Last September, I arrived at a school in Oxford for the first of a number of meetings focusing on the challenges our teachers face in GCSE English language. We looked at all areas of the sector, from early years to FE, and discussed two major points: how could we ensure that young people receive recognition of their achievements, rather than their failures, in English language? And how effectively can students communicate their ideas for work and modern-day life, rather than how well they can they analyse 19th-century fiction or non-fiction?
With so much focus in 16 to 19 education on improving maths outcomes, it was a breath of fresh air to join a conversation about English language. There were hundreds of years of English teaching experience in the room, from all stages of education.
Background: Schools battle to help 'forgotten third'
It was demoralising to hear that the pattern is the same from nursery through primary into secondary and, finally, at post-16. The 100,000 young people who need to resit a GCSE in English are more than likely to be those who didn’t achieve the required grades in their key stage 2 Sats. There’s an 88 per cent correlation between not achieving expected progress at 11 and then going on to get a grade 1 to 3 at GCSE English language. In fact, they are probably the same children who enter nursery with poor communication skills. Despite efforts by schools, colleges and teachers, these young people are failed at every stage – 187,000 "failed" to achieve a grade 4 this year aged 16.
GCSE English resits
As a group, we considered the implications on productivity and social mobility of a system based on comparable outcomes, which means that one-third of the cohort must fail at 16 and resit every year. We discussed and recognised the importance of maintaining standards, but at the heart focused on the Association of School and College Leaders' (ASCL) mission statement about acting "on behalf of children and young people".
How demoralising is it after 11 years of compulsory education to be told that you haven’t reached the grade in the national language?
A 'Passport in English'
Under the guidance of our chair, Roy Blatchford, we didn’t dwell on the negative and instead concentrated on coming up with recommendations of how to end this sorry cycle. Through much discussion, interviews with teachers and students, we focused in on one key recommendation: a Passport in English to replace the current GCSE in English language, which we believe is not fit for purpose.
We envisage that the Passport will be designed to test communicative competency in a fair way, and ultimately produce a profile of what a candidate can do in reading, writing, speaking and listening – ranging from entry-level to operational proficiency to expert. Each student would be on a flight path over time.
For college students, this would mean working towards expert level proficiency if it hadn’t already been attained at school.
Change the resits policy
Under the current government policy, any student aged between 16 and 18 without a grade 4 or above in GCSE maths and/or English must study and retake exams as part of their study programme. The resit policy is a mandatory condition of funding for these students. Students with a grade 3 must study for a GCSE qualification. Those with a grade 2 or below can study towards a functional skills qualification. From the academic year 2019-20, once they have achieved this, there is no requirement to undertake further maths or English qualifications.
There has been sector-wide concern for a long time that this consigns young people to a demoralising cycle of retaking exams without any improvement in their grades. In the 2018 exam series, just 29.7 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds achieved grade 9-4 English GCSE, and only 18.2 per cent achieved grade 9-4 in GCSE maths.
It’s clear that the policy does not achieve the intended outcomes – too many young people do not achieve a grade 4 standard pass in English and maths GCSEs by the age of 18.
Colleges do recognise the importance of English and maths – they know the impact that not having these skills has on limiting life chances and opportunities to progress in learning and work and life. But colleges would like to work towards policy and practice that allows young people to develop both English and maths skills appropriate to their individual needs and employer requirements. The Passport in English – and in maths – presents that attractive and workable solution.
The Association of Colleges joins ASCL in asking for a working group representing the Department for Education, Ofqual and the professional associations to be established at the earliest opportunity to introduce a Passport in English to replace the current GCSE English language. It’s simple really: we’re asking that no young person is left behind.
Cath Sezen is a senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges