Experts have warned that a “tsunami” of changes involved in the switch to the new, tougher GCSEs will create a “very challenging” scenario for colleges, which could lead to thousands of learners being disadvantaged.
The announcement by Ofqual last week that college students would benefit from two final chances to resit legacy GCSEs in English and maths after this summer was welcomed across the sector.
But colleges have warned that they face a “really testing” period, with record numbers of college students taking GCSE resits this year. Last year, some colleges were forced to cancel lessons and book external venues in order to free up sufficient space for students to sit their exams. And the Association of Colleges (AoC) has warned that the pressure will be even greater this year, due to a larger cohort and all students being required to retake GCSEs for the first time.
Colleges have also warned that confusion over what will be classed as a “good” pass under the new GCSE grading system is causing uncertainty for learners, and could lead to some missing out on progression opportunities.
“The cohort is increasing year on year, said Catherine Sezen, the AoC’s 14-19 policy manager. “This is the first year in which all young people have had to retake a GCSE rather than doing functional skills. So you will potentially have more young people this year taking GCSE, which obviously will have implications in terms of the logistics of setting up the exams.
At City College Norwich, 1,200 students will sit GCSE English this year – three times the number that sat it two years ago. The college has been forced to hire a hall 10 miles away, and will be laying on buses to transport students to sit their exams there. It is expected to cost £50,000, with other colleges across the country drawing up similar plans.
Concerns have also been raised about the grading system for the new GCSEs. Teaching for the reformed qualifications, designed to be more challenging than the legacy courses, began in September 2015, with the first cohort due to sit their final exams in summer 2017.
The grading system runs from 9 (the highest grade) to 1. While a grade 4 is linked to the standards for the current grade C, the government has said that grade 5 will be the threshold for a “good” pass. However, for the first two years under the new system, resits will not be required for students who achieve a grade 4.
Maths teacher trainer Julia Smith, who is also chair of governors at Writtle College, said: “Level 4 is not a ‘good’ pass. What if [college students with a 4] need a grade 5 to go to university, or to train to be a teacher or nurse? There is going to be a tranche of kids that need grade 5 for progression opportunities.
“With funding being so tight, there is likely to be no opportunity for them to resit to get a grade 5. In addition, the curriculum is going to be a third bigger, and we haven’t got enough qualified maths teachers to cope. I think we’re heading for a tsunami, unfortunately.
“It’s going to get better, but I think the next three years are going to be very challenging.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Improving the exams and curriculum is a key part of our drive to achieve educational excellence everywhere and we want all students to benefit from the reformed qualifications as soon as possible. We are working with colleges to deliver our maths and English reforms and we know they are embracing them.”
How one college is coping
City College Norwich will be holding GCSE English and maths exams at the Royal Norfolk Showground exhibition hall, which deputy principal Jerry White describes as “one of the biggest open space buildings in Norfolk”.
Over the last two years, the number of students taking GCSEs at the college has increased by 200 per cent in maths and 300 per cent in English.
“We’ve estimated the costs at around £50,000,” Mr White says. “This includes the transport, the invigilation, hiring the premises, etc. We’ve designed a special IT system to log in students when they arrive and we’ve got a professional cloakroom arrangement for all the bags and coats – for 800 students that’s no mean feat.”
The college has also retrained existing staff to meet the rising demand for GCSE teachers.
This is an article from the 1 April edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here