'It's time to end the negative cycle of GCSE resits'

Too many students can't progress in English and maths. Functional skills could be the answer, says Stewart Foster

The #FullyFunctional campaign calls for functional skills qualifications to be funded for all students

Today, awarding organisation NCFE launched its campaign #FullyFunctional, calling on the government to allow learners who achieve grade 3 in their English and maths GCSE (equivalent to grade D in the old system) to be given the opportunity to study alternative qualifications such as functional skills.

Currently, all learners who achieve a grade 3 in their English and maths GCSEs must automatically resit these exams because of funding rules that don't fund providers to offer alternative qualifications to these learners.

Through #FullyFunctional, we want to build 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 would enable learners to make the right choice for them individually and to achieve successful outcomes.


Read more: GCSE English and maths resits 'setting students up to fail'

More news: GCSE resits: DfE updates English and maths policy

Comment: ‘Golden age’ of GCSE resits may be ending


'Negative cycle of examinations'

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.

Our survey, which tested the general public’s perception of alternative qualifications and GCSEs, demonstrates that learners have always, and still do, feel pressure to pass their English and maths GCSEs. Some 70 per cent of the respondents who are currently at school stated that they feel pressure to resit their core GCSEs (science, English or maths) if they fail first time. Additionally, over half of respondents (53 per cent) who are currently doing their GCSEs said that this is the most stressful time of their teenage years.

Alternative qualifications, such as functional skills, enable learners to study the core elements of English and maths but in a more practical sense with a strong emphasis on problem-solving. It allows students to learn in a way that may be more suited to them than the traditional GCSE route. Our polling also found that 70 per cent of respondents argued in favour of students being able to learn in a style which suits them, with seven in 10 (71 per cent) business owners also agreeing that maths and English qualifications should be applied to everyday life.

Restricting learning pathways

This leads us to ask, if this is the attitude of the general public, why are we continuing to restrict various learning pathways for learners who fail their GCSEs, including the opportunity to study alternative qualifications?

What we’re asking for isn’t a complete policy rewrite. The current policy allows learners who achieve grade 2 or below the opportunity to study alternative qualifications without having to resit their GCSEs, leaving learners who achieve grade 3 as the only group who are unable to study alternative qualifications such as functional skills.

We are asking for more access to GCSE alternatives for learners. Many students often find themselves unable to move forward and progress without achieving a GCSE grade C – a benchmark that has been widely adopted by higher education, further education and employers. If there were more alternative and equivalent options for learners, we’d see drastic improvements in our students pass rates and, importantly, their wellbeing.

GCSE resits: shifting perceptions

In education, we fully accept that a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate. The sector has seen the government implement recent policies such as T levels to further emphasise the importance of vocational and technical education and creating greater parity of esteem between the two. So, why can’t we adopt the same approach for learners who are struggling with GCSEs?

We are doing all we can to shift perceptions and champion the importance of technical alternatives and vocational education. #FullyFunctional calls on the government to address this issue and offer learners the opportunity to study in a way that suits them. We want to ensure that every young person has the ability to reach their goals and aspirations in life.

Stewart Foster is managing director of NCFE Awarding

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