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Resit policy sets students up to fail – we need a change - Alex Warner

15 December 2022

Alex Warner, Principal: Curriculum Innovation and Pedagogy at MK College Group

It is a failure and frankly a tragedy that almost a third of our young people do not achieve a grade 4 “pass” (old money, grade C) at GCSE in English and maths. What’s worse, for those regarded as “disadvantaged”, the odds are even more stacked against them, with three-fifths not achieving this grade 4+ standard. The subjects are the bedrock of education. According to research into census returns by the Office for National Statistics, they are crucial to employment, good health and even life expectancy. People who struggle with them are more likely to feel disengaged and less well-served by the democratic process, and they are disproportionately represented in the courts and prisons. It is not hyperbole to say that “failure” in these subjects is life-changing.

Off the back of comparatively strong results (but definitely not strong enough) in these subjects, Milton Keynes College Group has been awarded a million pound grant by the Department for Education to try to address this unsustainable situation. We’re organising a network of forty FE Colleges across the South East, London, the East of England and the East Midlands. The intention is for everyone to share best practice so we can all replicate what works and avoid experimenting with what doesn’t. One of the reasons we’ve been fortunate enough to be awarded the grant is because of our experience in the prison education sector, where we already operate a similar model of sharing ideas and techniques across nineteen prisons.

We’re starting from the position that’s it’s time for a bit of honesty across the education system here. When young people come to FE colleges for GCSE resits, they have had twelve years of teaching in schools to reach that point. We then have approximately thirty-three weeks to help them attain a level of proficiency in these subjects to which those dozen years of teaching and learning had not brought them. What’s more, the level of funding for those students is significantly lower than it was at school. It would be very helpful to know why that is.

How can it possibly make sense that when students have not managed to reach a particular level of comprehension and application in school, that improvement is expected with fewer resources in significantly shorter time at college? The condition of funding and resits have had moderate success, but the reality is that the young people and the colleges are being set up to fail under the present arrangements. The fact that we manage to help so many improve their grades is a tribute to their efforts and especially those of the staff who support them. At Milton Keynes this last exam cycle we managed to help 810 students improve on their maths and English out of 1500 who came to us to retake. It’s well above the national average and the figures are even better when it comes to adults with 66.7 per cent being awarded grade 4+ high grades in English and 57.6 per cent doing so in maths. We want to celebrate that success, but it many ways, it still feels like failure.

On which basis – and here’s how the money will be spent - we want to create the Greater Than > Network. Believing that very few great ideas are entirely original, we’ve been inspired by the #teamEnglish and #teammaths collaborations to be found on social media and we want to involve as many successful resit teachers of each subject as we can. We will fund from the grant a comprehensive and fully supported Microsoft Teams site and provide a stipend for teachers and colleges in the network to not only share their knowledge, but to facilitate engagement with others and to spread the word among other colleagues. We’d like to get #teamEnglishresit and #teammathsresit going. Teachers really can be brilliant collaborators and there’s so much we can learn from and teach each other.

Will it work? Well, we’ll do all we can to prove impact. It can only help, and the truth is we must do something to give young people the opportunity to maximise their life chances, and not have them limited by lack of achievement in these two subject areas.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.