The post-16 retake challenge

I think it is a reasonable aspiration that 16-18 year olds who haven’t achieved a threshold standard in English and Maths should continue to study both subjects in some form as part of their programme of study post-16. If possible, students should aim to achieve a GCSE grade C, or the proposed new grade 5, in both subjects by the time they complete their post-16 education.

I also understand the call for alternative English and Maths qualifications post-16 but would only support these if they have absolute parity with GCSE. There should certainly be better ‘stepping stone’ qualifications for those students who have some way to go before achieving a grade C but this does not mean settling for a second rate, watered-down version of the accepted threshold. The notion of ‘functional skill’ in literacy and numeracy may be a useful baseline concept but I don’t think we should accept this limited aspiration as the sum total of the English and Maths which we expect young citizens to have mastered by 18.

So this leaves us with a system which requires that large numbers of sixth formers retake their GCSE English and Maths post-16 and which expects their sixth forms to help turn ‘failure’ at 16 into success at 17 or 18. It’s hardly surprising that we find it difficult to get anything like the pass rates one year on with students who couldn’t achieve a grade C at 16 despite all the targeted support and coaching provided at school.

For those sixth forms with hundreds of ‘D grade’ students, a high proportion of the cohort will inevitably be close to the C/D borderline and small shifts in the C/D grade boundary can make a massive difference to pass rates. These can ‘yo-yo’ between years despite stable and high quality specialist teaching. The sheer size of the cohort affected means that these results weigh heavily when Ofsted make their judgements; as many colleges have already found to their cost.

Needless to say, none of this applies to those selective sixth forms who only enrol students who have already crossed this threshold. They can leave the ‘mop-up’ job to someone else and can therefore evade any of the criticism for low retake pass rates.

This adds up to a major challenge for sixth form providers, particularly the more comprehensive or inclusive ones who find themselves at the sharp end of the problem. If we are to take on the responsibility for helping more students cross the English and Maths threshold we will need the system to help us rather than being stacked against us. This is a national challenge which requires a national strategy as well as local partnership.

So instead of berating us for poor results what more could be done to address this challenge?

An effective strategy could start with a number of elements:

  1. Recognise that GCSE English and Maths are different from other GCSEs: As the only specific qualifications which all 16-18 year olds are expected to aim for, they are in a special category which need to be monitored and reported differently.
  2. Measure success and progress cumulatively as a proportion of the whole cohort, not of entries overall: Rather than blaming post-16 providers for low pass rates we should be celebrating every increase in the proportion of an age cohort which has met the standard; including after retakes. Gary Jones set the ball rolling here with his very revealing analysis of the success rates of GCSE English re-takers. He suggests that under the new system overall retake pass rates in any one year are unlikely to ever exceed 30%. He has also analysed GCSE Maths retakes, reaching similar conclusions here.
  3. Provide reassurance that GCSE English and Maths grades are absolutely criterion referenced: If a grade C or 5 is a realistic key threshold, it should represent a consistent standard of achievement from year to year; giving everyone confidence that all students with this grade have certain skills and can tackle certain problems. It means dispensing with any norm-referenced practices which assume the same proportion of candidates will pass or fail an exam each year. Such practices make no sense when so many entries will be re-takers.
  4. Consider developing a more modular or unitised GCSE model for English and Maths where partial success and ‘stepping stone’ achievement can be banked, celebrated and built on, both at 16 and beyond. This would allow all candidates, most particularly demoralised ‘D graders’ to build on their success.
  5. Require all schools and colleges to work together on the teaching of English and Maths from 5 to 18 across their area, emphasising that this is a shared responsibility. A more focused joined-up approach could help teachers share what works well, understand how colleagues at different stages develop students’ knowledge and skill and track individual student progress. Such collaboration could lead to new kinds of early intervention rather than simply relying on a remedial rush at Key Stage 4 or beyond.

One proposal which won’t take us forward is that recently made by the Policy Exchange think-tank here. They have shone a welcome light on the lack of funding for post-16 programmes, including for GCSE retakes. However, their prescription would put a price on failure in GCSE English and Maths at Year 11, penalise schools and transfer the resource to sixth forms. This has rightly been described by Sarah Jones from BSix Sixth Form College here as ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’. This is a market solution which seeks to impose financial penalties for failure in the hope of incentivising success. I doubt if there is a single secondary school in the country which is not highly focused on raising GCSE English and Maths pass rates. The threat of financial penalty is unlikely to sharpen that focus. If pass rates are to rise, this will be achieved by pedagogic and educational means – not by impoverishing schools.

Debra Kidd has also written an excellent post on this issue which makes this case and concludes by arguing for less external assessment at GCSE level or even the abolition of GCSE.

The challenge of raising achievement in English and Maths across the full age cohort is one we must all share. It won’t be easy and the debate needs to continue.

See also:

Results day: best of days, worst of days (August 2015)

GCSE English re-sits in post-16 education: what results can we expect? (Gary Jones 29th January 2015)

GCSE Maths re-sits in post-16 education: what results can we expect?  (Gary Jones 10th r2015)

All stick and no carrot (Debra Kidd – 25th August 2015)

Policy Exchange’s ‘re-sit levy’ robs Peter to pay Paul (Sarah Jones – 26th August 2015)

exam hall 2

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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1 Response to The post-16 retake challenge

  1. Nigel Newton says:

    Eddie, this is a really well thought plan. I hope, for the sake of FE and Sixth Form Colleges, that your proposals are taken seriously.

    From my perspective, there also needs to be a stronger focus on developing learning-to-learn dispositions. The research from ELLI (Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory), developed at the University of Bristol, showed that pupils’ learning motivation decreased throughout secondary school. Students who failed to achieve grade Cs in English and/or Maths will arrive in colleges with rock bottom learning power.

    Colleges provide independence, choice and stacks of opportunities but can leave weak learners with little in the way of meaningful tutorial support. Each lecturer has their own approach and there rarely is a common language of learning.

    ELLI was developed to address these challenges and is being used worldwide in schools, HE and in the corporate sector. Now it needs to be taken up by colleges.


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