Cramming for exams, in more ways than one

5th June 2015 at 01:00
Desperate colleges hire outside venues to house GCSE candidates

Colleges in England are struggling to deal with a huge increase in the numbers of young people resitting English and maths GCSEs.

The unprecedented numbers have created huge logistical issues for colleges, some of which have had to suspend their entire curriculum while they use classrooms and offices as makeshift exam rooms.

Some have had to book external venues to cope with the demand, including town halls and places of worship. City College Norwich even hired the arena at the Norfolk Showground, transporting more than 1,100 students to the venue in a fleet of double-decker buses for Tuesday's English paper.

The problems have arisen because this year all students who did not achieve grades A*-C in GCSE maths and English by the age of 16 have had to continue to retake the subjects as part of their further studies.

Colleges have warned that the situation is set to worsen with the introduction of new, more academic GCSEs this September and the requirement that all students who achieve a D grade will have to retake until they get at least a C. This year, students can opt for functional skills qualifications instead. From next year, however, that option will not be available.

Colleges are calling on the government for more support to help them deal with the situation.

`Unprecedented' demand

At Kirklees College in West Yorkshire, more than 600 students sat Tuesday's English exam - double the number of last year. Some 1,800 were enrolled for the two maths exams scheduled for Monday and yesterday, also twice 2014's figure.

The college decided to limit the use of external venues and host exams in more than 70 on-site classrooms, in order to make students feel more comfortable. However, it still had to use a nearby Sikh leisure centre because of a lack of space.

Kirklees has also been forced to train dozens of teaching and administrative staff to act as exam invigilators. As a result, deputy principal June Durrant said the college had taken the "radical and unprecedented" step of suspending the rest of the curriculum on the days of the exams.

"These are very significant numbers; it is a massive increase for us," she said. "Logistically it's quite a significant undertaking, but we have to take decisions that best suit the students.

"It is important that they get their GCSEs because they are the gold standard. But it would be better if more of the students coming to us already had them."

City College Norwich principal Corrienne Peasgood said that hiring the nearby arena to host the exams, combined with laying on transport for students, had cost more than pound;50,000.

"We would have needed double the number of invigilators if we had held the exams across our classrooms," she said. "It didn't seem fair to put such disruption on the other students. I'm not sure the consequences of this political decision were fully realised. I don't think anybody really thought what it would mean for colleges logistically."

Gill Clipson, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC), said: "We are having reported to us that the volume of students [taking resits] has increased dramatically. This is causing serious logistical issues for many colleges, as well as the hidden costs of re-timetabling and taking on additional staff.

"We mustn't underestimate the practical issues that colleges are facing."

Flexible working

The AoC has also called on the government to work with colleges and employers to develop new, rigorous maths and English qualifications that are related to the world of work and everyday life.

"There must be a recognition that, after 11 years of schooling, some students haven't reached this gold standard," Ms Clipson said. "Students are coming into colleges demoralised and demotivated, and it's not only a matter of improving their competence but confidence, too. The situation will only become more exaggerated next year."

Ms Clipson said there should also be more flexibility in the system, with more resit opportunities throughout the year.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "In order to make sure young people are ready for work, we want to make sure all those leaving education have high standards of maths and literacy. That is why we are supporting all those who do not achieve A*-C grades in maths and English at GCSE to reach that standard.

"Funding is allocated on a per-pupil basis and this covers exam entry. We also provide an additional pound;480 per student, per subject for all those with English or maths below grade C at GCSE, to fund additional support for learning.

"FE colleges are already making good progress in ensuring all 16- to 19-year-olds are given the opportunity to secure GCSEs in English and maths by age 19, and we know the vast majority of colleges are on track to enrol all students without A*-C GCSE on approved English and maths courses."

`The June exam creates a bottleneck'

At Northampton College there has been a 20 per cent increase in the numbers of students sitting English and maths GCSEs this year. Its main exam hall can hold less than half the 500 students who sat the English exam, so it had to use offices and classrooms.

The college's deputy principal, Patrick Leavey, says: "There are huge challenges around facilitating such large volumes of candidates. We are committed to keeping everything else going and coping as best we can. For example, vocational students who may have occupied classrooms are occupying workshops instead."

And the situation is set to worsen, he says. "The volumes are going to grow and the challenges will increase. Because the exam is available only in June, it creates a bottleneck when we have to manage large numbers. In previous years there would have been December and June exam dates."

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