Why colleges are choosing GCSE resits over alternatives

Colleges across the country have been entering more students for GCSE maths and English re-sits than government policy requires.

The Department for Education’s condition of funding rule means all students in England aged 16 to 19 who have achieved a grade 3 in English or maths are required to retake the subject while those with a grade 2 or lower have the option of taking Functional Skills qualifications instead.

These “forced re-sits” have been controversial in the sector, so FE Week investigated the reasons behind colleges’ decisions to go above and beyond the regulation.

Analysis by this newspaper showed 18 colleges entered more than 1,000 students for GCSE maths re-sits and 26 colleges did so for GCSE English in 2017/18, when the DfE’s latest national achievement rates tables were available.

Colleges claimed they did not want to “to limit our learners’ progress” and highlighted “the strong emphasis that employers and education establishments put on GCSEs” as part of their reasoning.

Criticism was also directed towards the alternative Functional Skills qualification for its “cliff-edge pass or fail”.

Even the Association of Colleges conceded that the “jury is out” on the appropriateness of the new Functional Skills qualifications.

Leeds City College entered the most students for re-sits in both subjects in 2017/18.

Bill Jones, the college principal, said: “Although Functional Skills is a viable option for many of our students, we recognise the strong emphasis that employers and education establishments put on GCSEs.

Tweet by Jeanne Rogers of Leeds City College’s GCSE English exam
preparations on June 7 2019

“With this in mind, it’s in our students’ interest that we provide as many of them as possible the opportunity to resit English and maths GCSE to increase successful destinations upon completion of their courses.”

According to the government’s tables, only 8 per cent of the 2,560 students at Leeds City College who re-sat GCSE maths and 15.3 per cent of the 2,320 students who took GCSE English gained an A*-C (grades 9 – 4).

The general FE college is now part of the Luminate Education Group.

Jeanne Rogers, vice-principal for quality teaching and learning, tweeted photos of the college’s preparation for GCSE English exams this summer and said there were “3,332 students sitting English today. Attendance has been high, stress levels low; as a result of a college ‘I’m In’ approach”.

Under Education and Skills Funding Agency rules, any student aged 16 to 18 who has a grade 3 as their highest level of achievement, one grade off a 4 (C) in their English and maths GCSEs, must retake the subjects.

Colleges who fail to enrol 95 per cent of eligible students have funding withdrawn from a future allocation. South and City College Birmingham entered the second-most students for re-sits in maths and English in 2017/18.

Principal Mike Hopkins said the college put “nearly all” its students aged 16 to 18 and young adults who are hoping to go to university into GCSE re-sits rather than Functional Skills because it recognised this was “an examination and course that students are already familiar with (in the main) and we are looking for progression over time for those students with grade 1 upwards”.

However, just 7.7 per cent of the 2,340 South and City College Birmingham students who re-sat GCSE maths were awarded an A*-C grade and 15.1 per cent of the 2,200 who re-sat GCSE English received an A*-C grade.

Hopkins said the college planned to review this policy “in light of the introduction of technical courses” to determine whether studying Functional Skills English and maths would better serve students in those areas.

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Students who join Activate Learning without a grade 4 “normally” re-sit the core subjects because the general FE college based in Oxford does not “wish to limit our learners’ progress”.

A total of 1,940 students re-sat GCSE maths and 1,670 students re-sat GCSE English in 2017/18.

Francis Lawson, Activate Learning’s director of English, told FE Week: “The rationale for the strong focus on GCSE is that our data shows learners from modest starting points often make greater progress on a GCSE than a Functional Skills pathway.

“Some learners improve several grades to achieve GCSE grade 4 within a year.

“We do not wish to limit our learners’ progress because of modest prior achievement, which might not fairly reflect their capabilities.”

However, only 12.6 per cent of maths entrants and 21.4 per cent of English entrants achieved an A*-C grade after their re-sits.

Lawson added that Functional Skills was available to learners “for whom it is most appropriate,” highlighting learners on apprenticeship programmes and in supported learning environments.

Data provided by Activate Learning showed 314 16-18-year-old students, excluding apprentices, took Functional Skills English in 2017/18 and 483 were entered into Functional Skills maths in the same year. The figures supplied by the college include Bracknell and Wokingham College, which merged with the Activate Learning in January 2019.

Capital City College Group entered the fifth-highest number of students to re-sit both GCSE maths and English respectively in 2017/18, with 14.1 per cent of 1,810 students achieving an A*-C in the former and 27.4 per cent out of 1,750 doing so in the latter.

A spokesperson for the group said: “What the data doesn’t show is that, in addition, we enrolled just over 2,000 16 to 18-year-olds on a Functional Skills course that year.

“We would generally put a student in for whichever level qualification they are most suited to. For us it’s about what level the student can best work at, rather than the qualification per se.”

The South Essex College entered the sixth and seventh largest number of students to re-sit GCSE maths and English in 2017/18.

Around 8 per cent out of 1,500 South Essex College students achieved an A*-C in GCSE maths while 17.1 per cent of the 1,460 entered into GCSE English received an A*-C.

A spokesperson told FE Week: “The majority of students who gain a grade 3 or below in GCSE English and or maths are entered for English and maths qualifications at the college.

“Some students do gain a grade 4 or higher in GCSE English literature, but not in English language.

“In this case, the students are offered the opportunity to take English language even though they are not eligible for government funding.

“We do this because of the fact that English literature is not as widely recognised for university entry compared to English language and it offers our students better progression opportunities.

“We have made this decision to benefit our students and give them the best opportunity to progress on to their chosen careers or higher education study programmes.”

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A spokesperson from the Colchester Institute said the reason behind its decision to enter more pupils into the two GCSEs was that the college found “the cliff-edge pass/fail in Functional Skills did not recognise progress, and was demotivating for those who did not pass”.

In 2017/18, 1,310 students re-sat GCSE maths with a 7.5 per cent A*-C success rate and 1,300 re-sat GCSE English with 13.4 per cent achieving grades A*-C.

“While the GCSE grading system has imperfections, it does at least allow us to demonstrate and recognise incremental improvement,” the spokesperson added.

HCUC, a merger between Uxbridge College and Harrow College, entered the fourth and eighth-most students to re-sit GCSE English and maths respectively in 2017/18.

A spokesperson said: “Our intention is that students will be appropriately stretched to support their progress, progression and aspirations through GCSE and Functional Skill pathways.”

Moreover, a spokesperson from NCG, which has seven colleges across the country, told FE Week that the curriculum at each was “designed to respond to the needs of the students at each individual college”.

“In some cases this does include entering students with a grade 2 for GCSE exams if their progression route requires them to have GCSE.”

Tweet by Jerry White of City College Norwich’s GCSE exam preparations on June 9 2016

A spokesperson for BMet in the West Midlands added: “Like other colleges we believe it’s important that all of our students have access to GSCE maths and English and have the opportunity to re-sit their exams, which is why we have adopted this approach.”

A Nottingham College spokesperson also said: “The College continues to refine its approach to meet the needs of individual learners and maximise their opportunities to achieve English and maths qualifications. This includes offering a range of study opportunities including GCSE and Functional skills.”

Figures for City College Norwich reveal that 1,200 studied GCSE Maths and 1,150 took English. When asked why more were re-sitting the exam than the government policy required, a spokesperson said: “In many cases, GCSE English and maths are the correct qualifications for their intended destination as they are widely recognised and understood by employers and often a formal entry requirement of Higher Education providers.”

The Association of College’s senior policy manager, Catherine Sezen, said the reasons for entering students into the exams varied according to individual profiles: “For some, re-taking GCSE and improving your grade, even from a grade 2 to a grade 3, can be seen as a positive step in the right direction.

“For others, re-taking GCSE several times is regarded as a negative, demotivating experience.”

She said “the jury is out” on how appropriate Functional Skills specifications are in meeting students’ needs.

Cheshire College South and West was approached for comment.