Make no mistake, 235,400 is one hell of a big number. This is how many GCSE resits took place in colleges this year.
But it wasn’t until I saw the queue of double-decker buses lined up at City College Norwich, walked past dozens of classrooms and offices crammed with students sitting exams, and saw 914 desks lined up in neat rows at the Norfolk Showground that I began to grasp the sheer scale of what is being asked of colleges across the country.
The requirement, resulting from the 2011 Wolf Report, that students without a C grade in English and maths should continue working towards it so long as they remain in education or training, is a goal that it is difficult to quibble with.
But can colleges really be expected to unravel and correct literacy and numeracy problems – in just one year – that schools have previously failed to resolve over 11? Last year, the A*-C pass rate for GCSE English among students aged 17 and over – the majority of whom were studying in colleges – was 35 per cent.
Given the constraints colleges were working under, this was an impressive effort – but you can’t get away from the fact that almost two-thirds of young people still didn’t have a “good” pass, even after two or more attempts. While it seems churlish to apportion blame, it is indisputable that the lion’s share must lie with schools. And with new, tougher GCSEs being introduced, the problem is going to get worse before it even has a chance of getting better.
In the meantime, the FE sector will continue to do its best to pick up the pieces. With the best will in the world, achieving a 100 per cent A*-C pass rate is never going to happen. Colleges are acutely aware that, for some learners, improving from an E to a D is an impressive achievement. For others, still scarred by the memories of their struggles at school, even turning up at the exam hall is a battle in itself.
Shortly after I visited City College Norwich, Ray Goodman, head of its school of GCSE, English and maths, came up with a new idea to put learners at ease. He brought his dog, Flea, along for students to pat to try and ease their pre-exam nerves.
Come results day in August, it will be impossible to quantify whether Flea helped any students achieve that all-important C grade. But, even if the headline figures don’t look too impressive, take a moment to remember the efforts of the thousands of English and maths teachers in colleges across the country who are striving to make the best of an impossible job.