GCSE resits change lives, but there must be another way

While some students succeed through resitting GCSE English or maths, many more fall by the wayside, writes Stephen Exley

GCSE resits can change lives - but there has to be another way

How can a policy be both “undeniably positive” and “soul-destroying” all at once? Somehow, GCSE resits in English and maths seem to manage it.

Since it was introduced in 2014, the policy has proved to be one of the most controversial in our education system. 

And the impact it has – both positive and negative – was brought into sharp focus by what must be the most uplifting, powerful story to come out of GCSE results day.


More news: GCSE results: English and maths resits pass rates drop

Background: GCSE resits: 'Look how far you have come'

Read on: GCSE resits: 60k students boost English and maths grade


GCSE resits: success through perseverance

Lauren Reid has sat GCSE maths nine times. On eight of those occasions (each of them while she was at school), she failed to get a grade 4 pass. But this summer, at the ninth time of asking, she did it. Her story has gone down a storm on social media, exemplifying character and resilience – and reinforcing just what an impact FE colleges can have. After almost giving up on several occasions, Lauren achieved her goal. “I have come through this now, and I am not going to be stopped by anything,” she told Tes.

The ethos behind the GCSE resits policy is impossible to disagree with: everyone should have access to a good qualification in English and maths. The problem is how this manifests itself. Part of the issue is mandation: students with a grade 3 (or D in the legacy GCSEs) are required to retake the qualification. No ifs, no buts. (Interestingly, those with a grade 2 or lower are not required to, but some colleges offer GCSEs anyway as they believe it to be in the best interests of the students. I’ll return to this issue later.)

On the one hand, the condition of funding – which originated from Alison Wolf’s seminal report on vocational education back in 2011 – encourages students to have another stab at attaining an educational benchmark which is valued and understood by employers. As a result, tens of thousands of sixth formers go on to achieve a good (or “standard”, in official parlance) pass each year, which is undeniably a Good Thing for the individuals concerned and their future careers.

Collateral damage

The negative consequence is that the collateral damage among the wider cohort is simply staggering. This year, fewer than a quarter of maths entries from candidates aged 17 and over across the UK resulted in a pass at grade 4 or better, with the pass rate dropping from 23.7 per cent in 2018 to just 22.3 per cent this summer. That’s barely one in five students managing to reach the promised land of a grade 4.

In English, the pass rate is little better: it dropped below a third, from 34.2 per cent last year to 31.9 per cent in 2019.

Make no mistake: the benefits for the minority who achieve a grade 4 are significant. But what about the rest? Little wonder that so many commentators get sucked into talk of “cycles of failure” and “brick walls”.

The reason why the current policy was established was because there were not deemed to be any alternative literacy and numeracy qualifications of sufficient quality – functional skills in particular came in for plenty of criticism. Whether you agree with this assessment or not, the government has stuck to its guns, in the face of widespread lobbying efforts over the years.

And this criticism was the reason why it was decided that the much-maligned functional skills qualifications needed to be overhauled. And, with little fanfare, they have been. As of Sunday, the new, more rigorous version (complete with phonics – thanks, Nick Gibb) comes into effect.

And yet, outside the FE sector at least, few people know about this. That in itself is revealing.

Functional skills: time to raise awareness

When the government reformed GCSEs and A levels into tougher, more linear qualifications, it was quick to promote this. Yet how many parents and employers know that there are new literacy and numeracy qualifications coming into effect within days, offering a serious alternative to GCSEs? Hardly any.

The government can’t have it both ways. Functional skills have been redesigned as it wanted. Now it has to shout about them if it’s going to make them a success. Otherwise, the entire process was a colossal waste of time and money.

Whether purists within the department (and the FE sector) like it or not, there is now a valid alternative to GCSE English and maths on the table. And the department has a duty to offer it to the thousands of young people who could benefit. 

Lauren is a shining example of what can be achieved through dogged persistence. But for every Lauren, dozens of other students fall by the wayside. They are put through the emotional wringer, and for no benefit. GCSE resits can work – but they don’t for everyone. One principal has suggested to me that all students should be required to resit once, and then have the choice of what qualification to pursue. This sounds like an eminently sensible compromise. But it’s high time the DfE granted FE teachers the professional autonomy to make the right decision for individual students. The fact they haven’t betrays a serious lack of trust.

The excuses have now run out. It comes down to an issue of fairness and social justice. The DfE has offered young people a route out of GCSE resits. They should be given the opportunity to take it.

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