“The children of the poor were excluded from every hope of progress,” says the character St John Rivers, describing the educational landscape of his town in the 1847 novel Jane Eyre. It's a comment that still resonates in 2018 – a time when the attainment gap between the highest economic quintile and the lowest remains a chasm.
Rivers is offering Jane a chance to become mistress of a new school and, less admirably, he continues, “your scholars will be only poor girls – cottagers’ children – at best, farmers’ daughters”.
That attitude also remains recognisable today while there continues to be a disparity of esteem between vocational and academic routes; while there remains a two-tier system in basic skills, such as English; and while we can find convenient means to short-change the working class.
But “progress” should offer some hope to economically disadvantaged students because, when used as an accountability measure, it means they should no longer be deprioritised.
GCSE resits: a narrative of disaster
Provisional results data released last month shows that students resitting GCSE English post-16, who are more likely to hail from lower-income backgrounds than those achieving higher grades at the end of Year 11, were improving their grades on average.
This might leave you scratching your head if you recall August’s narrative of disaster and the voice of Ferris Bueller's Ed Rooney repeating “nine times”, as stories emerged of some learners resitting the exams endlessly.
That’s because there is an irreconcilable tension between progress, which is concerned with learners getting better at something, and a fixation on attainment that imposes an arbitrary line on a qualification that was reformed for precisely the purpose of moving away from unhelpful notions of a pass or fail.
The truth is that the positive progress story emerging nationally for post-16 is the story of students with lower starting points than a D or a 3.
Many whose key stage 4 attainment was very low, correlating strongly with deprivation, thrive in college environments and make spectacular progress in English. Some make multiple levels of progress. Hence, there’s progress in grades on average, despite a minority attaining the grade 4 that is considered “the new C”.
The wonderful and surprising thing is that the Department for Education’s main accountability measure for post-16 English is a progress figure, so we are effectively rewarded for supporting the most disadvantaged and offering an inclusive approach to facilitating qualifications.
In my mind, there is now little excuse for persisting with a two-tier system that excludes those who are already likely to be disadvantaged from the GCSE.
That is true of schools just as much as colleges because a staggering 20,000 students are diverted to alternative English qualifications in key stage 4 without ever having a chance to try for the same qualification as their peers.
'Every one of them left the exam smiling'
Last year, I taught a group of high-needs post-16 students whose prior attainment in English was mostly Us or G/1s. Their needs were such that most were exempt from assessment of any kind.
Their tutor and I convinced them and their parents that they had nothing to lose in having a go at the GCSE anyway.
Every one of them turned up to the exams. Every one of them left the exam smiling and proud of their efforts.
I’d like to say that every one of them improved their grade, but this is real life and that isn’t true; very nearly every one of them improved their grade.
Credit where it’s due: the 9-1 English language GCSE has been designed to be so accessible to weaker students, it renders alternative qualifications obsolete.
That said, we in colleges have to hold our hands up and admit that whether you call it attainment or progress, we need to do better with the students who come to us on a D/3 grade.
I still refuse to believe that if we get them into class and teach them for a year, we can’t get them across that damn line – but it’s bigger than any one teacher.
As a sector, we have to believe it. The ministers who designed this policy have to stop hiding behind their new briefs and show they believe in what they started.
'Resit policy sent FE into shock'
The ministers who have inherited the policy now need to show us they believe it, too.
Findings published by the Centre for Vocational Education Research earlier this year show the staggering difference that a perceived “pass” grade makes to the life chances of our learners.
I think it’s fair to say that the GCSE resit policy sent FE into shock. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of college students needed specialist teachers in subjects where recruitment in higher-paying schools was problematic enough.
We’re a few years in now, though, and we’re finding our feet. Those who relish the challenge of winning over a tough crowd find that teaching English resits offers incomparable rewards. Taking a student who has told you repeatedly that they hate your subject, to the point that they ask to borrow the full novel of an extract from class, is worth a fist pump like no other. Progress is there and we’re moving steadily forwards.
“What will you do with your accomplishments?” Rivers asks of Jane, surprised that she is willing to take on a teaching role he considers trivial and degrading.
“Save them till they are wanted,” she replies.
They are wanted now. It’s time to stop the condescending attitude toward students who need a little extra time and a little extra help to get their GCSE. Time to stop the excuses. Time to deliver.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity SHINE