The keynote speaker at this year’s Association of Colleges national conference who spoke with most conviction about GCSE resits was not minister Anne Milton, nor opposition-leader Jeremy Corbyn, nor Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman – it was former table-tennis champion Matthew Syed. Although, he probably wasn’t aware he was doing it.
He was convincingly revisiting the well-known but recently-maligned territory of growth mindset – professor Carol Dweck’s theory that improvement and progress is always possible, whatever your starting point. In that hall, where majority opinion was against the resits, challenging destructive fixed mindsets had never been so apt. Opponents of the resit policy repeatedly label our young people with "failure" in their careless rhetoric, themselves failing to acknowledge the progress agenda and its accompanying numerical grading system that inherently rejects the binary of pass or fail.
“So many of us have self-limiting beliefs,” Matthew Syed said. This is true of resit students to a certain extent. They hear the word "fail" from cruel mouths, although it is not written anywhere on their results transcripts. So they come to us with their confidence knocked and their defences up, but if you nurture, support, and make some effort to help them enjoy your subject, they can overcome their self-doubt.
At college the day before the conference, after reading lobbyist Mark Dawe’s sweeping and awful reference to “150,000 failures” on Tes, I fell into step with one of our resit students between buildings. She explained that she had just come from a student voice meeting.
I started sweating. “I hope GCSE didn’t get too much of a battering?”
She told me that it hadn’t. In fact, she had told the panel that the English teachers needed a pat on the back, because it’s the first time she’s felt that she can achieve something. “It’s the first time anyone’s believed in me.”
Later, I took a moment to enjoy the buzz at the start of a lesson. Several of the learners were proudly sharing their assessment feedback with each other. They knew their marks didn’t yet equate to a 4, but that didn’t matter. They knew that they had applied something new successfully and they had confidence that, with further teaching, there would be further improvement. There was no sense of "failure" in that classroom.
The “self-limiting beliefs” certainly have their barbed tendrils rooted deeply into the minds of many adults, but we can protect our young people from them.
Last week, I was reading the declaration that “the curriculum for English, in particular, is just so inappropriate,” from an interview with AoC president Alison Birkinshaw, when a newer member of my teaching team interrupted me to excitedly relate her afternoon.
Our local museum is running a portrait exhibition at the moment and my brilliant deputy had suggested that we take our English groups there to tie in with the work we’ve been doing on writing about character. The idea was taken up enthusiastically by the team and the museum has been overrun with resit students. You know that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where they’re staring into Seurat’s pointillism while an instrumental version of Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want plays? Well, that’s what my colleagues are making happen with resit learners, for real.
This one excited teacher, a vocational lecturer by trade, had ad-libbed an idea once she got back to college with her students. They wrote a detailed description of their favourite portrait using the skills and approaches she’d practised with them, then they each took turns to read theirs out while everyone else drew sketches of what was described. This resulted in howls of laughter when they shared their drawings.
Is the English curriculum so inappropriate for offering joy? Creativity? Culture? No; that line of argument against GCSE is simply the “creative self-justification” Matthew Syed also spoke of on Tuesday. Nationally, the results are poor, but we can’t accept our own responsibility for that and instead blame the qualification, or the policy, or most appallingly the learners themselves. It’s easier to accuse vulnerable children of “failure” than to hold ourselves to account.
'Committing to improve'
Anne Milton speaks of resit learners having “failed to learn English and maths by the age of 16”, seemingly unaware that with grade distributions predetermining that 35 per cent of any cohort will not attain a grade C or 4 in Year 11, the most literate generation ever would yield the same numbers who “failed to learn”, by her measure. She imagines that resit teachers are “banging their heads against what feels like a brick wall”. A “brick wall” is a very fixed image and not something I would ever use to describe the great privilege I have every day, working with young people who are full of potential and desperate for opportunities.
One of my students, who came to college with a U in English, had never written a word throughout secondary. His school, overwhelmed by his numerous barriers to literacy, instead scrambled to find any excuse to avoid accountability for his progress or outcomes. He had scribes who he didn’t engage with and voice software that he silently ignored.
I give my students low-stakes writing journals that aren’t marked or corrected, but that encourage writing for no other reason than the pleasure of it. This student took his home over the October half term and when he came back he had filled 34 A4 pages. With the fear of "failure" removed, the floodgates opened and he found his voice. In the GCSE, 50 per cent of the marks come from the writing sections. This learner will need to achieve just a handful of marks to have made recognisable, tangible progress. Of course, it won’t show up in the statistics of those who still talk about grade C or 4 attainment, who also never quite caught up with the metric system and who probably spend their evenings pawing at their TV remotes looking for Ceefax. Those same who had shamefully viewed this learner as a “brick wall” and given up. I will not accept that mindset in educators.
Matthew Syed spoke of the growth mindset in aviation. Neither crashes nor near misses are viewed as inevitable, so when either occur there is rigorous analysis and a determination to do better. Nobody suggests we just abandon flying and take a boat. I think this is how we need to approach resits. Let’s look at where we are “suboptimal” and commit to improve. For these learners most of all, it’s so important that the planes keep flying.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college. He tweets @Education720