When only one per cent of E-grade students pass their maths GCSE on resit, why are they not sitting functional skills instead? Bill Watkin describes an alternative, win-win scenario.

Every 16-year-old who has not achieved a C-grade or higher in their GCSE maths or English by the end of Year 11 must now continue in Year 12 to work towards passing a level two qualification (GCSE or equivalent), if they are to meet the DfE’s condition for funding.

Those who achieved a D-grade at 16 have no choice: it is the GCSE that they must resit. But those who achieved anything between E and U can either resit the GCSE, or study an alternative: the functional skills courses. So there appears to be a perverse incentive at play: is it better to get an E than a D at GCSE?

In the GCSE resits, most students, having failed to achieve a C after five years in school, were, perhaps unsurprisingly, still unable to make the grade after just over two terms of post-16 study. Only 18 per cent of those with a D in maths in 2014 went on to pass their resit in 2015; only one per cent of those with an E managed to do the same.

But E-grade students can take the alternative functional skills, so why do some colleges still enter them for the GCSE? Why would an E-grade student, with just a one per cent chance of passing, resit the GCSE rather than the alternative?

Dr Becky Allen at Datalab suggests that functional skills might not be on offer, or that the GCSE might be perceived by teachers or students as a better route to eventual success.

So which are the right English and maths resits for students with an E or lower in their GCSE?

Too often, students are asked to resit the GCSE even though it is not necessarily best suited to their aptitudes, interests, other studies and workplace aspirations.

An applicant who has functional skills will be in a better place than one who has neither functional skills nor GCSE

Some argue that the GCSE qualification is more rigorous, more demanding and therefore more valuable and respected by employers; to enter students into a supposedly lesser alternative would be to do them a disservice because their future prospects will be less bright if they do not have a GCSE.

Others say that functional skills courses, following recent reforms, are now more difficult than they used to be, less accessible to lower-ability learners, more academic in nature and perhaps less of a viable alternative. And then there are those in the other camp, who point out that functional skills are more relevant in the context of preparing for technical and trade-related destinations and give students a better chance of reaching the required standard.

And what of employers? How do employers view a functional skills qualification compared with a GCSE? Well, inevitably, a GCSE will give a job applicant an edge. On the other hand – and this may be the crucial point here – an applicant who has functional skills will be in a better place than one who has neither functional skills nor GCSE.

And if the reformed, more difficult 2017 GCSEs are to be increasingly out of reach, and if the GCSE course-content is less relevant to the job than the applied literacy and numeracy that some employers will require for parts of their workforce, maybe this could lead to a win-win situation, where employers recognise the value of functional skills and applicants are better equipped.

Functional skills might be more suited to some students’ aptitudes; they also count towards the new level two English and maths measure in post-16 performance tables. To top it off, they offer a better route to a pass for E-U students. But in some colleges, GCSE is still the currency of choice.

Despite all this, it is reassuring to know that the government’s analysis of 2014/15 shadow measures shows that sixth form colleges get better results, notably than schools and academies, in English and maths resits. Early data returns this summer appear to bear this out, which is certainly something to celebrate.

Bill Watkin is Chief Executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association