This election must spell the end of the blunt GCSE resit

The sector must rally to force a rethink on a policy that simply doesn’t meet the country’s needs, let alone young people’s

The sector must rally to force a rethink on a policy that simply doesn’t meet the country’s needs, let alone young people’s

16 Jun 2024, 5:00

With general election fever in full flow and the rebuilding of Britain hanging by a thread, we are at a moment of national reckoning. Now more than ever, further education must step into action.

I’ve spent a lifetime in the sector: first as a teacher of English, communication and general studies, then as a curriculum leader, a faculty head and a college director. For the past twenty years, I’ve been contributing as a writer and consultant over a range of publicly funded national programmes.

Most recently I worked as one of two lead associates on a training/mentoring series commissioned and funded by the Department for Education for teachers preparing students for GCSE resits in English.

This programme was set up in the face of anxious cries from many who maintained that forcing so many students into this very precise qualification was counter-productive and a major contributor to student drop-out. There were also, simply, too many failures.

As a consultant, I am always learning. What I learned here (or rather had spectacularly reinforced) was this:

  1. GCSE was devised as a culmination of the school national curriculum, not as the general ‘gold standard’ qualification it now tries to be.
  2. Students who miss achieving GCSE grade 4 or above by the end of school do so for many, diverse and well-documented reasons.
  3. Most students who fail carry with them a profound sense of inadequacy and assiduously avoid the humiliation of further study in that area.
  4. For students who fail, development in English largely plateaus.
  5. To help students gain grade 4 or above at GCSE, we must first enable them to believe they can succeed; second, give them the stepping stones to succeed; third, let them into the secrets of success that have so far eluded them; and finally, embrace them into a world of achievement in which they can be acknowledged and know self-worth. 

The tendency for teachers preparing their students for GCSE resits is (understandably) to scramble those few extra marks: play the exam game, prepare model answers and try past papers.

In the case of English, this will also include practising spelling and punctuation, learning to discern your inferred meaning from your hyperbole, and working your way through a nineteenth-century text.

What is the purpose of what we’re doing?

All this seems to be the practical approach. Indeed, students in significant enough numbers do eventually capture that elusive grade 4 and enter the world armed with a currency previously denied them.

The DfE are happy, the government ticks its boxes, the students may or may not exhibit reliable English skills, and the world stumbles on.

However, teachers on my resit training programme had questions: What about the ones who don’t pass the resit? How do we get them to try again and again? How do we persuade them to stay in the exam room and not make a run for it (as many do)? How do we raise their level in so few hours when this didn’t happen in eleven years at school?

A final, ominous question really cuts to the quick because it sends up back to our first principles: what is the purpose of what we’re doing?

FE students are a goldmine. They are or will become our workforce and our citizens. Our duty to them is to empower them, cultivate their self-esteem and help them to take ownership of their own achievable learning agenda.

A just-past-the-post qualification doesn’t do that.

If we want students who are energised, learning and growing their English by the day, then we can’t keep letting qualification targets demotivate or belittle them. We must value all comers and inspire them with purpose.

So, though some may gain GCSE qualifications – or Functional Skills or Skills for Life – others will not. We must place diversity at the heart of our educational system and not impose an over-simplistic idea of what works.

This is the time. This is the moment. FE must take stock. Our country needs us to ensure the next government rethinks the current model – starting from first principles.

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