Teachers have urged the government to scrap rules requiring pupils to resit GCSEs in English and maths if they do not get a C grade, arguing that this is “not appropriate” for all young people and effectively tells pupils that their efforts have amounted to failure.
The NASUWT’s annual conference in Birmingham this week passed a motion calling for an “alternative pathway” for pupils who were “unable to achieve” C grades in the tests.
Since August, government funding for post-16 student places has been conditional on pupils retaking GCSEs in English and maths if they do not have a C grade.
It means this will be the first summer in which all of those pupils have to retake GCSEs in the subjects. In previous years, pupils who did not score a C have continued to study the subjects but some have been able to take alternative qualifications known as "functional skills" rather than GCSEs.
Explaining the change in an interview at the time, education secretary Nicky Morgan said: “Numeracy and literacy are something that’s non-negotiable. I think we would be letting people down if they left the school and college system without having good passes in those basics of English and maths.”
But Stella Ucheobi, a teacher from Birmingham, told the conference that 65 per cent of pupils who resat the tests in 2014-15 had done so “in vain” because they had not scored a C.
She said some pupils were dropping out of post-16 study because of the requirement to retake the tests.
“'I’m quite happy with my D,' they say, 'it hasn’t stopped me or my parents getting a job,'” Ms Ucheobi said.
“I tell them, 'What if you decide to be a teacher or a nurse in the future?' They listen but they have their minds set, and ultimately the strong desire to achieve a C and work towards a profession has to come from them.
“Two adages come to mind. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. And, parents are the first teachers, and at the end of the day if their parents aren’t in support of education there’s only so much we can do.”
Ms Ucheobi said 16-year-olds were allowed to make “a whole host of independent decisions” such as consenting to intercourse and medical treatment, changing their name by deed poll, applying for a passport and joining a trade union. They should also have the choice about whether to retake their GCSEs, she said.
“GCSEs have been foisted on to our D-grade learners and they’re viewed as more equal than other maths and English qualifications. How must that make our students feel if they have failed to get a C time and time again?” she said.
“From my own personal experience and that of other teachers in the post-16 sector, the majority of learners have no interest in resitting GCSEs. But with the raised age of participation, there’s no exit strategy unless they drop out of education altogether which is not the answer,” she said.
'Give the students options'
Ms Ucheobi added that 16-year-olds should be able to take functional skills qualifications instead of GCSEs, to defer GCSE study or to carry out practical English and maths assessments in the workplace.
Paul Nicholas, a maths teacher form Warwickshire, told the conference: “I’m a mathematician and I know the way we grade GCSE subjects is using a standard deviation and not everybody can be better than average.
“I teach bottom set kids in some of my classes.
“Some kids will roll in through the door, given that their parents have been reading to them every night since the age of three or four, and they’ll roll in the door achieving far more than what some of my bottom set kids will shed blood, sweat and tears for.
“And why do we communicate to them that their efforts amount to failure? Life is varied and we all start in different places and end up in different places.
“Effectively, what the system does is tear up GCSE certificates and chuck them in the bin and say, 'Rubbish – start again'."
Referring to the criticisms raised at the conference, Mr Nicholas added: “It can be taken cynically – 'Oh there’s NASUWT, they don’t really care about people achieving,'” he said. “Of course we do, but we care about the learner as well as their qualifications.”
A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “Numeracy and literacy are non-negotiable for success in later life and improving the exams and curriculum is a key part of our drive to achieve educational excellence everywhere. We want all students to benefit from the reformed qualifications as soon as possible.
“Last summer 4,000 more students aged 17 and above secured GCSE A*-C grades in English, and over 7,500 more passed maths than the year before.”