Compulsory GCSE resits are setting students up to fail

A solid grounding in English and maths is important, but forced resits are not the way to achieve this – especially when no extra funding is forthcoming

Stephen Exley

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A minimum standard of literacy and numeracy is essential. This is a goal that it’s impossible to quibble with. Whenever ministers are confronted with criticism of the GCSE resits policy in English and maths, this is the stock response. It’s the learners who should come first, and giving them a solid grounding in English and maths is more important than anything else.

Quite right. So why are they being forced through a system in which the majority of students are set up to fail?

How can colleges be expected to unravel and correct literacy and numeracy problems in one year, which schools have failed to get to the bottom of in 11 years? And there’s no additional funding for maths and English – subjects in which there is already a shortage of teachers. An Association of Colleges survey, completed in partnership with TES, found in May that almost nine in 10 colleges were struggling to recruit maths teachers, with more than two-thirds having the same problem in English.

It’s only reasonable to conclude that a little more help for college-goers wouldn’t go amiss. A report by the Policy Exchange thinktank in 2015 called for a “resit levy”, under which colleges that took on students who had not gained good GCSE passes in English and maths would be given extra funding by the secondaries those students had attended. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the pro-schools bias of much policymaking, the idea has come to naught.

An alternative approach

Amid the pre-Brexit economic uncertainty, it’s difficult to imagine more cash will be on the way in next month’s Autumn Statement. But there’s no reason why students couldn’t be cut a little more slack when it comes to the qualifications they can take.

The Education and Training Foundation is already redrawing functional skills qualifications. Dame Sally Coates has called for the creation of a modular “adult GCSE”. Both options would offer an alternative approach, which could prevent students from being repeatedly labelled as failures.

While colleges are bearing up well under the weight of the resits pressure, as Ofsted’s Paul Joyce has acknowledged, don’t forget that, once the final legacy GCSE sittings in November and next summer are out of the way, there are new, more difficult English and maths courses to factor in.

The resits issue isn’t going anywhere – and it’s about to get a whole lot worse.


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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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