This week, a privately-educated Conservative MP announced that protecting the right of disadvantaged students to improve their GCSE English and maths grades while in FE is unnecessarily swallowing “valuable resources”.
This was, illogically, just moments after he feigned despair that these same disadvantaged students “pay the highest price” in school with just 33 per cent attaining five good GCSEs compared with 61 per cent of their wealthier peers.
This was not met, as anyone outside the sector might expect, with the howling liberal outcry our profession is famous for. In fact, this is an issue that seems to successfully bridge all ideological divides by appealing to a broader and deeper base of human weakness.
Those leading the poorly-funded sector look at what they are spending on English and maths provision compared to just a few years ago and weep. Teachers who have worked in the sector for years and who never signed up for this look back with nostalgia to the days when their learners were there voluntarily.
Fat cats running providers of alternative qualifications think about the twenty thousand young people per year that they aren’t yet profiting from. This shameful coalition denies logic, brazens out its own hypocrisy, and seeks only to disenfranchise the vulnerable for their own selfish gain.
They are not representative of FE, where belief in our learners is at the heart of what we do and is strikingly evident in the transformative support and education we provide. But they rely on misinformation and misleading use of language.
Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, told the Centre for Social Justice that GCSE retakes have “failure rates of over two thirds”. This is factually incorrect. For GCSE English retakes last year, for example, 94 per cent of students achieved a grade and by definition did not "fail".
If you hadn’t heard, there are nine grades now: 9-1. If Halfon is arbitrarily labelling anything below a 4 a "fail" – and that word certainly doesn’t appear on the GCSE certificates – then we have to wonder why his party went to the trouble of adding more grades to the qualification rather than just calling it the "9-4" or the "A-C".
Admittedly, Justine Greening did confuse matters by introducing ideas such as a "good pass", but when you give an education secretary a brief to be as inoffensively bland as possible you have to humour idle fiddling at the edges.
In any case, the headline measure for English and maths in colleges is a progress figure, rightly acknowledging that a learner who moves from a U to a G/1 is a success. Halfon’s use of the word “failure” is, therefore, a lazy way to attack an inconvenient policy through a C-attainment paradigm that’s unfortunately still more widely understood than the idea of celebrating progress.
He would be right though if he were to point out that progress for these learners is not good enough nationally; just the same as it’s not good enough for disadvantaged learners in schools. But this is another area where the logic doesn’t connect.
“We should be offering these students functional skills,” says Halfon, meaning the disadvantaged students who end up resitting in FE. Yet his party has been very clear that Functional Skills will not count in school headline measures and there is loud and vocal public resistance to two-tier systems in schools. The notorious article that became the downfall of Toby Young, although infamous for its mention of wheelchair ramps, was actually a defence of two-tier systems at GCSE level, but Halfon and the anti-resit coalition seem happy to stand in dubious company.
In schools, there is no suggestion of making the gap between deprived and better-off students disappear by entering those worse-off into a shorter, easier qualification. We shouldn’t allow a short-sighted but powerful minority in FE sell out our most-vulnerable learners.
Instead, we need to ask for the same additional funding and resources that schools get to do this job. We need to ask for our students’ access arrangements to transfer between school and college so they can be supported properly from day one.
We need to raise our own voices loudly to make the wider education community and the public understand that the old C-grade obsession can be laid to rest, that GCSE isn’t awarded as pass or fail, and that if schools are struggling to close the economic divide then we in FE will roll up our sleeves, get in the classroom, and try our damnedest to show them how it’s done.
GCSE resits can work
The economist John Galbraith identified the ‘Culture of Contentment’ where the plight of the deprived would never be remedied while the majority of people are content with their own situation.
The GCSE grade-distribution bell curve perpetuates the ‘content majority’ by consistently awarding 65 per cent or so of every national cohort the C/4 grade or above. It’s unlikely to be the children of middle-class teachers who need to resit GCSE. It’s unlikely to be the children of wealthy policymakers or lobbyists.
It will always be other people’s children we are entrusted with, and I believe they are the only “valuable resource” we should be talking about.
Robert Halfon has convinced me of one thing. When campaigning for his current committee position, he commented that to really be heard “you have to repeat the message again and again and again”.
I’ll keep on saying it: the GCSE resit policy can work.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South West college. He tweets @Education720