Exclusive: 'Don't retreat from GCSE resits', warns Wolf

After rule change for students with grade 2 or below in English and maths, Alison Wolf defends 'enormous progress' made

GCSE resit exams progress colleges fail FE

The author of a landmark review which led to the government’s current GCSE English and maths resit policy in FE has warned against abandoning it.

Baroness Wolf of Dulwich told Tes that she hoped the government’s announcement this week - that students with a grade 2 or lower in either subject who go on to achieve a functional skills level 2 will not be required to work towards a GCSE or take another “stepping stone” qualification - would not “signal further, future retreats from the teaching of maths and English to 16- to 19-year-olds”. 

“Throughout the developed world, it is standard and completely accepted that young people should continue studying the crucial subjects of maths and their own language throughout secondary education,” she said. “England has been and remains the outlier: which is why, in my 2011 report, I recommended that young people without good GCSEs should continue studying maths and English post-16.”

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'No endless resits'

“Of course it is pointless to make students with very poor results take endless resits – and nor did I recommend this," Baroness Wolf added. "But if you don't study something, you won’t learn it – and we should also take note of how much things have been improving.

"In 2017, almost 70 per cent of 19 year olds had 'level 2 with English and maths' compared to less than half of that age group just a decade earlier. And 69,000 (12 per cent) of those young people reached that critical level of achievement between 16 and 19 – after their main GCSEs. This is enormous progress and it would be terrible if we let it fall away."

In her 2011 review of vocational education, Baroness Wolf, the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London, recommended that students who were under 19 and did not have GCSE A*-C in English and/or maths should be required, as part of their programme, to pursue a course which “either leads directly to these qualifications, or which provide significant progress towards future GCSE entry and success”.

“The latter should be based around other maths and English qualifications which have demonstrated substantial content and coverage; and key skills should not be considered a suitable qualification in this context,” the report added.

Resit policy

The policy subsequently introduced by the government led to a significant increase in the number of people re-sitting their GCSE exams in college, and calls by the sector for more flexibility. It requires full-time students with a grade 3 (or a D in the old-style GCSEs) in maths and/or English to resit their exams if they want to study at a school or college. Other qualifications such as functional skills cannot be taken as an alternative.

Full-time students with a grade 2 or below (grade E or below, in the old-style GCSEs) – and part-time students who have a GCSE grade 3 (or grade D) – in maths and/or English can study either a GCSE or an approved stepping-stone qualification to meet the condition of funding

Two days ago, the government announced a change to the condition of funding surrounding English and maths GCSE resits for 2019-20. Students with a grade 3 (or D) will continue to be required to retake the qualification until they get a grade 4. As at present, students with a grade 2 or below can either take a GCSE or functional skills level 2 qualification. This also applies to part-time students who have a grade 3 or D.

'No further requirement'

But, once they have achieved this, “there is no requirement to undertake further maths or English qualifications to meet the condition of funding”, said a statement from the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). So once students have achieved a functional skills level 2 qualification, they will not be required to work towards a GCSE or take another “stepping stone” qualification.

The government’s move was welcomed by sector leaders, with Association of Colleges senior 14-19 policy manager Cath Sezen saying the announcement was "positive”: "It's good to see that the Department for Education is focusing on this area. It's something, but it doesn't impact the bulk of learners," she added.


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