Project-based learning: an alternative to GCSE resits?

The FE sector cannot go through another year of attempting to implement a disastrous and damaging resit policy, writes Sean Vernell. The answer? A move towards project-based learning

Sean Vernell

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The government’s ambition for every 16- to 18-year-old to reach at least grade C in GCSE English and maths is an admirable one. However, making this compulsory for every student and to require students to keep resitting if they do not achieve a grade C is a disaster. Rather than this ambition becoming a reality, it is failing our young people and has the potential to making the learning of English and maths something that is alien and uninspiring.

As a result of the government’s policy change an unprecedented number of 16- to 18-year-olds have had to resit their GCSE English and maths exams. Over a quarter of million 16- to 18-year-olds re-sat their GSCE English and maths this year; 128,201 resat English (a 32 per cent increase), while 173,628 resat maths (a 32 per cent increase). Three-quarters of these were taken in colleges (a 40 per cent increase).

This has had a disastrous logistical and resource impact on colleges. Timetabling, class sizes, finding enough qualified teachers and finding suitable venues for exams have all proven the policy to be one challenge too far for colleges. Some colleges have had to suspend the whole curriculum for the day to accommodate GCSE exams. At City College Norwich, they had to hire a showground arena and a fleet of double-decker buses to cope with the rise in entries. 

Not surprisingly, this state of affairs has had a negative impact on attainment rates, with English at 26.9 per cent at A-C and maths at 29.5 per cent.

The one-size-fits-all GCSE doesn't work

Making students resit their GCSE exams again and again until they achieve a good grade clearly is not sound educational practice. There are those who believe that some students are not capable of achieving a good grade in GCSE English or maths. Functional skills is the default qualification for this cohort of students. 

However, functional skills has been roundly condemned by staff and students alike as one of the least successful attempts to replace GCSE English or maths with a more suitable qualification for the less academic. The narrow, decontextualised and utilitarian approach to the teaching of maths and English pursued in functional skills has helped to reinforce cynicism amongst those learners who had struggled with maths and English at school in the first instance.

Next year, all students will have to sit the new linear GCSE exam that replaces A*-C grading with 1-9 (9 being the highest) and includes the scrapping of controlled assessment (40 per cent of the mark in the legacy GCSE English exam). It is accepted (even by government) that attainment rates will drop substantially. 

The FE sector cannot go through another year attempting to implement the government’s disastrous and damaging resit policy. We need a radical change. First we must scrap the compulsory resit programme and replace it with a high profile and independently funded English and maths study programme. This qualification to be based around a new qualification based on 100 per cent course work.

Towards project-based learning

Our experience at City and Islington College has been that where we have been successful in progressing the students’ ability to read, speak and write English, the lecturer has gone beyond simply teaching literacy skills in a dry and abstract fashion and has instead ensured that learning is contextualised. This means the lecturer preparing interesting and relevant teaching resources to which the learner can apply their literacy skills in an engaging and inspiring environment.

A course based on 100 per cent course work could be built round a series of four essays of between 800 to 1,120 words in length. Each essay is linked to three speaking and listening components; speaking to persuade, group discussion and a drama based activity. Where possible at least one of these essay questions to be integrated into the students’ main vocational area of study.

For example, if a student is studying on a BTEC business course, one of the four essays could be writing to persuade and inform: "Can ethical trading make business fairer?" This essay would explore how free trade practices have attempted to make the business world more equal.

The essay could cover recent business strategies that have been implemented to help poorer nations trade with wealthier ones more fairly. In this essay, the student would be looking at how these business models have worked and put forward thier own recommendations on how they think fair trade could work and with which nations. The speaking and listening element of this piece of course work could be a class debate about the different business models the students have come across when researching their essay and/or students present their own free trade business models.

There are plenty of other ideas that we could suggest that contextualise and integrate the learning of English into the students chosen educational path, and are firmly rooted in a wider learning experience.

For this to work, though, we must break from the 19th-century obsession of exam-based learning.

Sean Vernell is a GCSE English teacher at City and Islington College and vice-chair of the University and College Union’s further education committee

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Sean Vernell

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