For many young people, this is a bad case of déjà vu. Last summer, thousands of students missed out on GCSE English or maths grades that they needed for their next steps. These students – disheartened and frustrated – enrolled in college or sixth form in September and set about retaking the qualifications. Students like *Lauren, whose university place on a midwifery course rests on her achieving a grade 4 (a C in old money) in her maths retake this year. She hoped to have the chance to prove what she is capable of.
Lauren and her peers now find themselves back in the same position they were in last March. Their exams have been cancelled for a second year in a row. Burned by the experience last year, they are anxious about what happens next. At the back of their minds is the feeling that another year of their life has been wasted – and that their plans for work or further study are, yet again, on hold.
At the charity Get Further, we have met hundreds of students who now feel like this. Overwhelmingly, the students we work with are from disadvantaged backgrounds. We match them to top tutors for free tuition sessions – so that these students can also benefit from the type of personalised, extra help that is so powerful in education.
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The students have worked hard to rebuild their knowledge, skills and confidence following lockdown after lockdown. The teachers in the colleges and sixth forms we have partnered with have shown inspirational resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges. It is heartbreaking that our education system has ended up back here – and that so many who couldn’t sit their exams last year are in this position again.
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Moreover, this time it will be harder. Many students were new to their college and teachers last term. Rota systems and online lessons have meant that students have had a limited number of class – or, in some cases, no classes – with face-to-face teaching. For most, mock exams to indicate the grade they are currently working at have not yet taken place. College teachers often teach hundreds of GCSE students every year. In this context, they face an enormous challenge to differentiate between each student’s performance and fairly allocate them a grade.
Next year, students who end up missing out on the grades they need to progress will be joined by thousands more who are currently in Year 11. Next year, there will be an even larger cohort of students retaking gateway GCSEs who have never had the chance to sit a formal exam. But catch-up funding for colleges and sixth forms is not allocated beyond July. In addition, the National Tutoring Programme, which gives access to subsidised tuition for disadvantaged pupils, was only made available to schools this year.
On the current trajectory, the young people whose education has been most disrupted, who are at risk of losing the most from this pandemic, who are closest to a challenging labour market without key qualifications that could help them to find work will end up with the least support. This cannot be left this way. These young people must be put at the heart of the government’s next steps on assessment and catch-up and be given a meaningful chance to recover their education.
Sarah Waite is founder of the charity Get Further