Last year, when I asked a student: “How did the exam go?”, I was told: “I answered question one and then went to sleep”. My heart sank. The student was a young carer with a ton of responsibilities on their shoulders. They could have easily achieved a grade 4. In class, they did well, thanks to lots of encouragement and affirmation. But during the exam, they just couldn’t get themselves through it.
Then there were others who had their heads on the exam desks for chunks of time, and those who missed the 40-mark question five, because they just couldn’t face it.
GCSE resits can be an utterly alienating experience. We give students "walking talking mocks" and mock exams, practice questions, "targeted" feedback – but something different happens once the actual exam days arrive.
Background: GCSE resits 'setting students up to fail'
Opinion: 'Focus on success, not failure'
In post-16 education, students can carry a lot of baggage from school, which affects how open they are to learning when it comes to English resits. They’ve had years of feeling that they "can’t" and already have one grade that proves they’re a failure when it comes to English. It’s not surprising when some arrive with a "can’t be bothered" attitude. Why should they bother when the system hasn’t provided them with what they need to succeed in the current educational landscape?
Once you add the pressures and responsibilities many of them have in the world outside of education – well, you can see the strain written on their faces and in their attitude and actions.
Throughout the year, we teach, assess and develop our students' English skills and knowledge. We encourage and endeavour to motivate and engage thorough familiarity with the exam format, question "value", required techniques. We teach exam time-management, planning and so on. We provide feedback that brings out the progress being made and we model how to improve. We encourage reflection on performance. We try to instil a can-do attitude in the face of an often overwhelming can't-do mindset.
But despite all of this, on exam day, the preparation can be blown out of the water. Why does this happen? And how we can ensure history doesn’t repeat itself next year?
Think and feel
The academic journey is one thing, but what’s unpredictable and harder to prepare for is the emotional journey of our students: the rollercoaster ride they – and we – often experience.
We give them to-do lists, but perhaps we should also provide "think and feel" lists. It's one thing to ask students to act by doing English work, but another teaching them how to think differently, and therefore hopefully feel differently, about English classes and all that goes with them.
And so as much as we ask them to do the technical and academic preparations, we need to ensure there’s time for students to acquire sufficient self-knowledge and problem-solving skills that then enable them to navigate their worlds with greater confidence, independence and resilience.
Let’s introduce "schemes of thinking and feeling", and run them parallel with our schemes of learning. From the very start we need to explicitly teach our resitters to know what and how they can get through the paper emotionally. If they can’t do it, then we need to enable them to problem-solve for themselves to discover they can – once we have scaffolded and modelled the "how" and talked through the "why".
Their performance on exam day will quite possibly improve. They’d be able to concentrate and confidently complete all the questions. They’d know how to dig deep to see them through all the exam questions.
I know we can't remove all the barriers that prevent students' success in GCSE resits, but we try very hard to negotiate our way through what we can.
Pause and reflect
You may say that you already do all of this. But do you follow up enough with exploratory conversations about how this makes students feel and why? Do you spend sufficient time on thinking about the how and why, and what self-knowledge this gives them that makes them able to move on and progress?
Not enough time is dedicated to pausing and reflecting with our students, to talking about how and what things have and have not been achieved – and what they can each learn from that.
By definition, many of our resitters in FE colleges are more "vulnerable" as young people.
In my college's student survey, it was heartbreaking but unsurprising to read some of the responses about their experience of English education prior to coming to college. The majority of respondents said they had experienced lots of cover teachers at school, found it hard to ask for support, didn't feel school had much to offer them and often had high levels of absence.
Such responses confirm what we in the field of GCSE English (and maths) resits are all up against, what we need to turn around. We are not social workers. Yes, we do work closely with the pastoral provision, but to have a running thread about resilience and metacognition in our teaching from day one is essential.
Elizabeth Draper is director of English at Warrington & Vale Royal College