All parties must commit to keeping the GCSE resit policy

Middle-class commentators don’t understand it. University professors can’t explain it. But the resit policy is a vital lifeline for ‘other people’s children’

Middle-class commentators don’t understand it. University professors can’t explain it. But the resit policy is a vital lifeline for ‘other people’s children’

29 May 2024, 5:00

I have an unhealthy relationship with the GCSE resit policy.

I was head of English in a large college in the early years of the Condition of Funding, leading a steep trajectory of improvement. This ultimately led to me helming both the policy and its major workforce programme for the Department for Education. For most of a decade, it has been a mania.

I’ve tried to go cold turkey and I’ve tried resits-free policy cordial. But I can’t help myself. Because the policy is the most important moral and pedagogical battleground in any phase of education.

Resits are the crucible in which we show that great teaching can genuinely make a life-changing difference at a scale of 300,000 young people per year, with externally-assessed exams that at least help to level the playing field a little, and outcomes that quite literally correlate with life expectancy.

The moral case is unassailable.

We know that the disadvantage gap at 16 is an injustice. Outcomes are influenced far too much by privilege, with those achieving below a GCSE grade 4 being disproportionately from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds.

Unless anyone is a subscriber to a nasty form of eugenics, we need to understand that “these students” (as they are too-often termed) have just as much potential as their better-off peers, only less opportunity.

It’s not a distant leap from there to see that whether or not we provide the equity of classroom time, extra tuition and expert training for teachers is a measure of our commitment to social justice.

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee recently described this safety net as ‘ritual sacrifice’, calling for a future Labour government to end “tormenting so many-16 year-olds” and advocating for a “basic” qualification instead. A reminder; we are talking about a group of young people who are disproportionately likely to have been on free school meals.

These young people simply have more unrealised potential

There is a danger, when the daughter of a literary critic advocates for something not-quite-the-same-as-the-English-and-maths-all-the-middle-class-children-will-be-getting, that it can sound a little bit like class prejudice. Especially when you can’t help imagining the dinner-party conversation that probably spat this idea out, far removed from classrooms of hard-working teachers and their students.

“Can’t they just do Duolingo? That worked wonders for my eco tour of Micronesia.”

Days after Toynbee’s column, the DfE published remarkable data (facts, if you will) which the Guardian has not so far covered, although perhaps nobody is shouting loudly enough about the incredible and inspiring job FE colleges are doing.

Levels of achievement in English and maths by age 19 are the highest they have ever been, with 16-19 progression significantly higher than before the policy.

But more importantly, among those resitting while in 16-19, the proportion of disadvantaged students attaining was higher than for non-disadvantaged.

The same counter-intuitive effect was observed in the randomised controlled trial of mastery teaching conducted as part of the DfE’s Centres for Excellence in Maths (CfEM, and for transparency, I was the project director in its latter years): Students taught with the mastery lessons averaged higher scores in their GCSE mark, but the effect for disadvantaged students was greater.

Professor Geoff Wake at University of Nottingham, DfE’s partner on CfEM, has written on this. He poses the question to himself as to why the disadvantaged students perform better. His answer: “Well, we don’t know.”

But he goes on to speculate about it being the effect of what sounds like ‘discovery’ learning; “without teacher instructions and assistance”. That would seem in tension with the mastery pedagogy I assume the Department thought it was paying for, and doesn’t explain why it would have more impact on disadvantaged students.

I am not a university professor, but I have had hands-on experience raising disadvantaged measures above the national average for non-disadvantaged, so perhaps that’s why it seems obvious to me. These young people simply have more unrealised potential than their advantaged peers.

I hope that, in this election, all political parties will commit to protecting, and continuing to support, a policy that is unpopular at middle-class dinner parties, but which is vital for other people’s children.

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3 Comments

  1. Alan Nicholl

    This is a complete misrepresentation of what Polly Toynbee actually wrote in her article. I hope the author teaches his students to read more accurately, and honestly, than he does himself.

  2. Steve Hewitt

    I realise this is polemic, which I’m not against, and I’m no fan of Ms Toynbee, BUT it seems to me that it’s tied to an extremely narrow view of “education” where GCSEs are a good thing, rather than an outmoded, unnecessary and badly designed roadblock for *all* 16 year olds. When virtually every 16 year old continues in education, why are we wasting a year of their lives teaching to a high stakes pass/fail test that will be effectively meaningless once they enter the world of work? Serious reform of key stage 4 as a conduit to further learning is what we should be urging the parties to consider, not “this is all we’ve known, it must be right”, even as the Govian reforms continue to massively disadvantage whole swathes of learners for whom exam assessment is not the best way for them to show what they know…

  3. Suzanne Lownsbrough

    To what extent does the content learned and examined in GCSE maths and English meet the needs of the students or their prospective employers. The syllabus for both subjects needs a complete overhaul making both qualifications fit for purpose.