GCSE resits: are some pupils resitting their way to failure?

Forcing students to repeatedly resit exams that they struggle to pass is demoralising and we should be looking for alternatives, argues one English teacher

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For the fourth time, this year I have been guiding a group of students towards their resits in English GCSE. Each time I take this group of young people on this journey I am forced to question the system and ask myself: “why are they sat here in front of me?”

For some students there is an obvious answer: they had a bad day on the day of their first attempt exam, they had a bad run up to the exam because of personal circumstances and needed more time than the rest or they had a freak kite-boarding accident on the morning of the exam and turned up late, on crutches and, understandably, not that focused (yes, this actually happened to one of our kids). In the case of all these students, a focused one-lesson-per-question race to the November entry is sufficient. They turn up to lessons, work hard, complete the homework set and – more often than not – make up the three or four marks they missed out on in June.

'Enforced failure'

Once they have their magic 4, 5 or C – or whatever it is that they are required to get – they return their time and efforts to the rest of their Year 12 studies and forget all about English. For the rest, however, a bleak horizon spans ahead. For the next seven months they will turn up, or be pestered about not turning up, to classes that try to prepare them for an exam that they are highly unlikely to pass. They are under no illusions about this – their marks are too far off the boundaries to suggest otherwise. Yet they are bound to stay swirling in the system of enforced failure.

It is demoralising and embarrassing to be faced with this pathway. We wouldn't make adults do it, so why make kids do it? Surely there comes a time when you need to call a spade a spade and admit that there are just going to be some students who will not – cannot – pass this particular exam and furthermore acknowledge that the 3 that they did get the first time around was actually a great achievement for them.

A better alternative

In terms of money, the government recommendation for funding is that any students who achieved below a level 3 can be entered for an alternative curriculum. However, those who were one mark into the 3 boundary are to be entered for GCSE if they are to qualify. A lot of students got 3s. Not all were close to 4s. Many will have exceeded expectations just getting a 3 in the first place in the new, more rigorous and challenging, GCSE. It is demotivating for the students and difficult for the teacher leading them to continue to build up their hopes when they know what the most likely outcome will be (again). Perhaps a better alternative is that, after a second and final attempt, schools – and the government – accept that the students who are left should be released to the rest of their studies and have whatever they have achieved celebrated as an achievement for themselves, rather than forced to resit their way to failure.

Katie White is a secondary English teacher in Devon

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