GCSEs: 'We have to break the cycle of resitting'

MP Neil O'Brien says GCSE resits are detrimental to learners' wellbeing as he supports the #FullyFunctional campaign

MP Neil O'Brien calls for learners to take functional skills not endless GCSE resits

The wait for GCSE results is a tense and nervous time for many young people across the country, and the prospect of not securing their maths and English GCSEs is a concern for most. In my constituency, around seven out of 10 pupils pass GCSE maths and English. But that means that three out of 10 don’t.

The transition to a new kind of education at 16 should be an opportunity for a new start. Many young people respond really positively to vocational education, even if they have not enjoyed school. But at the moment, it isn’t a fully fresh start. 


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Young people who have not gained GCSE passes have to resit them. It’s a huge drain on the scarce resources of colleges and takes up a huge portion of young people’s time. 

And yet, in the overwhelming majority of cases, they still don’t pass.

Only 21 per cent of students achieved both GCSEs at grade 4 after the age of 16 in 2018.

For a huge commitment of resources, all we end up doing for many young people is creating a sinking feeling that this will be like just school all over again.

Instead of turning the page to a new part of their life, learners have the experience of failing the same thing all over again.

#FullyFunctional 

The resit requirement, introduced in 2014, has been slightly diluted from August this year. Those with GCSE grade 2 or below can take a functional qualification instead. But those with a grade 3 or above must still resit, with all kinds of negative consequences.

That’s why I’m supporting #FullyFunctional, a campaign launched by awarding organisation NCFE earlier this year. The campaign calls on the government to fund learners who achieve a grade 3 in their English and maths GCSEs to be given the opportunity to study alternative qualifications such as functional skills. 

Most people in their lives will use functional mathematics: they will need to work out the interest on a loan or understand a pension or even use it for DIY.  Relatively few will use what they learn in GCSE maths.

Through #FullyFunctional, we want to see further parity of esteem in the funding system by asking the government to provide funding for learners who fail to achieve higher than a grade 3 to sit alternative qualifications, rather than resitting GCSE exams until they pass. By doing this, we are enabling learners to make the right choice for them individually and achieve successful outcomes for all.

Without this funding in place, learners are potentially exposed to a negative cycle of examinations that are detrimental to their confidence and mental wellbeing. In some cases, we’ve seen learners taking the exam up to nine times in order to pass.

This cannot continue.

'FE will finally get the attention it deserves'

Good things are happening in 16-19 education after a difficult period. The new T levels will increase funding per student by a quarter. The Augar review and the appointment of Gavin Williamson to the Department for Education are expected to mean FE will finally get the attention it deserves.

But, as part of all this, we have to break the cycle of resitting and not progressing. Some young people want an applied approach to learning.

We, as policymakers, educators, teachers, friends and family, have the opportunity to open doors for our young people who may be stuck in a cycle of perpetual GCSE resits. We want to celebrate individuality and limit the negative emotions our young people feel during their time at school. 

Offering functional skills qualifications as a viable alternative to resitting GCSEs would help those who struggle in class and provide an alternative style of learning that would suit different people. That’s why I’m supporting #FullyFunctional and I hope you will, too.

Neil O'Brien is MP for Harborough

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