'Dear Jeremy Corbyn, don't close the door on GCSE resits'

Opponents of GCSE resits are increasingly vocal – but Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn should resist calls to scrap the controversial policy, writes Andrew Otty

Andrew Otty

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Dear Jeremy,

I’m looking for an adoptive home and you’re my last hope. I don’t mean for me personally, as I’m sure you and Laura don’t want a tubby 30-something blogging from your basement, but my orphaned cause needs shelter. When you address the Association of Colleges (AoC) this November, I will be out there in the audience on the edge of my seat, praying that you don’t close the final door on GCSE resits. I’ve seen first-hand the enormous good that the policy can do for young people: helping to redress the inequality caused by economic disadvantage, challenging the mindset of fixed "failure", and providing another chance for young people to engage with a subject that will enrich their lives.

It will be easy for you to push the unloved policy away, suggesting that it should look for help and support from its natural parents: the Conservative Party. But it’s been kicked out of its home and those enquiring about it are met with an embarrassed silence and a shrug. The biological father is long gone and neglectful step-parent Nick Gibb is too wrapped up nurturing his favourite child, writing a speech every time someone in a free school so much as farts impressively. Meanwhile, those of us committed to making this socially-just Tory policy work for young people are brushed under the carpet until there’s a quiet week for government u-turns and then we’ll end up on the educational scrap heap next to Nicky Morgan and her garage full of character-education books.

Don't abandon resits

The policy can’t look to trendy Uncle Vince for help either. Even though Nick Clegg boasted that it was the Liberal Democrats who rightly blocked Gove’s proposal for a two-tier system while in the coalition government, Vince Cable is now backing exactly the same thing in a populist grab for votes from NUS students' union members. Perhaps learning from Blair’s abandonment of Clause 4, the Liberals seem willing to sacrifice their ideological tenet of equality of opportunity to win seats. But you could reach out, Jeremy. Disadvantaged students still perform less well than their wealthier peers in GCSEs at school, so the resits are a chance to support them and lessen the effects of that gap. Surely if the Conservatives’ pragmatism prevents them from persevering with something that genuinely helps people because it’s turned out harder than expected, and if the opportunism of the Liberals is causing them to turn their backs on the young people whose literacy prevents them from accessing the Lib Dem recruitment grounds of universities, then the Labour Party will step in to protect the many disadvantaged from the economically-elite few?

They have loud voices, the economic elite. The axis of Association of Employment and Learning Providers, Association of School and College Leaders, and AoC have their tannoys deployed in the public domain to shout over anyone with a positive message. They will also whisper in your ear, because unlike those this policy actually affects, they have insider access to policymakers and influencers. Mark Dawe of the AELP will tell you to “abandon resits” because “they almost always end in failure”. His first loyalty is to employers, and in a short-sighted strategy, he’s hoping to create a workforce of compliant and disposable battery workers, rather than young people equipped to think critically, to question, and to have aspiration. What you won’t hear is that in my college the majority of learners improved their grade last year.

'A morally-good policy'

Geoff Barton, once the purveyor of uninspiring grammar textbooks and now general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, will tell you that disadvantaged students only deserve a “basic” literacy qualification. In a role of great responsibility where he could be promoting and celebrating progress, he wilfully continues to talk about “failure”. If there’s anything that makes the resit job difficult, it’s trying to break that ‘pass/fail’ mindset and enabling students to take pride in just getting better at English and enjoying it along the way. Frankly, that shouldn’t be restricted to colleges and resits. Schools have much to do now to repair the damage done to the teaching of low-ability students during the tenure of Geoff Barton’s generation of heads who focused only on "pass/fail" and consequently wrote off hundreds of thousands of young people. What you won’t hear is that in my college we encouraged students whose English grade from school was anything from a U to an E to also enter the English GCSE resit, which isn’t statutory, and they were wildly successful.

Alison Birkinshaw will only be trying to do her job when she tells you that disadvantaged students having access to the same curriculum as everyone else is “inappropriate”. As president of the AoC, she has to represent the interests of college leaders and even I would admit that the policy presents financial and logistical difficulties, not least with the paradox that the more disadvantaged students in your college intake (and therefore, statistically, the more resitters) the more your resources are stretched. Whereas an exclusively academic sixth-form college can plough more resources into its A-levels, and so the gap widens… But this should prompt a dialogue on making this otherwise beneficial policy work. Are we really saying to young people, “We don’t want to help you improve in this vital subject because it costs us a few hours a week of extra teaching, and hiring an exam venue is a bit of a pain”? You won’t hear, Jeremy, that in my college we wanted what was best for the students and the whole staff across the college came together to make the exam days work, despite the challenges.

Legislation is good when it protects the weak and the vulnerable. This is a good policy, a morally-good policy, regardless of what you think of its origin. Please use your platform in November to welcome it into your home and to raise a voice in its defence. Remember the many and the bridges they need; the few stand ready with their walls.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Otty, a GCSE-English resits teacher

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Andrew Otty

Andrew Otty

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a college in the South West

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