Today has seen the fifth set of large-scale 16 to 18 GCSE results in English and maths for students subject to the condition of funding, and the fourth set of results whereby all students holding grade 3 (or D) have had to retake GCSE.
First and foremost, congratulations to those students who have passed today. There are now well over 100,000 entries for both English and maths resits every year. Today nearly 36,000 16- to 18-year-old students have passed their GCSE in English and nearly 25,000 in maths. Thanks, too, to teachers in colleges up and down the country who have worked tirelessly to ensure their learners, both 16- to 18-year-olds and adults, achieve to the best of their ability, whether or not they secure a pass.
Background: GCSE English and maths: do I need to resit them?
GCSE resits: falling pass rates
However, year-on-year far more young people don’t get the magic grade 4 or above when they resit for the first, second or third time post-16. This year's provisional pass results for 16- to 18-year-olds (all providers) are 17.4 per cent in maths and 27.4 per cent in English, compared with 18.2 per cent and 29.7 per cent respectively for the provisional results in August 2018.
These results are in line with the past four years. Over this time period achievement in resit English and maths GCSEs has been around or under 30 per cent in English and 20 per cent in maths. Although we can see that while the move from A*-G to 9-1 has made little difference in English achievement, in maths the pass rate has fallen since the introduction of the reformed GCSE to around 18 per cent.
A 70 per cent failure in English and 80 per cent in maths year on year is the reality, despite all the hard work of teachers and students. Delivering the resits is no small thing; timetabling changes, the text messaging to improve attendance, whole-staff professional development, whole-college policies, posters and exam access arrangements are just some of the measures colleges take.
A demoralising scenario
Not to mention closing whole college sites for five days for exams to accommodate the number of students being entered and the sheer cost of delivery. Of course, some colleges are achieving better results than the national average, but often it is those with more students with higher overall grade profiles on entry. Meanwhile, in colleges with many hundreds or thousands of entries,it is the same demoralising scenario year-on-year.
The time has come for a review. The current policy works for the few, not the many. The Association of Colleges and colleges agree that effective English and maths skills are crucial for employment and life in general, but the current policy is clearly not working. We need change. Research indicates that employers are looking for effective written and spoken communication skills and basic numeracy, not analysis of language, creative writing and trigonometry. Spoken communication doesn't even contribute towards the English GCSE language grade.
The flexibilities for students with grade 2 GCSEs in English and maths on entry and an increase in the progress measure for functional skills is a welcome shift from the Department for Education. However, it does not go far enough in the face of reformed functional skills, which colleges, based on years of teaching and assessment experience, feel are unrealistic.
The Association of Colleges and colleges are calling for a wholesale review of the progress measures for students, which currently mean students with grade 3 on entry must take GCSE and students with grade 2 have to achieve functional skills level 2 or GCSE, and funding that allows for greater flexibility. That is, a condition that requires post 16 students to continue studying towards level 2 English and maths with additional funding to allow for more teaching time, smaller class sizes, and mentoring and investment in resources, including digital.
Let's look in more detail at both of these asks. One of the impacts of the move to 9-1 grading is that there are now fewer, broader grades below a grade 4. Within the grade 3 band, there are students who narrowly failed to achieve a grade 4 and those who have far greater gaps in learning, but there is no flexibility for these students. They must take GCSE. For some it might be appropriate for their skill level and progression, for others it clearly is not.
Students who have grade 2 on entry can work towards GCSE or level 2 functional skills. Entries and pass rates for level 2 functional skills have plummeted. Colleges are concerned that for the reformed functional skills this will be worse. Students who enter college with grade 2 GCSEs have large gaps in their learning and on initial assessment are probably working at entry-level when they take a college initial assessment. If they were adults they would be advised to work towards level 1 functional skills in order to build on the basics and improve confidence.
Let's also look at the wider post-16 English and maths landscape. Most students retaking both English and maths GCSEs (at least for the first time) are on college-based level 2 study programmes. Students on a level 2 apprenticeship need to achieve level 1 functional skills and work towards GCSE. The apprenticeship guidance states that it is recognised that "for some a level 2 [English and maths] may be difficult to achieve". Soon, students on level 3 T levels, which are not subject to condition of funding, will be able to take either level 2 functional skills or GCSE.
Students on the transition offer, which prepares students for T levels, are subject to condition of funding and have to take GCSE if they enter, which most likely they will, with grades 3s in English and maths. Try explaining that to our key stakeholders.
We need a condition of funding which allows for flexibility for all students, not just those on T Levels. For avoidance of doubt, all students should be enabled to continue studying English and maths until they reach level 2, but the most appropriate qualification should be discussed during the induction period and agreed on an individual basis. The results tell us that GCSE is appropriate for those who just need a little extra teaching and support to achieve, but for others it is another year or more of failure.
In terms of funding, T-level students who still need to achieve level 2 English and maths will be funded £750 per subject in the first year of the T level in addition to being eligible for additional part 2 disadvantage funding of £650. This contrasts with students on current study programmes who receive no additional funding for English and maths and are eligible for £450 in part 2 disadvantage funding, which has to pay for support across not just maths and English, but the rest of the study programme. That additional funding will allow colleges to plan and staff English and maths more generously. If it is felt this will help T-level students to achieve, then it could also help students on other study programmes now and in the future.
We all, policymakers and providers, want the same thing – to see young people better prepared for work and life through the key employability skills of English and maths. Five years of poor results does not reflect the hard work that staff and students put in. It is time for change. We believe greater flexibility and additional funding would help to secure better outcomes for all.
Catherine Sezen is senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges