'Let GCSE resit students keep access arrangements they had in school'

Having to apply from scratch for special access arrangements for GCSE resit students wastes colleges' time and resources, argues Andrew Otty

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To date, most of the FE sector’s lobbying on GCSE resits has focused on calling for them to be abandoned altogether, rather than asking for proper funding. Consequently, the policy has not been adequately resourced and the learners have suffered for it.

At the same time, learners have had to face the bell-curve-driven, bewildering grade boundary shifts that mean answers worth a grade 4 in the June exam have already been devalued to a 3 in the November exam. Meanwhile, there has been no effort to highlight the national fiasco with exam access arrangements that ruthlessly strips students of the entitlements they had in school.

A significant number of students entered for GCSEs and A levels are entitled to special exam-access arrangements to cater for their individual needs, but these are not carried over between school and college. For example, 15.7 per cent of all entrants are permitted 25 per cent extra time and 1.2 per cent of all entrants have their exams printed on coloured paper.

In an FE GCSE-resit setting, the number of learners needing access arrangements could be around 50 per cent or higher, but we have to assess every single student from square one and make fresh applications for their arrangements.

Missing the point

I suspect that there will be a minority of people reading this who disagree with access arrangements on some sort of “principle” and who so far have little sympathy. This is completely missing the point: these students were granted the arrangements in school last June. A few months later, they arrive at a college that wants to help them improve their grade with less funding than the school had and someone has hit the reset button on those entitlements.

We start from scratch: identifying what’s needed, applying for it internally, sending them for assessment, then applying externally. As fellow FE English teacher Alice points out, it ends up presenting yet another barrier for the disadvantaged: “Parents who understand the system and feel confident have the time to come and talk to us so we can have everything in place from the start of the year. For other students, often those with the highest needs and most chaotic lives, we have to piece things together.”

We have to do so pretty quickly. Many students wish to enter the resit opportunity in the first week of November. To have their arrangements in place in time is tricky when the first step of identifying a need and establishing it as a normal way of working has to happen within one or two lessons of meeting the students.

The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) confidently advises that “schools should be able to process applications at the start of, or during the first year of, a two-year GCSE course, having firmly established a picture of need and normal way of working during Years 7 to 9” – which, of course, is no help to a college that has to assess students who are aiming to enter the exam just weeks later on the basis of a few hours in class. I suspect that, nationally, many students with recognised needs are denied fair access to the November exams because of this absurd system and because our sector’s lobbyists don’t know they exist.

Proud to work in FE

Once the arrangements are approved by the Vogon bureaucracy of the JCQ, the logistics alone are intimidating. In my college, a single GCSE exam requires 120 rooms, in addition to our enormous sports hall – and 150 invigilators. We also run full-scale, formal mock exams throughout the year to prepare our learners for the overall experience as much as for the exam practice

We provide the same access arrangements for the mocks that the learners are entitled to in the exam. Each session is a huge mobilisation of staff and students, but we do it because we believe in fully preparing them and we believe in the importance of the qualification and the policy.

It’s the mock exam days in particular, stressful as they are, that make me so proud to work in FE: I see a genuine community of staff from across the college working together to support our young people in what is arguably one of the most challenging things we do.

Learning support, having compiled forensically-detailed files to satisfy the JCQ that the arrangements they approved six months ago are still valid, offer themselves to act as invigilators, scribes and readers. Our estates team create a beautiful geometry in an exam hall that is bright and welcoming and a far cry from the image of gloomy misery conjured by the policy’s opponents. Vocational tutors meet their tutees early to guide them to their exam rooms. The sport faculty, who’ve given up their hall yet again, give us a thumbs up – and the English and maths teachers offer last words of encouragement to their students.

Do the right thing

To the lobbyists, I say this: stop fighting for this policy to be scrapped next year, or the year after. Have a care for the learners with us right now and fight for them to have the best experience possible. Get us the funding, the fixed criteria and the transition of access arrangements that we need to make the policy work. It won’t be a quick win, but it’s the right thing to do.

For education secretary Damian Hinds and apprenticeships and skills minister Anne Milton, ensuring that entitlements automatically carry over between school and college would demonstrate sympathy for the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. It would be popular with 16- to 19-year-olds and teachers: two demographics they need to gain ground with. It would support those of us who are taking an inclusive approach to these qualifications and this policy. It would be a really quick win.

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college. He tweets @Education720

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