis facing 16-19 education and urgent action is needed to address it.”
Growth mindset isn’t just a fad to occupy trainee teachers and Hallmark-card-writer wannabes. It should be the guiding principle of teaching. We should all swear an oath to it, everyone right up to the secretary of state. But it takes more than a poster and wishful thinking to deliver it. We teachers and colleges are doing our part for the "not yets". Now it’s time for the DfE to do theirs.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity Shine.