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To resit, or not to resit GCSEs? That is the question...

Julia Smith asks if the golden ticket of a C grade pass for everyone is forever out of reach

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Julia Smith asks if the golden ticket of a C grade pass for everyone is forever out of reach

To resit or not to resit GCSEs? The answer isn't that simple.

Resitting a GCSE in English and maths is mandatory if you achieved a grade D in Year 11. You don't have a choice, you must resit. This means that colleges must face a cohort of 250,000 young people who don't think they need to resit, yet are having to do it anyway.

Borne out of Professor Alison Wolf's report into 14-19 vocational education in 2011 were 27 recommendations. Recommendation 9 is that it is compulsory for a resit to be part of a programme of study in further education for both maths and English. Recommendation 10 states "that this should supported by a raft of CPD". 

Michael Gove made the first recommendation of the Wolf report, while largely ignoring the second. Yes, there are some great courses out there, but cash-strapped colleges cannot release staff easily and certainly have no cover. One wonders which of the other recommendations had quite such the impact on FE.

While English resit results fair better than maths, it does not meet the initial expectations from that Wolf report – that vast swathes of students would be given the golden ticket of a C-grade pass onto a better and brighter future.

Instead, we have colleges that are returning pitifully poor pass rates, while becoming ever-resourceful in their attempts to create something to be proud of.

Running with the Wolf

In December, the results of the Smith report into the feasibility of mandatory GCSE resits will be published. Hallelujah might be in order. But let's hope it will fully consider the following factors:

  1. Volume of students Some colleges have cohorts in excess of 1,000 students each for English and maths resits. The logistics of exams are a huge burden on resources, with some class sizes are in excess of 40 students.  
  2. Recruitment of good staff Some colleges cannot recruit staff to deliver a resit. Who would be a GCSE maths resit teacher? Would it be a number one career choice? For some it is and they are to be applauded.  
  3. Attitudes of students Learning how to deal with a bunch of students who neither want nor value these three hours a week doing something, they have already failed at, again.

But which way will the Smith report go? Will it be as simple as "Yes, carry on", or "No, stop wasting time and effort on students who neither value the resit opportunity nor want to be there"? There are a number of solutions that Mr Smith may wish to seriously consider:

  • First, that every college course at every level should have a mandatory "use of mathematics" and a "use of English" unit within it for all students to be tested to pass or fail with a 75 per cent pass boundary. This unit contains grade C only, and contextualised questions based upon the vocation. For example, a Pythagoras question based upon a garden design for horticulture students.   
  • Secondly, to give courses back their three hours of maths and three of English, we may end up with students really having some great English and maths skills for the job in hand, and the job they want to train to do.  
  • Thirdly, to have a standard "bridging the gap" grade C-only module, mandatory for those students who have a D grade. Consisting of 20 grade C questions only, 70 per cent pass boundary, this module could be sat at five times throughout the year, thus alleviating the logistical nightmares of herding 1,000 students into a hall, on one day, at one time, once a year.  
  • And finally: do nothing and continue with a qualification that is truly not fit for purpose. Yes, 85,000 gained a grade C last year, but that fails 150,000 young people and to be quite frank is simply not worth the effort. 

Students will definitely benefit from good maths and English teaching at whatever level. But I am also a pragmatist. This legacy resit year could be a line in the sand. For far too long we have delivered maths and English in colleges as an adjunct to rather than something integrated within the main course. By "enhancing" the maths and English rather than burying, sorry "embedding", it or extracting it out in a forced resit class, we may enhance their whole experience and the staff experience too and end up with outcomes to be proud of. 

FE is the best choice for a huge swathe of young people, but it is not the miracle worker that Alison Wolf would want us believe it is. Consider that, Mr Smith, and huff and puff and blow this house down to build something on better foundations.

Julia Smith is a teacher trainer, maths author and chair of governors at Writtle College in Essex. She tweets at @tessmaths

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