The GCSE resits debate is becoming more balanced in tone and more teachers and leaders are willing to speak positively about the policy. This week, in ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton’s commentary on the publication of subject-content guidance for the reformed functional skills qualifications, it was noticeable that he did not use the emotive and misleading language of “failure”.
Instead, he suggested that resit students found GCSEs “a real struggle”: a step in the right direction. I hope this signals that more people are catching up with the progress agenda that has been front and centre for those of us who have actually been teaching in schools and colleges this decade.
Unfortunately, ASCL’s position remains that the policy protecting students’ right to resit their English or maths GCSE post-16 be replaced with an “option” of either GCSE or functional skills so that students are “allowed” to take the latter. I have personally never encountered a single student desperate to take functional skills English rather than GCSE, but it’s a convenient fiction to attack something disliked by many.
“This year, we have seen incredible writing from GCSE English students who spent the previous two years in a functional skills rut,” Ashleigh McGoey told me. She leads English and maths in a large college. “It would show far more faith in the sector, its professionals and its students, to invest in the policy and make it work.”
It was encouraging to see, on social media, more voices rising in support of the GCSE policy. Alice Eardley, a GCSE-resit teacher, commented on Twitter that she doesn’t “see how another massive upheaval in maths and English provision is going to benefit anyone”.
Ben Gadsby, of Impetus-PEF, noted that research he is doing with the Centre for Vocational Educational Research will look at employment outcomes for those with functional skills rather than GCSE. I hope I’m wrong, for the sake of the many thousands entered onto FS every year nationally, but I anticipate that this will identify another gap opening up. My own research into how the policy works for disadvantaged students seems to suggest that they are twice as likely to be entered for FS than GCSE.
We’ve been here before with two-tier systems. Back when Level-2 BTEC science counted in school league tables, I had a Year 11 tutee who was entered into it rather than GCSE. In fact, everyone in that year group was entered into it except for the very top set. She stands out to me though. She was living in extremely difficult circumstances, in true poverty, but she had an incredible determination to succeed. She used to get me to photocopy pages of maths GCSE textbooks so that she could take them home for practice.
She would proudly show me her English work during tutor time. She knew she needed C grades to progress onto the course she wanted to take after school. She achieved Cs in English and maths; one of just three in her English class and the only member of her maths class to do so. She also passed her BTEC Science… but so did every other member of her science class. BTEC Science was not accepted on the course that she wanted to take at a local sixth-form college, and it’s not hard to see how it was being undermined as an equivalent qualification. I don’t know where she ended up, but I hope FE stepped in, worked its magic, and set her back on track to her ambitions. The reality is that without the policy, some institutions will put their own priorities ahead of what’s right for their learners.
Things are improving
At an English and maths conference that I attended last week, there was a feeling that a lot of time and effort has now been invested in delivering the resits and that things are improving. Of course, a small clique made the perennial call for scrapping the policy. However, the shrill negativity was overshadowed by the determined optimism of the majority, as colleagues across the sector shared excellent practice and initiatives that are actually making a difference to our students.
I’m afraid Geoff Barton is right though in one criticism of resits: “large numbers do not improve their grades”, and again I am grateful that he did not reach for the "f-word" there. More resit learners should make progress after an extra year of English. Teachers are absolutely committed to this. What’s missing is overt, unequivocal support from our sector leaders.
We should be campaigning together for proper funding and resources to deliver for our learners, and to end the access-arrangements fiasco. Ministers and the Department for Education are also letting us down. I appreciate it must be tough for them to continually face the aggressive shouting of a militant minority, but grim-faced silence isn’t the answer. They should have the courage of their convictions and come out publicly to make the case for this policy and to support the teachers transforming the experience of English for young people.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a college in the South West. He tweets @Education720