Like thousands of students across England and Wales, Leon Jones* is anxiously awaiting his GCSE maths results next week. But the 18-year-old, who attends a college in Berkshire, has more reason than most to feel on edge this year: this was his third attempt.
Not passing his first resit made him feel “extremely stupid”, he says. He even considered dropping out of his BTEC in IT.
“The second time around when I failed, I thought, ‘Man, if I’ve failed the second time, there has to be something wrong with me.’”
Maryam Qureshi has experienced even more maths disappointment: the 20-year-old, who this summer completed a business BTEC at a sixth-form college in East London, sat GCSE maths for the fifth time this summer.
“I struggle with maths because of my dyslexia,” she says. “I found it really stressful and annoying having to resit the exam.”
As a result of the condition of funding that effectively makes resits compulsory for students with a grade 3 (or D under the old-style qualifications) in English or maths, the number of students aged 17 and over taking resits has increased significantly. Last summer, there were some 327,000 entries from older students across the subjects.
In 2016, Justine Greening, who was education secretary at the time, acknowledged concerns about students repeatedly hitting a “brick wall” that they could not get over.
Now, new data obtained from the Department for Education by education equality Impetus-PEF reveals the number of times that 16-18 students who sat maths or English last summer had attempted the qualifications.
In the most extreme cases, students were attempting the qualification for at least the ninth time. Overall, more than 86,000 entrants to English or maths were sitting the exam for at least the second time. In English, over a quarter of resits were by those sitting the exam for at least the third time; in maths, the proportion stood at 37 per cent.
Another Impetus-PEF report published last year said that only 12 per cent of young people without GCSE passes in English and maths at 16 went on to secure them by 19. And research by awarding organisation Cambridge Assessment found that the probability of improving the grade dropped with each resit attempt.
“I feel for them”, says Shobhna Fletcher, who taught a maths class at Telford College that is awaiting its results this summer. “They have a psychology that they can’t do it and they have failed.”
She says that motivating students gets harder, the more attempts they have had: “If you don’t catch them early and they get [a standard pass] first or second time round, it is gone. I had a student last year and it was his sixth attempt – and teaching him was very difficult. He had just had enough.”
Jonathan Kay, head of English and maths at Hartlepool College of Further Education, believes many of his resit students feel let down. “They feel like they didn’t pass it last time, so what will be different this time?” he says. “I think it is a blasé attitude, but it is an act. They are putting on the stereotypical teenager that doesn’t care, but behind that, I think they do feel let down.”
David Corke, director of education and skills policy at the Association of Colleges, says that the assessment regime in school and the cycle of resit failure have an adverse impact on students’ mental health. “How can such continual testing across 13 years of education be seen as anything other than a punishment?” he asks. “Young people don’t come to college to resit tests, they come to learn technical skills that are assessed in a practical way. Let’s remove the D/4 grade [requirement] now and allow teachers to exercise their professional judgement.”
But not everyone believes that having to resit the qualification negatively impacts students in FE. Alice Eardley, an English teacher at Activate Learning’s Oxford campus, says: “I am not claiming they love it, but they have reached the point where they just want to get it done. I am not sure I see it being a bad thing. Some students just need an extra year or two.”
Impetus-PEF chief executive Andy Ratcliffe believes that, with the right support, all young people can achieve a level 2 in English and maths – but he is concerned that many young people from poorer backgrounds are not getting the necessary support, and is calling on the Department for Education to boost investment in resits.
“We’re hoping that the young people waiting for their GCSE results get the success they deserve,” he says. “But we know that won’t be the case for everybody. Thousands of young people are taking English and maths exams for more than the third time. Young people are five times more likely to pass their driving test at 17 than to catch up with their GCSEs … Our new data showing that thousands of young people are stuck in an endless cycle of resits tells us that there is a lot more work to do.”
Last month, skills minister Anne Milton told Tes that she was “terribly aware” of the importance of young people of getting a level 2 qualification in English and maths. “They don’t know maybe how important that is for their future opportunities that will open for them,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure that all young people get every opportunity to get a good pass at GCSE, or in functional skills. So we’re looking at the moment to see how we can improve it. I recognise that if you have failed to get that qualification, despite the fact you’ve had many years of education before that, something isn’t working well for you.”