GCSEs: Why the 'one-size-fits-all' approach must end

GCSE resits give some students the chance to succeed - but for too many they cause an obstacle, writes Angela Foulkes

Angela Foulkes

The system of compulsory GCSE resits isn't working – for some students the exams are a hindrance, says Angela Foulkes, principal of The Sheffield College

As we head towards the end of another busy academic year and exam season, it is a good time to reflect on the lifeline that further education colleges provide – helping students go further in employment and careers. This is particularly the case for the many thousands of students who have to resit GCSE English and mathematics – in some instances, multiple times.

This year, The Sheffield College has supported another high volume of GCSE exams. In total, 2,226 full-time 16- to 18-year-old and adult students were entered for resits this academic year. If an average Year 11 cohort comprises 180 pupils, then our volume of resits is equivalent to supporting 12 school cohorts. This summer, we managed 2,795 resits, comprising 1,457 exam entries for English and 1,338 exam entries for mathematics. Over the year, the total figure was 3,021, including the November resits.

This reflects an increase on last year when a total of 2,096 of our full-time 16- to 18-year-old and adult students took GCSE English or mathematics resits – which is equivalent to 45 per cent of Sheffield’s entire Year 11 population (comprising 4,993 pupils across 51 secondary schools, according to Department for Education data).

Background: GCSE resits: what's really going on?

News: GCSE resits 'setting students up to fail'

Opinion: 'One thing is clear: GCSE resits are an imposition'

GCSE resits: English and maths 'vital'

Current government policy requires that students with a grade 3 (or D) in English and mathematics GCSE enrol to retake the qualification again until they get a minimum of a grade 4. This policy champions the critical need to achieve level 2 qualifications in both English and mathematics, as core skills for work and life, by placing them at the heart of 16 to 18 education.

There is no doubt that we should continue to support young people to achieve that standard by the time they reach the age of 18. A good grasp of literacy and numeracy skills is, unquestionably, vital to success in education, employment and life. And yet, for some young people, the stress of resitting can become too much and lead to disengagement from learning while for others, success in a resit can be exhilarating.

At The Sheffield College we want to ensure, as a top priority, that our students achieve English and mathematics qualifications to a minimum of level 2 – especially those young people who leave school without reaching level 2, which, in Sheffield, is around 40 per cent. Encouraging young people to continue to develop their literacy and numeracy skills, and apply them to a range of contexts, is at the heart of our curriculum – whether that’s achieved through a GCSE or an alternative level 2 qualification.

Proud achievements – for some

The success of the current policy lies in the amazing work of my colleagues in the FE sector nationally who work imaginatively to ensure that at least one third of young people who enter post-16 education achieve those qualifications – amounting to thousands of students during the past four years.

Some of our students speak very positively about the chance to resit GCSEs and are, understandably, proud of their achievements when they get a grade 4 or more. It’s really important to their sense of achievement and future success, although it can create a challenging extra workload on top of their other studies. For others, having to do GCSE resits is demoralising and knocks confidence, creating an altogether more alarming risk of them dropping out of study altogether.

The policy is not without challenges both for providers and students. At the moment, colleges are subject to a condition of funding related to the enrolment of any young person who has yet to achieve their English and mathematics GCSE at grade 4. Any student with a grade 3 at enrolment must be enrolled on to a GCSE resit, otherwise a reduction in funding will be imposed on the college.

GCSEs aren't right for everyone

At The Sheffield College, we have estimated that the resources needed to administer the resits this year amounted to approximately £660,000. This includes staff costs, including teaching the classes and invigilating exams, of approximately £570,000 plus exam entry costs of around £90,000.

In terms of practical resources, we are fortunate to have enough classrooms across our four main campuses to accommodate all of our students resitting in-house so we do not need to hire additional venues and transport. We also like to prepare students in other ways by providing water and fruit at the door before they go into their exams.

Timetabling is a logistical challenge. We have had to designate exam days as non-teaching days, given the high percentage of students resitting (although this situation does not affect our apprentices and university-level students).

While GCSEs are the right choice for some students, for example, those who want to progress on to university-level courses and careers such as teaching – and FE colleges are doing a great job supporting thousands to resit them despite the challenges – they are not an appropriate qualification for all. Other students need numeracy and literacy skills directly relevant to the workplace that they are progressing to.

FE colleges and students should be given more flexibility and a choice. I would like to see a relaxation of the policy and associated funding implications so that students continue to be required to develop English and mathematics skills to a minimum of level 2 by the age of 19 but via the qualification most appropriate to their needs and without the threat of a funding sanction.

Colleges should be able to assess and support students to choose. For the majority of students, this will mean resitting a GCSE. For others, it will mean completing a vocational functional skills qualification. It should not be a one-size-fits-all approach. Students are more than the sum of their grades in a resit GCSE, and this should not become a barrier to their overall success. So let’s build skills and competencies through flexibility and choice.

 Angela Foulkes is the chief executive and principal at The Sheffield College

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