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GCSE results: rethink resits after grade drop 'body blow', government told

But exam board says fall in the proportion of students achieving A*-C in English and maths was expected

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But exam board says fall in the proportion of students achieving A*-C in English and maths was expected

The government should rethink the policy of forcing young people to resit their English and maths GCSEs, senior leaders across the FE sector have warned.

Figures released this morning by JCQ show that 26.9 per cent of students aged 17 and over achieved an A*-C pass in their English GCSE exams this year, compared with 35.1 per cent last year. In maths, the A*-C pass rate among 17-plus learners was 29.5 per cent, down by 6.3 percentage points from last year.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, described the drop in the A*-C pass rate among 17-plus students as a "body blow". 

"Surely this is evidence enough that hitting students over the head with the same form of learning and assessment is not the way forward," he said. "Functional skills designed to develop core maths and English skills, but with the learning contextualised and relevant, is proven to engage and motivate these learners, particularly those who have been turned off these subjects by their school experience.  Maths and English are the most vital skills for economic and social mobility but these results show that repeating the same exercise doesn’t work and a more learner- and employer-focused approach with functional skills should now be embedded post-16.”

Unwinnable race

The likelihood of young people who missed out on achieving a C by more than one mark first time around managing to reach the grade in a resit was similar to "the chance of beating Usain Bolt in a race", Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said this morning.

"In general, the evidence with retakes is that youngsters improve by about half a grade," he said. "So those getting a D have a fighting chance of getting a C. It does raise the question: is the GCSE resit the most appropriate programme for all? Is it the best thing for those youngsters to do, or is it better for them to develop their English and maths skills through their existing vocational programme?" In the case of learners who achieved no higher than an E grade at school, colleges were being forced to enter them "for something in which they don’t stand a great chance of success", he added.

Sir Kevan Collins, chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), said simply forcing teenagers who failed to gain the pass mark to take the subject for another year was "not enough to ensure they leave [education] with the skills they’ll need".

"We have to generate more and better evidence of which teaching and learning strategies work for 16- to 18-year-olds if we want to make sure resitting their exams is worthwhile,” he added.

The EEF has launched a £5 million funding programme to improve outcomes for 16-18 learners in English and maths.

'Stepping stone' qualifications

Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “The English and maths challenge is compounded by the fact that colleges may be supporting students who are demoralised and disheartened after failing to achieve the necessary grades after 11 years in school.

“It’s important that all young people have a good standard of literacy and numeracy but not everyone can get a grade C at GCSE. Colleges seek to provide the best possible chance for their students to succeed and progress during their studies regardless of their starting point.

“The government must consider creating a qualification that is more fit-for-purpose in developing English and maths skills that complement technical and professional studies, motivate students and meet the needs of employers."

This morning’s GCSE results show a significant drop in the proportion of students aged 17 and over, most of which will be resitting the qualification at colleges, achieving an A*-C pass mark in English and maths. This comes as the number of entries within that age group increased by almost a third, owing to the government’s policy of compulsory resits for those who have not yet achieved that mark in English and maths.

Andrew Hall, chief executive of exam board AQA, stressed that the drop in grades among older students had been expected in light of the changing cohort. Having "stepping stones" for those not ready to resit their GCSE exam was necessary, he said. "There are other qualifications, including level 1 and functional skills. If you can have those stepping stones for people that are further away [from passing the exam], that is important."

And business body CBI’s director for people and skills policy, Neil Carberry, said supporting all students in developing strong literacy and numeracy was a priority. “That’s why businesses want to see provision to 18 on both subjects for all young people.” 

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