The government’s controversial policy on post-16 GCSE resits should be rethought, according to the author of a new government-commissioned review out today.

However, Professor Sir Adrian Smith’s plea was quickly rejected by the Department for Education.

Prof Smith made the recommendation in his long-awaited review of post-16 mathematics, first announced in the March 2016 budget, which looks at how to improve the study of the subject.

But the leading academic stopped short of recommending that everyone should continue to study the subject until the age of 18 – one of the key issues he was tasked to investigate – amid concerns over the lack of resources across the education system.

“In view of the low GCSE success rates and new GCSE requirements, the Department for Education should review its 16-to-18 resit policy with the aim that a greater proportion of students without a grade C or equivalent attain appropriate mathematical understanding by age 18,” he said.

“Specifically, there should be fresh consideration of appropriate curricula and qualifications for these students and the extent to which current policy incentivises these to be offered.”

In his response on behalf of the DfE, the schools minister Nick Gibb said he understood Prof Smith’s “concern” about the “need for high-quality alternative curricula and qualifications for students aged 16-18 for whom GCSEs are not appropriate”.

He continued: “We recognise the need to improve the quality and recognition from employers of alternative qualifications such as functional skills. This is why we are reforming these qualifications.”

However, “the current policy will stay in place in 2017/18”, he said, though he committed to monitoring it “to assess whether it is having the desired impact”.

Since 2014, all 16- to 19-year-olds without at least a grade C in GCSE maths or English have had to enrol in courses in these subjects alongside their main programme of study.

This requirement was tightened in 2015 to require all of those with a grade D in those subjects to sit a GCSE course, rather than an equivalent stepping-stone course such as functional skills.

But after last year’s GCSE results showed huge numbers of learners aged 17 and older failed to up their grades in resits, many in the sector called on the government to scrap the policy.

And the 2016 Ofsted annual report, published in December, said the resit policy was not working as the government had hoped.

There had even been hints from both education secretary Justine Greening and former skills minister Robert Halfon late last year that the government was going to U-turn on the policy, which have so far come to nothing.

The Smith review was first announced by former chancellor George Osborne as part of the March 2016 budget.

According to the accompanying documents, the government asked Prof Smith “to review the case for how to improve the study of maths from 16 to 18, to ensure the future workforce is skilled and competitive, including looking at the case and feasibility for more or all students continuing to study maths to 18, in the longer term”.

In his foreword to today’s report, Prof Smith said his “clear conclusion is that we do not yet have the appropriate range of pathways available or the capacity to deliver the required volume and range of teaching” for “most or all students” to continue studying maths until 18.

Instead he said the “government should set an ambition for 16-to-18 mathematics to become universal in 10 years.”

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers said of today’s report: “Maths is important for the whole population and it’s not being helped by a policy that leads to tens of thousands of young people retaking GCSEs.  

“Functional skills are a good alternative, but the government needs to fund them properly if it is genuine about the apprenticeship programme being a quality option for young people and adults.”

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said he was “disappointed” by the DfE’s “snap judgement” on Prof Smith’s resit rethink call, and urged the department to “reconsider this issue” ahead of 2018/19.

“After four years of putting students through GCSE resits, colleges can confirm that the policy does not work and is an obstacle to the ambition that we all share,” he said.

Other recommendations in the report include a call for the Institute for Apprenticeships to work with maths experts “to ensure appropriate expert advice is available to the panels of professionals developing technical routes”.

Prof Smith also urged the DfE to “reconsider the institutional incentives and disincentives arising from the 16-to-19 funding model for schools and colleges, with a view to removing disincentives for mathematics provision”.

In order to address the challenges facing the FE sector in terms of recruiting enough maths teachers, he wants the DfE to “improve the evidence base on the FE workforce teaching mathematics and quantitative skills in order to assess supply, teaching quality and the effectiveness of current recruitment measures” and “expand its support to develop excellence in GCSE mathematics teaching across the FE sector”.

As part of its response to the Smith review, the DfE today announced a £16 million level three maths support programme, starting from April 2018.

The programme, worth £8 million a year for two years, aims to improve the quality and capacity of post-16 maths teaching and to increase the number of students studying level three maths.

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