The GCSE resits policy continues to be controversial, but it’s really a matter of emphasis, writes Bill Jones. To prioritise their students, colleges should focus on progress rather than pass/fail measures

Back in 2015, government introduced a policy that required colleges to support students who’d narrowly missed out on GCSE grade 4 in maths or English to continue with those subjects or risk funding. That policy was controversial, and continues to affect the sector, but in the face of some baffling criticism, Luminate Education Group decided to plough its own furrow. 

Instead of acquiescing that our students would be caught in a cruel cycle of re-sits, or lowering our bar by releasing those who’d narrowly missed out on a grade 4 to study the functional skills instead, we insisted that even those who’d achieved a level 2 (over 2500 or over 40% of our 16-18 year-old students) should pursue the GCSE in maths and/or English.

That decision was led by two key factors. First, judging by its low national pass rate at levels 1 and 2, the functional skills qualification is difficult for many students to achieve. It is not the soft option it is portrayed as. Furthermore, it isn’t recognised by many employers or valued by many students themselves.

The allure of GCSEs, rightly or wrongly, is that they are a much better passport to well-paid, secure employment and higher education for our students. Securing that advantage for as many of our students as possible is essential if we are to be the vehicle of social mobility that the further education sector proudly claims to be.

We’ve worked on a ‘grow-your-own’ pipeline of future teachers

Many of our students come from very deprived backgrounds. Over 50 per cent are from the lowest decile on the index of multiple deprivation. Many are highly able and very motivated but have underachieved for diverse reasons. Unsurprisingly, many have low levels of confidence and poor self-esteem. They are capable of so much more than their GCSE grades suggest and we are convinced that changing mindsets around a crude pass or fail distinction can benefit them hugely.

Focusing on progress rather than pass rates takes the pressure off students and allows them to focus on the skills and subjects that they need more development in. We provide coaching and confidence-building activities alongside the more conventional English and maths input.

It isn’t without its challenges. Like many colleges, we struggle to recruit and retain English and maths teachers who have the skills and qualities to work with the sheer number of students with complex and diverse needs on our rolls, some of whom can exhibit challenging behaviours. In response, we’ve worked on a ‘grow-your-own’ pipeline of future teachers and coaches who learn their craft alongside fully qualified and experienced peers, overseen by some truly marvellous advanced practitioners and managers. This is beginning to bear fruit.  

Our English progress scores have increased from -0.45 in 2016 to +0.14 in 2019, a move from Quartile 4 to 1 in three years. Maths progress scores have increased from -0.51 in 2016 to -0.10 in 2019, a move from Quartile 4 to 2. We are delighted with the results, but we know we can develop and improve the model so much more. As with our students, so with us. It’s not about passing or failing an external test, but about the progress we make and continue to make.

As an organisation, we are determined to increase still further the proportion of those who narrowly missed out at school who go on to achieve a grade 4 or higher. In the end, all this progress means that many students will continue on the trajectory they are now set on and eventually achieve grade 4, opening up more opportunities for their futures. 

We are convinced that our approach is a good one. It is by far the best way to keep our expectations high for all of our students and to demonstrate our belief in their potential. At least, that will remain true until government policy changes and there are better options than a binary choice between GCSEs and functional skills.