'GCSE resits subject thousands to failure'

GCSE resits in English and maths work for a minority of students – the most vulnerable need more help, writes Mark Dawe

Mark Dawe

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

I hate to burst your bubble ahead of GCSE results day, but those feel-good movies about school – Dead Poets Society, Lean on Me, even School of Rock – may be inspiring stories, but they are fictional.  And yes, we can all name one inspirational teacher; Mr Dummer got me through my French O level, a miracle to this day. But sadly some of us also have memories of a teacher who did nothing for us and at worst put us off the subject for life. 

We cannot set government policy based on one or two inspirational examples of, say, a teacher in the West Country, a provider in the Midlands or a college in the East of England. These should certainly be used to inspire, stretch others and give us ambition, but they can’t justify the core policy as the expectation for all, until many factors are changed. We need to have policies that work for the majority of institutions, lecturers, trainers and learners – not just the chosen few. 

There are always anecdotes of learners who have leapt forward from a really disappointing grade to a pass, but, as always, the plural of anecdote is not evidence. The latest Impetus-PEF evidence on GCSE resits shows that these represent a tiny proportion and in considering an alternative policy, we are not talking about an inflexible system: a young person might be on a programme and show real capability; of course, that person should then be moved on to whatever is appropriate (and vice versa).

GCSE resits: 'Let's shift this policy now'

So, rather than subjecting tens of thousands of vulnerable young people to multiple failure and demotivating them for another couple of years, let’s shift this policy now. That means no more pretending that it needs to bed in and there will be a Robin Williams or Jack Black teaching everyone every subject across the country.

Functional skills have been reformed, they have been through the Department for Education’s officials and ministerial team, and we have a new curriculum and assessment set-up. These should now be seen as a suitable, if not better, option for many, particularly on vocational programmes. Employers say that they like GCSEs, but actually they like the skills that functional skills give. When you explain to them that the pass mark was 18 per cent for GCSE maths last year, then they start to question why they are holding up the GCSE as the gold standard. This is something that clearly needs explaining to a wider audience: we have a 15 per cent pass mark and still preside over mass failure.

Supporting the voiceless

Functional skills are harder and more challenging and yet an apprentice only gets funding at half the rate to do their maths and English, compared with any other learner. I have raised this over the past two years with ministers and senior officials, and no one has ever been able to justify it. They can’t, because it was invented years ago by an official who didn’t understand the cost of delivery and it has stuck ever since. How can it be cheaper to deliver literacy and numeracy across industry sectors, with individuals scattered across employer locations, compared with a group of 20 in a classroom? So let’s right this wrong as well. We are making those who need the greatest support once again suffer the most, and they have no voice.  A government which is committed to social mobility should at least listen to those who work most closely with them.

Mark Dawe is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers


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