More than a third of students resitting their English and maths GCSEs this summer fared worse than on the previous time they sat the qualification – a higher proportion than managed to improve their grade.
Provisional data published by the Department for Education reveals that among the 118,000 entries from post-16 students for English GCSE and equivalent qualifications, 38.3 per cent resulted in a lower point score than the student had previously attained. A further 24 per cent achieved the same score as previously, while 37.7 per cent managed to improve their point score.
Results for maths show a similar picture. Of the 155,000 entries in 2018-19, 37.2 per cent achieved a lower point score this time than the previous attempt, with 36.5 per cent making positive progress.
Overall, the figures show a slight improvement from last year. "This means that on average, for students [who did not achieve a GCSE grade 4 in English and maths], their point score was marginally higher at the end of 16-18 studies than it was at the end of key stage 4," according to a report published alongside the new figures.
Condition of funding
In English, 27.3 per cent of the 62,000 students who had previously achieved a GCSE grade 3 or D or equivalent (level 2) received a lower points score, with 37.2 per cent improving.
Among students who had previously achieved below a grade 3 or D for GCSE or equivalent, over half (52.7 per cent) achieved a lower point score this summer.
In maths, 24.5 per cent of students with a grade 3 or D on their previous attempt at level 2 received a lower score, while 37.4 per cent improved on their prior attainment.
Among those maths students with prior attainment below a grade 3 or D for GCSE or equivalent, 51 per cent achieved a lower score, and 31.9 per cent improved it.
The DfE specifies that the prior attainment and progress scores only include students who are at the end of 16-18 studies and are subject to the 16-19 maths and English condition of funding requirements.
The policy has been controversial from the outset. Just over a third of state-educated students did not score at least a grade 4 in both English and maths GCSEs this year, according to the DfE data. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have called on the government to scrap the resits policy.
Earlier this year, data from the Joint Council for Qualifications revealed that less than a quarter of maths entries from candidates aged 17 and over across the UK resulted in a pass at grade 4 or better. In English, the pass rate dropped below a third. In August this year, Tes reported on a student obtaining a grade 4 on her ninth attempt.
Review of condition of funding
Tom Richmond, director of the EDSK think tank, said that far from settling the debate over the current GCSE resits policy, the new figures were likely to embolden both its supporters and critics. "Supporters will be keen to highlight how over a third of pupils improve their English and maths scores from 16 to 18. In addition, around 1,500-2,000 pupils managed to pass their GCSE resits after scoring 2 or less in their previous attempt, which suggests that it is not just pupils on the borderline of a ‘pass’ that are potentially benefitting."
He added: "Meanwhile, critics will want to draw attention to the fact that over a third of students saw their scores in English and maths actually get worse – rising to over 50 per cent for the lowest achievers at GCSE. This will inevitably raise familiar questions about whether the existing policy represents an effective use of limited resources.”
According to the condition of funding rule, students aged 16-18 (and those aged 19-25 with an education, health and care plan, who do not hold a GCSE grade 9-4 (or A*-C) in either of the qualifications must study English or maths. Full-time students with a grade 3 must resit their exams if they want to study at a school or college. Full-time students with a grade 2 or below and part-time students who have a GCSE grade 3 can study either a GCSE or an approved stepping-stone qualification to meet the condition of funding.
The point score is designed to measure students' positive or negative progress. The progress measure for English and maths awards points from 0 to 8 for the grade achieved in GCSEs, legacy GCSEs, functional skills or other maths or English qualifications, allowing for a progress score to be calculated once a student sits another qualification.
Catherine Sezen, senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said: “We are pleased to see that progress scores have improved overall, which is a testament to the hard work of both staff and students in colleges. English and maths is a complex picture, which is not always clear from the data.
“What this data does show is that despite all their hard work many young people don’t achieve a GCSE grade 4 or functional skills when they retake. As we move forward towards T levels and the transition programme, we would like to see a review of the current English and maths condition of funding policy to enable all young people to build upon these crucial skills and experience success.”
'Odds stacked against them'
Stewart Foster, chief operating officer of NCFE, said the aim of improving GCSE maths and English attainment was “an admirable one”. However, he said: “Whilst progress has certainly been made in recent years, the current GCSE resit policy means too many learners have the odds stacked against them. These figures show that 62 per cent of students did not improve their attainment in English, and 63 per cent in maths, by the end of their 16-18 studies. For every student who improved their score, there was one who lowered their score. We must do better, and we would urge the government to look again at this policy.”
Mr Foster added the best way to ensure learners had the best chance of achieving a level 2 qualification in English and maths was to let them choose the qualification most suited to them. The awarding body's #FullyFunctional campaign is calling on the government to change the condition of funding. "This would increase the proportion of learners who improve their attainment by the end of their 16-18 studies, gaining the qualifications they need to succeed in the next steps of their education or in the workplace,” he added.
'A quality second chance'
Andy Ratcliffe, chief executive of education equality charity Impetus, said GCSEs in English and maths were “crucially important for young people’s success”.
“Too few young people get a quality second chance to get these qualifications. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Charities like Action Tutoring show that with the right support, all young people can succeed. We need to focus our effort on working together to ensure that young people’s second chances aren’t second rate,” he added.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We know that good numeracy and literacy are necessary to give people the skills they need to thrive in their studies, work and life. That is why students who do not achieve a grade 4 at key stage 4 must continue to study these subjects, and why students who just missed out of a grade 4 at GCSE are given the opportunity to get a GCSE grade 4 or above at post-16. In 2018, over 70 per cent of 19-year-olds held a level 2 qualification in both maths and English – up from 68 per cent in 2013-14.
“To help improve attainment in maths, we have invested £50 million to improve the quality of maths teaching in post-16 institutions, focusing on improving basic maths knowledge and skills.”