Those waving the flag for social justice need to start demonstrating the courage of their convictions in the GCSE resit debate. The Education Policy Institute’s report claiming that the attainment gap between wealthy and poor students remains a gulf comes as no surprise. Class bias is entrenched in education and mutely accepted beyond the perennial grammar-school moans. One area where this is clearly visible is in the different attitudes towards the English GCSE as taught in schools versus its delivery under the resit policy in colleges. Those genuinely committed to social mobility need to start calling for equality of funding and equality of expectations across delivery in both sectors if there is to be any real chance of equality of opportunity for young people.
Addressing an Association of Colleges event in March, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said of the GCSE resits: “This is a well-intentioned policy, but in its current form we can see that it is causing significant problems. Let me be clear: when it comes to success in the labour market, nothing is more important than literacy and maths.” The implication being that the labour market should determine the form of the qualification. But then in June she told another event: “Education does have to prepare young people to succeed in life and make their contribution to the labour market. But to reduce education down to this kind of functionalist level is rather wretched.”
The explanation for this contradiction? In the latter speech she’s misty-eyed, picturing middle-class children, probably like those she went to boarding school with. Whereas for those resitting GCSE in colleges, she takes the same defeatist view as Mrs Kay in Our Day Out: “Most of them were born for factory fodder.” Almost daily, I see the same hypocrisy in every call for a "vocationally-relevant" GCSE alternative from those who – I have no doubt – regurgitate Ken Robinson’s "education kills creativity because it’s rooted in an industrial paradigm" argument while sipping artisanal gin at their child’s Russell Group graduation lawn party.
Let’s not imagine for a second that this is not about social class: in 2016 only 39 per cent of disadvantaged Year 11 pupils attained A*-C in English and maths, compared with 67 per cent of others. Therefore the majority of resitters are disadvantaged. It’s important to be explicit about this relationship because anyone saying “GCSE isn’t right for some students” is really saying “GCSE isn’t right for poor students”, or more honestly “teaching poor students is a bit difficult”. Well, I’m sorry it’s difficult.
Where's the extra cash for colleges?
In schools, these disadvantaged pupils attract an extra £1,000 premium that might be spent on recruitment (also benefiting trustafarian Ignatius who’s in the same class) or making a foreign trip viable (so precious Margot can spend half term in New York) or emergency English-GCSE intervention (“of course darling Clarence can come after school, too – most of the others don’t turn up anyway”). In colleges, far from receiving extra funding, cuts have to be made to other programmes to pay for the GCSE provision. It was reported last autumn that disadvantaged students do least well in the resits, but no mention was made from any quarter that colleges do not get the money schools get to support this group. It’s as though the sector is so focused on getting the policy scrapped, it won’t even bother lobbying for funding. Colleges do an incredible job, with no funding, to improve the life chances of students whose schools merrily banked their pupil-premium cheques for five years.
It’s also noticeable that this desire for vocational relevance is not applied to the facilitating A-level literature. We don’t hear from law firms, the much-cited recruiter of ex-lit students, declaring that study of poetry doesn’t fit their needs. But this is again because we wouldn’t want our own middle-class children following an English curriculum that only involved reading memos and filling in forms. It’s quite sufficient for the “factory fodder” though. Speaking of literature, the GCSE now counts in schools for the English and maths headline measure, for Progress 8, for English Baccalaureate, and a C in it even exempts students from the language resit at college. But colleges aren’t allowed to offer GCSE lit as the English resit. I really can’t see any motive for this other than to keep disadvantaged students away from novels and poetry, and in their proper place, dash it! As an aside, the changed status of lit in schools and the consequent 48 per cent increase in entries this year is likely to offset the doom prophecies of increased English resit numbers in 2017-18 as it gives students two chances to attain the exempting "pass".
The conditions of funding throw up other barriers to social justice. Only D/3-grade students are obliged to be enrolled on GCSE, rather than a "stepping stone". This seems to suggest that the GCSE was a fit qualification for the weakest students to follow when they were 14, but not when they reach 16. I feel it’s these students who most of all deserve another chance at GCSE as it is they who will have suffered the worst effects of years of "invest everything in pivotal Year 11 students and forget about everyone else" strategies in secondaries. At this level of prior attainment, the link to economic disadvantage is even closer, and again they are condescendingly denied the opportunities of their wealthier peers.
This year, many inside and outside the college sector have been hoping for an end to poorer students having the opportunity to improve their English and maths GCSEs. One publication even prematurely announced a government “U-turn”, causing a few cravats to be doused with untimely poppings of Dom Perignon among the policy’s opponents. This malevolent anticipation and the relentlessly negative portrayal of the resits is seriously unhelpful for those of us working hard to provide a positive experience of English to the young people who most desperately need it. Frankly, stop giving us excuses for failure. Hold us to account as you would want your own children’s teachers held to account, and have the same expectations of us. Please put down your foie gras and stop reading Pobedonostsev. Please get behind the resit policy and fund us properly to deliver the overdue social justice we owe these young people.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college. He tweets as @Education720