GCSE resits 'setting students up to fail'

Exam board NCFE launches a campaign for functional skills to be offered as alternative to GCSEs in English and maths

Stephen Exley

#FullyFunctional campaign calls for functional skills to be offered as GCSE alternative

A campaign calling for an overhaul of the GCSE resits policy for English and maths has been launched.

Awarding organisation NCFE has called for the reformed functional skills qualifications to be made available as an alternative for all learners who fail to achieve a grade 4 (or C) pass.

In support of its #FullyFunctional campaign, NCFE – one of the awarding bodies seeking to deliver the reformed qualifications – published the results of a poll, showing that more than 60 per cent of the students surveyed believed they should have the option to study non-GCSE qualifications in the two subjects.

Read more: GCSE resits: DfE updates English and maths policy

Multiple resits: Students forced to sit exams 9 times

Comment: ‘Golden age’ of GCSE resits may be ending

GCSE resits: time for change?

At present, the condition of funding for post-16 providers stipulates that while learners who have achieved a grade 2 or below can take functional skills, those with a grade 3 (or D) must retake their GCSEs.

In August 2018, Tes revealed that research by charity Impetus found that some students had sat their English or maths GCSE as many as nine times.

Of the 2,000 young people surveyed by NCFE, 70 per cent argued that “students should be able to learn in a style that suits them, and that English and maths should be easily applicable to everyday life”.

The same proportion said they had experienced pressure to resit the qualification in science, English or maths if they failed to obtain a standard pass first time around.

'One size doesn't fit all'

NCFE managing director Stewart Foster said:“The pressure to resit GCSEs can be hugely overwhelming. One size doesn’t fit all, and we need to recognise that the current system is setting some students up to fail…Alternative qualifications like functional skills ensure that students adopt good standards of numeracy and literacy, whilst being taught the practical skills they need to progress through to further education or work.

“Functional skills is already an option for those who achieve a grade 2 or below, so we’d like to see it extended to those who have failed to achieve higher than grade 3. Students shouldn’t have to keep resitting their exams.” 

'Not the FE sector's fault'

The campaign was backed by Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers. “We are happy to support this campaign because every year we wonder how the government can accept another 150,000 GCSE failures and talk about a successful resits policy,” he said. “It is not the FE sector’s fault that GCSE retakes don’t work; it is what providers have inherited and the design of a qualification that isn’t fit for purpose alongside the development of real workplace skills. AELP advocates an initial assessment for those 16-year olds that get a D or grade 3 to decide whether they should do a resit or learn functional skills.”

The GCSE resit policy was amended in February to clarify that, once a student had achieved a level 2 qualification in English or maths, they would no longer be required to work towards a GCSE.

In response, Baroness Wolf of Dulwich – whose landmark review of vocational education led to the resit policy – warned against any “further, future retreats from the teaching of maths and English to 16- to 19-year-olds”. 

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We know students who leave school with a good grasp of English and maths increase their chances of securing a job or going on to further education. Both GCSEs and functional skills are important qualifications to help young people get the essential skills they need to get on in life.

“Students with a GCSE grade 3, who just missed out on a grade 4, should be given every opportunity and support to get a GCSE grade 4 or above post-16. If pupils get a lower grade they can take functional skills or continue to work towards GCSE.”

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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