A common thread running through my highly rewarding working life as an English teacher over 25 years has been addressing the needs of GCSE “resitters” – the “serial retakers”. The GCSE English resit opportunity may work for some of our young people. All power to them. But a common thread for me has been the persistent evidence, year after year, that many young people who have been deemed to “fail” in English at school continue to be shoehorned into a curriculum and qualification path that serves them ill post-16. It is not fit for their purpose.
For a range of serious and deep-running reasons, significant numbers of young people have not experienced the real benefits of English skills and expertise. And yes, they mainly come from a background of economic and social disadvantage of an alarming scale. They are also victims of scandalous political neglect.
These 16- to 18-year-olds, in particular, turn to the post-16 education sector and opt for vocational courses that have greater appeal to them than other, more academic options. They opt to learn trades, learning through practice and theory, and producing evidence as testament to their learned skills. Portfolios, coursework and tests are part of their route to gaining qualifications.
Eager and motivated
Unsurprisingly, these young folk are more eager and motivated to learn on their vocational courses, marking as they also do a rite of passage and welcome break from their school experience.
And they find a route to employment and money in their pockets earned through demonstrable skills. This provides a boost to their confidence, then a boost to their self-esteem.
They gain knowledge, skills, expertise to be really proud of. They also see that hard graft pays. They see the benefits of attendance, staying power. They learn the value of resilience. Because it’s all worth it.
This is what post-16 educational provision provides to thousands of young people who to a certain extent have become disenchanted as the school system did not quite work for them. FE does. But there is a fatal flaw at the heart of our provision that perpetuates this disenchanted feeling.
Instead of the current compulsory GCSE retake policy, why not offer choice?
For example, in the Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (COPE) qualification, students complete a number of units including: improving their own learning and performance, problem solving, working with others, planning and carrying out a research project linked to a broad area of interest.
Inspired and relevant
This could be combined with the “creativity, activity, service” (CAS) unit of the International Baccalaureate diploma programme, where the emphasis is on encouraging responsibility in the community through participation in voluntary work; encouraging the exploration of a chosen aspect of creativity in its broadest sense; and encouraging students to get involved in physical activity that contributes to a healthy lifestyle.
With this kind of integrated programme, young people could develop their English and maths skills in more inspired and relevant contexts.
I have worked on both of these qualifications. They are very good at building students' confidence in their English skills. Students find themselves in situations where they have to take responsibility and be accountable in contexts that are, in part, of their own making. They are also provided with a level 2 qualification (in the case of COPE). This course of study then becomes a positive learning experience and provides a meaningful sense of progression, compared with the experience of a GCSE resit.
A more integrated course could blend CAS and COPE ideas with a focus on reading through, for example, the Reading Ahead or Accelerated Reading programmes, both of which have been successfully implemented and have had a positive impact at my college.
Pragmatic and engaging
As David Greatbatch and Sue Tate, in their recent report on FE provision, put it: “There is some evidence to suggest that FE learners benefit from integrated approaches to teaching English and maths that contextualise learning within vocational areas.”
We need a more relevant, pragmatic and engaging opportunity for those who do not need to resit GCSEs immediately after school. Indeed, as Ian Pretty’s recent article about the proposed T levels puts it: “There will undoubtedly be many models that a transition period could seek to replicate: a traineeship model, a level 2 apprenticeship in a craft-related subject or a generalist model that focuses on embedding core employability and community-based skills.”
This important break from students' past experiences at school would bring a confidence boost and challenge, providing young people with a positive pathway and educational experience. A different kind of outlook. And, importantly, a choice.
Offering a genuine alternative qualification – and being inspired by the relevance, possibility and adventure found in a different curriculum – could ultimately help make young people more open to having another attempt at the GCSE route afterwards.
Elizabeth Draper is director of English at Warrington and Vale Royal College