Four in ten 16-year-olds did not achieve good passes in their GCSE English and maths last year. Most of them must continue studying English and maths during their 16-to-18 education as part of the resit policy. Yet despite the volume of students affected by this policy, we still know surprisingly little about how effective it is at improving outcomes and addressing inequalities.
Continued study of English and maths makes sense. Literacy and numeracy strongly correlate with later outcomes like wages, health and life satisfaction. Providing further opportunities to develop these skills during the 16-to-18 phase is imperative, especially for students who are struggling at the end of their GCSEs and have had fewer opportunities growing up.
The recently announced Advanced British Standard (ABS) places great emphasis on strengthening these skills, with all students required to take English and maths until they are 18. However, what the ABS will mean for students not achieving a good pass at 16 remains uncertain and is a key topic in the ABS consultation document.
Currently, what should be a positive opportunity to develop worthwhile skills has been variously described as ‘endless resit failure”, a ‘demoralising resit cycle’ and a ‘dispiriting cycle of resits’. But an upcoming election and discussions around the ABS present a real opportunity to ambitiously redefine our approach for these learners.
To help inform the debate, we did a brief analysis of resit students’ entries and performance using publicly-available DfE data.
We found that an overwhelming majority enrol in GCSE resits (80-85 per cent), even though this is only a requirement for those who score a grade 3 in their GCSE exams. Alternatives like functional skills qualifications (FSQs) barely get a look in. This is driven by a range of factors, including brand recognition, staffing shortages, funding implications and criticisms around the reformed FSQs.
However, achievement levels in GCSE resits are low. In 2022/23, only one-quarter of students passed their English GCSE resit and fewer than one in six passed their maths resit. Disadvantaged students and those with special education needs fare particularly badly, being 30 to 40 per cent less likely to pass on average. Alternative level 2 qualifications (mostly FSQs) have pass rates that are around four times larger, and the disadvantage gaps are much smaller.
When we look at the difference between grades achieved at 16 and grades achieved during 16-18 education, there are trends of extremely low progress on average and negative progress scores for disadvantaged students and students with SEN. This implies that our most vulnerable learners, who are in most need of support, are ostensibly going backwards under the resit policy (though, of course, they don’t lose their original GCSE grade).
The majority do not make progress, and those who do are overwhelmingly students with higher prior attainment and lower levels of disadvantage. Clearly, the current policy is not working.
One possible solution is to develop new programmes that focus on developing the core literacy and numeracy skills young people need. This could involve combining approaches from GCSEs and FSQs as well as weaving in new material and teaching methods.
These programmes should be designed to avoid the stigma associated with less academic/more functional alternatives to GCSEs. We know many students take GCSEs because they are better recognised and hold greater value with stakeholders, including parents and employers.
We could achieve this by replacing existing options with level 2 maths and English qualifications that can be taken with either an academic or functional focus, but both branded as ABS modules. This would allow students to take a programme of study that best aligns with their needs and aspirations while reducing the sharp distinction between academic and technical qualifications that currently exists.
We are at a crossroads. The ABS and surrounding policy discussions offer us a chance to provide much greater opportunities to students who are currently required to resit. We cannot let this opportunity slip to ensure every learner can progress towards the numeracy and literacy skills they need.