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'Student self-esteem is being sacrificed on the altar of ministers' obsession with standards'

It’s time to end the victimisation of the minority who simply finds maths and English exams too hard, writes one leading headteacher

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GCSE results day last Thursday brought, as usual, joy to a great many exam candidates. For the most part boys and girls work immensely hard these days, and in school their teachers bust a gut to ensure that they get good results. So the obligatory media pictures of 16-year-olds jumping for joy, while always somewhat forced, weren’t inappropriate.

But there were some receiving their results of whom we saw little or nothing, a group which I think gets a raw deal and on whose behalf I am angry.

The government now requires all 16- to 19-year-olds who stay in full-time education but have failed to gain at least a C grade in English language and maths to resit those exams.

You can see the logic. Schools minister Nick Gibb – nowadays officially in charge of standards (although whether he has a sophisticated view of what standards might actually mean is open to question) – sounds more than ever like the robotic spokespeople the Department for Education puts up to repeat its tedious mantras. Gibb is convinced that, to win jobs and take their place in a highly trained workforce, all young people need basic skills. The first trap he falls into is that of believing a minimum C grade is actually related to employability.

Some people just find maths too hard (that’s true of English, too.) Their failure to achieve a C aged 16 is not attributable to lack of effort on their part, nor on that of their school. Simply insisting that they go round again, resit and pass next time, or the time after that, is naive. More to the point, any sense of failure they felt the first time round will simply be reinforced time after time.

Poor pass rate for resits

Statistics tend to support my case. Nationally it seems only some 20-25 per cent (at best) of those resitting maths GCSE gained a grade C or better. On a regional news programme I saw one further education college celebrating (with some justification) a one-in-three pass rate on resits: even there, some 66 per cent went through a second failure.

Government policy is riven with contradictions. To policymakers, the fall in overall pass rates demonstrates that the oft-claimed “dumbing down” of exams and results has ended. The macho Tory approach is thus vindicated: more failures mean higher standards.

But politicians are simultaneously reluctant to accept that some people won’t pass! How many times over my quarter-century as a head have I heard complaints that too many children in schools are "below average"? The lamentable John Patten, education secretary from 1992-94, made a high-profile speech about the scandal of below-average achievement: several successors have made similar errors.

To raise standards by making more children fail exams is Tory policy, as is requiring children to pass those exams in order to enter the workplace. How that is supposed to work is beyond me, but I know the damage it’s doing.

Functional skills serve a purpose

Let’s be honest. A GCSE in maths is no particular indicator of an ability to do the kind of sums you actually need in life and the average job. To be sure, a chartered accountant or an engineer will need significantly high levels of maths skills: but most 11-year-olds could read a balance sheet or tot up a bill with little guidance.

Moreover, there are accredited qualifications that will suggest a potential employee has the skill level that that might be justifiably required: functional skills are, well, functional.

Older students, those continuing in education later in their lives at FE colleges, always the poor relation and abysmally ignored by politicians and funders, can follow those courses. But government requires that 16- to 19-year-olds have their noses rubbed in repeated GCSE failure.

It is victimisation of that minority who just can’t do maths exams. They are forced to fail again and again in a test that isn’t even designed to prove the competence for work that ministers claim it does.

They, their self-esteem and their confidence are being sacrificed on the altar of a ministerial obsession with standards based neither in reality nor in statistical accuracy.

I seem to end my articles more and more frequently with this same angry, despairing statement: young people deserve better. Well, they do.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chairman of the HMC. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets as @bernardtrafford

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