It’s not often that I find myself lost for words, so it’s easy to remember the last time. A couple of years ago I was in my first meeting with the then education secretary and had just told her that one of her policies, on English and maths, was failing.
I expected a robust defence and short-shrift. What I got was a reflective, informed and constructive debate about the challenges of supporting more young people to enter adulthood with better literacy and numeracy skills. The two things we firmly agreed on were that the policy intent was correct – but that achieving it was complex and fraught with bear-traps.
It was a refreshingly honest and helpful discussion about a policy that is still not working. The English and maths GCSE resits policy requires every 16-year-old who has failed to achieve at least a grade 4 to retake the GCSE, or equivalent, until they have.
This week, the GCSE results will once again show that most of those resitting will fail to improve their grade. For those who have reached at least grade 4, we should offer warm congratulations, of course, and recognise their own enormous hard work and that of the college staff who support their learning.
An achievement worth celebrating
The defenders of the policy are right that we should help as many young people as possible to achieve the grade because it helps them to progress in life, learning and work. Achieving at least a grade 4 does provide a passport on to further learning and work, so it is an achievement worth celebrating. At the same time though, we should recognise just how damaging it can be for young people to have to face an exam they are very unlikely to pass.
The explanation for why I say so starkly that the policy is failing is straightforward and is based on the facts. In 2017, 59.1 per cent of all 16-year-olds achieved grade 4 or better in English and maths (for those on free school meals, it was only 40.3 per cent). By age 19, only a quarter of those without at least a grade 4 go on to achieve it.
In other words, a policy that rightly sets out to help every young person achieve has a success rate of about 70 per cent. In my book, on such a fundamental set of skills, that is simply not good enough.
At the Association of Colleges, we want to see a more sophisticated policy, a strategy to help make it work and for resources to support delivery. The policy intent is right, but it is inconceivable that we will ever get close to 100 per cent of 19-year-olds achieving.
Some simple maths helps here. Even if the achievement rate by age 19 for resits doubled to 50 per cent, which would be remarkable, then there would remain around 20 per cent of 19-year-olds without at least a grade 4 in English and maths. Still not good enough for me, because that cohort enters the adult world underprepared and sorely disadvantaged. And worse, they enter that world branded by the establishment as failures in a system that will always help less than 100 per cent to achieve. That’s simply wrong and unfair.
GCSE resits: 'We need a strategy'
We need to do three things. Firstly, we need to help as many young people as possible achieve by age 16 and for those missing out we need to maximise their chances of passing a resit. That will be helped by the Department for Education investment in centres of excellence, the pilots on funding and by more understanding of what works for resits.
Secondly, we need to have an alternative path for those not able to achieve by 19, which helps them develop better literacy and numeracy and which means they are not labelled as failures. The new functional skills qualification might deliver that post-16 but we also need to think about what happens at key stage 4, where it is clear to schools that a significant cohort of pupils are unlikely to achieve the GCSE grade 4 or above.
Thirdly, for both we need a serious strategy, led by the DfE, supported by schools and colleges and backed up with resources targeted to help those most in need. It is incredible that colleges and schools are not properly funded for the extra study students undertake for their English and maths, meaning that resources are diverted from students’ main study programmes. It is even more wrong that it has been agreed that resits for the new T-level students will be funded separately, with more flexibility on using GCSE or functional skills. If it is right for T-level students, why not for everyone else?
The current policy won’t achieve what we all want. Worse than that, it can be damaging for young people to have to resit or to be deemed a failure. Some young people will want to and should resit the GCSE, but we need a more sophisticated policy, a strategy and better resources.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges