GCSE resits: what's really going on?

Following the announcement about the change to grades required for GCSE resits, Tes FE editor Stephen Exley examines what's happening with functional skills

Stephen Exley

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Whichever way you look at it, the revelation of changes to the way the new GCSE grades will be treated is a big deal. It turns out that the threshold for a “good” pass won’t just move across from a C to the new grade 5; instead, a 4 will be a “standard” pass and a 5 will be a “strong” pass. But it is a 4 that is “the level that pupils must achieve in order not to be required to continue studying English and maths post-16”.

But this is only the first part of what is currently going on at the Department for Education to untangle the complicated mess of the condition of funding surrounding GCSE resits. The second part, of course, is how to offer an alternative qualification for post-16 students to allow teachers to use their professional autonomy to decide what would be most appropriate. As one principal put it: “They’ve made the announcement to stop things getting any worse. Now they’ve got to make them get better.”

The messages coming from a number of well-placed sources in recent weeks has been that functional skills will be made available as an alternative to GCSE English and maths, courtesy of a tweak to the condition of funding, and that this change is expected to come into effect in time for September. But a number of mooted dates for announcements have come and gone, and time is running out for colleges to overhaul their plans for next year’s provision at short notice.

'Calling for a policy change'

Tes and others in the sector have for some time been repeatedly raising the importance of this issue. The logistical and financial impact on colleges is well documented and bodies across the sector have been unanimous in calling for a policy change. And with apprenticeships and skills minister Robert Halfon having repeatedly spoken of his passion for social justice, the fact that students from the most deprived postcodes make the least progress – and, on average, see their grades decrease – makes the policy all but indefensible. Ofsted, too, has been noticeably outspoken about the issue.

And the tipping point came with last summer's GCSE results: post-16 entries in English and maths rocketed by a third, with entries topping 300,000 for the first time. At the same time the post-16 A*-C pass rates dropped to less than 30 per cent; as a result, the overhaul headline pass rates were dragged down. This was the moment that led to the realisation that this issue needed to be tackled. With the introduction of the new GCSEs designed to be tougher, a lack of action would mean an already difficult situation would be about to get considerably worse.

Difficulties behind the scenes

As I understand it, there have been two main difficulties in getting this change agreed and announced. One is that there is by no means unanimous agreement within the department on this course of action. It will come as no surprise that education traditionalist Nick Gibb – who has already opposed moves to create a modular adult GCSE – is less than convinced about any move that could be seen as watering down the rigour built into the system. Another cause for concern for all ministers has been the state of functional skills. Following concerns about how the qualifications are perceived, they are currently undergoing reform by the Education and Training Foundation. This is now not due to be completed until 2019 – meaning that, for 2017-18, the unreformed versions of the qualifications would have to be used.

The other issue has been considerable nervousness from within the government about how this policy change will be perceived by the public and commentators. Since the Wolf Report, a lot of time and effort has been invested in stressing the importance of the English and maths resits policy. Anything that could be perceived as a) a U-turn, and b) a softening of the rules is a serious cause for concern within Whitehall. Especially given the hammering the government took over its National Insurance volte face within days of the Budget, there has been major concern about how the resits announcement will be perceived. This had been expected to be unveiled through an official announcement earlier this month, potentially alongside the publication of the review of post-16 maths by Sir Adrian Smith; now, a quiet amendment of the funding guidance appears more likely.

However the news is announced, though, the most important thing for the FE sector is that official clarification comes as soon as possible.

UPDATE: In response to this blog, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “Students who achieve a good level in maths and English increase their chances of securing a job, an apprenticeship or progressing to further education, and we are working closely with post-16 institutions to look at how we can ensure more students are mastering these important skills. In addition, we are developing credible, high-quality options for students through reforming functional skills qualifications in maths and English to make sure that they deliver the knowledge and skills that employers need, and consequently have credibility and prestige in the jobs market.”

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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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