It’s a funny old world when I find Professor Alan Smithers agreeing with me on the government’s resits policy for GCSE English and maths. Professor Smithers was quoted over the weekend saying that "repeating time after time only to fail again is soul-destroying” – a very welcome intervention three years after the Association of Employment and Learning Providers was almost a lone voice in opposing this unnecessary imposition on young people when other routes to progression in these subjects are available.
When I first expressed our views in Tes, we were dismissed as “industrialists”, but I am not about to start scrubbing my horny hands when more than 180,000 students fail the two subjects at GCSE, even when the pass mark for maths with one exam board was only 21 per cent.
Research published by Impetus PEF in 2018 found that young people were five times more likely to pass their driving test at 17 than to catch up with their GCSEs. So if you don't get your GCSEs at 16, you're unlikely to get them by 19. The research also highlighted that only 45 per cent of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds get GCSEs in English and maths by age 19, compared with 72 per cent of their better-off classmates.
GCSE resits: 'A national scandal'?
The experts are apparently predicting that the results on Thursday will show a slight rise in the pass rate but Professor Smithers is right to call the situation “a national scandal”. To add insult to injury, the Gove-inspired harder GCSEs, which were introduced in 2017, are now reportedly putting students off from taking the subjects at A level. When I ran the OCR exam board, I sat in many meetings on the design of the new GSCEs and A levels, warning that this was going to happen. It gives me no satisfaction to have been proven right.
The defenders of these changes argue that, like the rapidly becoming outdated notion that a 2:1 degree is a must for graduates, employers much prefer GCSEs to alternatives such as applied functional skills. But setting a pass mark of around 20 per cent for maths does not suggest that the learner necessarily has a grasp of the all key elements of the subject and certainly not in the way an apprentice would have doing functional skills.
This week I will be in Russia watching Team UK compete at WorldSkills Kazan 2019. The majority of the team are apprentices who have come through a high-quality training programme where functional skills are embraced by their employers.
Could functional skills be the answer?
September 2019 heralds the arrival of the new “tougher” functional skills, which, we’re told, might move the resits debate forward. Seasons come and go but Nick Gibb, the policy’s architect, remains an education minister. My message to him is that there are no more excuses. We should now be in an either/or position for those students who have failed GCSE on the first attempt. They should be given a proper initial assessment to determine whether they might be one of the 25 per cent likely to pass a retake, or one of the other 75 per cent who would be better off doing functional literacy and numeracy - which will be far more valuable to the learner and employer and relevant to the course.
The new education secretary used A-level results day to trumpet the arrival of T levels as a major advance in improving the country’s technical education, so let’s remember that the new qualification accepts both GCSE and functional skills with support from employers. But even with this, equity is still some way off when the most appalling example of disadvantaging the disadvantaged is only funding functional skills for apprentices at half the rate of every other learner.
We have been fobbed off with the message of “wait until the new functional skills arrive”. Well here we are - more hours, harder curriculum and harder assessment – and the wait and damage to young people’s prospects continue.
Last week my family got very excited by the new film trailer for Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women, a definitive tale of how there are different ways to overcome challenges and embark on a successful future. It reminded me that the new secretary of state should now be abandoning the prescriptive resits policy rather than keeping a foot firmly on young people’s heads.
Mark Dawe is chief executive of Association of Employment and Learning Providers