The new mandatory post-16 resit policy for GCSE English and maths is setting young people up to fail, and government should allow other progression routes, says Graham Taylor.

Mandatory English and maths aren’t going away. They are vital and underpin most things we do. But any way you slice it, this year’s GCSE resit results were awful.

It’s shocking that 31,038 more people sat GCSE English this year, but only 382 more passed nationally. Crudely, for a grade-D school leaver, the probability of gaining a C for English was 27 per cent and for maths, 30 per cent. For those who left school with an E or below, it was just one per cent.

We’re setting young people up to fail. And ‘failing’ can demotivate learners in other subjects, too.

Frankly, we’re setting young people up to fail. And ‘failing’ can demotivate learners in other subjects, too.

Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw has blamed FE colleges for these poor outcomes, saying the quality of English and mathematics provision in colleges was so poor, it would be preferable that all 16-to-19-year-olds be educated in schools. But unless the success rates for all providers are published, there is no way we can verify this.

Colleges can certainly do better, but how many retries do we attempt? Maths is particularly tough; in one survey only 44 per cent of MPs knew the probability of getting both heads from two coin tosses! And even if you argue that a 30 per cent pass-rate is a great achievement after missing out at school, Ofsted will no doubt lambast colleges for ‘failing’ so many.

The FE sector excels in giving learners a second chance and provision that is different to school. We must keep trying. However, perhaps it is also time for government to accept that some will never ‘get’ whatever it is we are trying to measure at GCSE.

For learners’ benefit – which surely is ultimately what this is all about – we need the government to agree to different progression routes.

Employers are pleading for this. Take early years, for example, where the English and maths requirement has blown recruitment to pieces: more jobs are available because of the 30-hour childcare entitlement rule but they can’t get the qualified staff. Yet these employers are happy with functional skills and have worked with them for years.

Fundamentally, what is wrong with offering learners different routes? The core maths syllabus is a good applied alternative to the standard maths A-level. Why not have an employer-approved, real-world alternative level two syllabus – keeping the same standard and rigour as the GCSE?

The nearest thing, functional skills level two, counts towards the new level two English and maths measure in post-16 performance tables, but should count as a full level two. A similar option could be found in English, combining communication and writing styles.

We need the government to agree to different progression routes

Colleges face significant challenges in trying to deliver the GCSE resit policy in England, and sector leaders are pleading with the government to scrap it.

Dame Sally Coates in her report, ‘Unlocking Potential: A Review of Education in Prison’, seems sympathetic, arguing for a “core basic skills curriculum” that includes new adult modular GCSEs in English and mathematics, “because the GCSE brand is more familiar to employers”.

The government accepted all of Coates’ recommendations but she said in July that schools minister Nick Gibb wouldn’t approve any new GCSE qualifications because he was “concerned that introducing an adult GCSE would lead to two tiers, with one not as prestigious as the other”. Likewise, Ofqual have said they have no plans to change the linear structure of GCSEs, with examinations taken at the end of the course.

One ray of hope in all this is Robert Halfon, the minister for FE and skills, who has previously said he remains “open-minded” about the idea of an adult GCSE, with the proviso he would “need to look at it and take advice”.

All in all, it doesn’t look likely we will win this battle any time soon, but for the benefit of learners, we need to keep trying.

Graham Taylor is principal and chief executive at New College Swindon