In a week where the Northern Council for Further Education (NCFE) has called for functional skills to be employed as an alternative to GCSEs, there’s a feeling of being stuck in a perpetual loop. Like a knackered computer endlessly cycling through its startup routine only to get to a certain point where it gives up the ghost, resets and starts the whole thing from the top.
And so it goes around again. The GCSE resit policy has been a hotbed of debate ever since it was introduced (I may have put a few words down about it myself in the not-too-distant-past) and whether you love them or loathe them, if we move away from any value judgement as to their benefit or lack thereof, one thing is clear: GCSE resits are an imposition.
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It has become obvious that they’re an ill-fit in FE. A legacy examination that harks back to a time that may have been a little on the rough side for many of the students in the sector, set apart from any vocational path that a learner may now be embarking on, they are stand alone in style, content and ethos.
And the logistics. Oh the logistics. Having to examine huge swathes of students (sometimes thousands at a time), the general chaos and complication of finding space, invigilators, equipment and dealing with the myriad of problems that such an undertaking comes with has highlighted something patently obvious – the FE sector wasn’t designed to handle this accreditation on the scale it has had to, and it’s been playing catch-up ever since.
The retake policy was implemented without an understanding of the mechanics of FE, and it shows. It was decreed from the outside, and like so many other things, the sector had to try to make it work the best that it could.
If there had been some thought before the implementation they might have considered a few key issues and adapted the qualification into something that was more in line with how FE institutions operate – a "GCSEFE", as it were. The least they could have done was allow a "test-when-ready" ethos to ensure that there would no longer be organised chaos come exam day. But no, retakes were decreed so retakes were what FE got.
I haven’t seen the spec for the new functional skills assessment, so I don’t know how good it is. I was fond of the previous version so it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. I’m also still ambiguous about GCSE retakes and think that in many circumstances they may well be beneficial. But what I am certain of is that the retake policy is yet another sign that FE's status meant that people thought nothing of imposing something from somewhere else without due care and attention. I find that hugely telling in reference to the perceived status of the sector.
Tom Starkey is an education writer and consultant