Labour’s announcement at this week’s Association of Colleges conference that they would scrap compulsory GCSE English and maths resits for those who just miss out at 16 has been welcomed with a loud sigh of relief by many in the FE sector. I understand why: I’ve called the current policy "mutually assured despair" for teachers and learners. But I think we need to be careful to make sure that we’re giving a real second chance to our young people and that we’ve properly invested in FE colleges to deliver that.
It’s absolutely right that all politicians look at the issue because we know the current policy doesn’t work. Last year Impetus-PEF’s Life After School report found that under a quarter of young people who don’t have their GCSEs by age 16 have caught up by age 19. The figures are worse for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with just 8 per cent catching up in maths. And this year we discovered that some young people are resitting these qualifications as many as nine times.
This is an issue that particularly affects disadvantaged young people. Young people from disadvantaged background are nearly twice as likely to leave school without maths and English GCSEs.
We need to be careful
But before we go ahead with dropping the requirement to resit GCSEs, I think we need to be careful. GCSEs are proven qualifications understood and valued by employers. Functional Skills qualifications are much newer and their value to employers is less proven.
This is not to say that functional skills qualifications don’t have value. Geoff Barton has talked about how they can help increase learners’ confidence. And many others have talked about the progress learners make. These are, of course, great things which are often achieved against the odds by teachers in FE colleges. But when it comes to setting what the AoC have called the "foundation" that we want all young people to have, I think we need more than this – we need qualifications that we are confident are a passport to future success in education and work.
I’d rather Labour committed to fund FE properly and stick with the GCSE resits than risk putting tens of thousands of young people, particularly disadvantaged young people, on qualifications that might not set them up to succeed. So my plea to the Labour Party is to make two further commitments.
First, that GCSE be the first choice until we have strong evidence that Functional Skills will improve young people's education and career prospects. And second, that FE colleges will be properly funded to offer high quality GCSE resits so that no-one is steered onto the wrong course for them because of budget constraints.
We can do better
Because I believe with the right resources we can do better with GCSE resits. Even with the current tight budgets, colleges are showing the way. Sussex Downs college for example has developed a new approach to maths resits called “Essential 8” with free resources for others to use. Andrew Otty has won an award from the SHINE Trust to develop a bespoke English curriculum for those with low grades at GCSE. And we have new schemes like Get Further, bringing qualified teachers into colleges to support students, which have exciting potential. These need testing of course (and our sister charity the Education Endowment Foundation can help with that). But imagine what more could be achieved if Labour committed to properly fund the FE sector to develop even better approaches and attract more specialist teachers.
This is one of those rare policy issues where everyone wants the same thing – for young people, whatever their backgrounds, to get the skills and qualifications they need to access quality education and training, and ultimately good jobs. I want to make sure that we give the FE sector the resources and backing it needs to deliver those skills and qualifications, so they can focus on delivering a real second chance.
Andy Ratcliffe is chief executive of Impetus-PEF