‘Golden age’ of GCSE resits may be ending

The GCSE resit policy may not be popular, but it has transformed English and maths in colleges, Andrew Otty writes

Could the era of GCSE resits be coming to an end?

Signs are mounting that the golden age of GCSE English resits might be drawing to a close.

Sure, I might be the only person to ever call it that, but there have been some undeniably positive developments thanks to the deeply controversial policy.

The conditions of funding for full-time learners in sixth forms and colleges require that those who haven’t achieved their grade 4/C or higher in English at age 16 continue their study of the subject, working towards that facilitating grade.

This has led to a huge increase in the number of GCSE entries since 2015 and the underfunded FE sector initially struggled to coordinate and staff the provision.

Read more: GCSE resits: DfE updates English and maths policy

More news: GCSE resits: English and maths pass rate drops

Opinion: 'GCSE resit policy is still failing'

Now, after finally getting to grips with it and the policy bedding in, there are some real achievements: the quality of English teaching in FE has vastly improved thanks to the investment made by colleges and because inspirational teachers have risen to the challenge.

Learners have got used to the idea of resits and don’t kick against the mandatory enrolment anything like they did three or four years ago, when it used to come as quite a shock to them.

Most surprising perhaps has been the progress made by those whose attainment was the lowest at the end of Year 11, with national data showing that they have been more likely to improve their GCSE grades post-16 than the 3/D-grade students the policy intended to push across the line.

Many English leads corroborate this with stories of very low-attaining learners blossoming in the FE resit environment. “They’re the most rewarding to teach,” more than one English head has admitted to me.

'Move against social mobility'

However, in addition to the confusing signal sent by allowing students following the incoming, “rigorous” T level qualifications to study functional skills English rather than GCSE, the DfE has now made a minor change to the policy, selling out precisely those whom it was serving best.

The change to the conditions of funding, announced last week, allows those with lower prior attainment of grade 2 or below to stop studying English once they have achieved functional skills level 2. The aspiration to improve their GCSE grade has fallen away.

This is overtly a move against social mobility. Students with lower GCSE attainment at school are more likely to be from lower-income households and recent studies from both the CVER and IFS have shown the long-term economic disadvantage of not attaining the 4/C grade in English.

Baroness Wolf, whose 2011 report prompted the creation of the funding condition, has told Tes of her concern that the change shouldn’t “signal further, future retreats”. She makes the point that England had previously been the outlier compared to the rest of the world in not requiring study of our home language to continue to age 18.

'A measure of progress'

It’s hard to understand how others, who claim to represent the interests of business and employers, are so opposed to a policy that simply mirrors the basic expectations in many of our international competitors’ education systems.

A big part of the problem is perception and the language we use. I’ve been teaching just long enough to remember the last couple of years of the Year 9 SATs. Those exams certainly had their flaws, but nobody ever perceived a level 3 as a "fail".

Nobody saw further study in Years 10 and 11 as some sort of “torture”, or a “cycle of failure”, or “impossible”; as resits have been variously and laughably described.

They were a measure of progress along a continuum of study. We are just beginning to normalise the idea of studying GCSE English beyond key stage 4 and it’s taken a tremendous effort. Let’s not falter now.

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity SHINE

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