It’s a debate that provokes strong views and polarises opinions – and the latest government document is only going to harden the extreme views on both sides.
No, I’m not talking about Brexit and the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. I’m talking about the thorny issue of GCSE resits – and the latest data released by the Department for Education.
For some, GCSE resits in English and maths represent a key pillar of social mobility: they give young people from the most vulnerable backgrounds another opportunity to access the keys to a better future, in the shape of a grade 4 in GCSE English and maths, a qualification recognised and valued by employers. Around 60,000 GCSE resit students improved their grade in English or maths this summer to achieve a 4 or better this summer.
For others, the policy represents a regressive philosophy that results in more than two-thirds of resits students being branded a failure each summer – having already tried and failed to achieve a grade 4 at least once in the past. For many, the argument goes, this amounts to students being set up to fail by the controversial condition of funding policy – and a huge waste of colleges’ scarce resources to boot.
The latest provisional exam data released by the DfE includes facts and figures for both camps to cling on to.
GCSE resits: moving in the right direction?
The good news? Among resitters of both subjects, over a third of students improved their performance between the ages of 16 and 18. On average, grades improved – and the amount of improvement recorded has increased for the third year in a row.
The bad news? Overall, 38.3 per cent and 37.2 per cent of entries in English and maths respectively resulted in a lower point score than the student had previously attained. Among the lowest-achieving students, this rises to more than half of students.
Let’s just repeat that: over half of the lowest-performing students end up doing even worse when they retake the qualification.
For the sake of accuracy, it’s important to point out that students with a grade 2 or lower are not compelled by the government to retake GCSE – they have the option of sitting the reformed functional skills instead. But the fact the many colleges strongly feel that it is their duty to offer resits to these learners anyway says a lot about how GCSEs (and, indeed, functional skills) are viewed – and the government does have to accept some responsibility for that.
Time to change an 'inefficient' system
As I’ve written about before, GCSE resits can prove life-changing for students who manage to reach the promised land of the "standard" pass in English and maths. But for plenty more who don’t, they end up on a demoralising treadmill of failure, which for some results in the same exam being sat as many as nine times. Take City College Plymouth student Lauren Reid: she displayed remarkable resilience and determination to obtain her grade four at the ninth attempt. But is a system that results in a student having to take the same qualification eight times before reaching her goal really the most efficient way of developing literacy and numeracy skills?
But there are only so many times that the arguments around GCSE resits can be rehashed. The simple conclusion to be drawn is that the results at the moment are just not good enough. The system helps some students reach a grade 4 in English and maths but, when almost two-thirds of students are either standing still or going backwards, it’s time for change. This is not an efficient way to run an education system.
Whether the answer is a policy change or – how’s this for a radical idea? – simply investing more funding in post-16 English and maths teaching is for the current (or future) ministerial occupant of the Department for Education to decide. But by allowing the current fudge to drag on, we are doing a disservice to tens of thousands of young people who deserve better.