Help your students shorten the distance from D to C

27th November 2015 at 00:00
Getting learners through GCSE maths is a big challenge – start by not repeating failed approaches from school

Thanks to recommendations made by Professor Alison Wolf in her 2011 report on vocational education, school students who fail to achieve a C grade in GCSE maths or English have to retake the qualification after they progress to further education. Ensuring that they do so has even been made a condition of funding for FE providers. As a result, some 200,000 students are likely to be resitting GCSE maths this year.

A report was published this summer by the Policy Exchange thinktank entitled Crossing the Line ( It revealed that of the learners who progressed to FE after failing to obtain a grade C or better in English or maths at school, just 36 per cent managed to achieve it at the second attempt. (Interestingly, this is still higher than in schools, where the figure is 35 per cent.) Faced with so many learners who arrive at colleges already feeling like failures, you can see what we are up against. With the teacher recruitment crisis leading, in some cases, to colleges laying on “super classes” of 45 GCSE maths students or more, not to mention the challenges posed by students’ poor attendance, low motivation and pitifully low achievement rates, we have a serious, sector-wide problem on our hands – and there is nothing super about that.

Born out of the Making the Grade project by the Association of Colleges in the Eastern Region and the Education and Training Foundation, as well as the #gcseresit discussion on Twitter, here are some ways to boost your learners’ performance. Remember, FE should not emulate what happened in school. It has to be different; that strategy didn’t work first time around and it won’t this time either. Instead, try a “revision year” approach.


Start each session with a five-minute frenzy, recalling the 48 killer facts needed for the all-important C grade.


Make sure you go over the top on frequently occurring topics at the C-D borderline. If students already have a D, it means they can do some maths. Find out what they can do and rumble on with that to keep it fresh in their minds while you try to build on this knowledge.


It is imperative to have a series of milestones throughout the year to keep your learners on track. Set frequent homework and give them regular past papers before they sit a mock under exam conditions. Use a class set of revision guides for students to work through. Make sure you know exactly where your learners are by April, and hit strugglers with extra support and revision days. It also helps to inform parents of the importance of resit success to make sure students get support at home as well.


Mark past papers twice, once with students’ actual marks and again to show them what they would have got if they hadn’t made any silly mistakes. This really motivates learners, and can help to address easily rectifiable problems. Share reports by the chief examiner on previous years’ papers with your class. This can help learners recognise common errors and teach them how to avoid dropping vital marks. Sitting full past papers regularly will aid their progression.


Motivation is the key to success. Get students into good routines: do lots of maths and make sure they practise, practise, practise. Avoid questions set for lower grades. Everything is focused on a C grade, so learners may be demotivated by having to tackle questions for E, F and G grades. Stretch and challenge by throwing in the odd B or A grade question to improve their confidence.


You will have to decide whether to put your students forward to take the higher or the foundation tier paper. Evidence suggests that the higher tier can lead to better outcomes, but setting mocks at both levels will help you ascertain the likelihood of an individual achieving a C grade in each tier before you make a final decision.

Managing GCSE resits is without doubt one of the biggest challenges within study programmes faced by colleges. And the practical issues arising from this can be massive: in some colleges, the equivalent of a large secondary school full of students will, come next summer, be sitting their GCSE maths on the same day at the same time. But even if the logistical difficulties can be a nightmare, these tips should at least help make the challenge a little more manageable for your students.

Julia Smith is a teacher trainer, maths author and chair of governors at Writtle College in Essex. She tweets at @tessmaths

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today