Teenagers who fail to achieve a C grade or better in GCSE English and Maths will have to continue to study the subjects, the government has announced.
The rule change means that 16-year-olds who fail to achieve a good pass in the two core subjects will have to make moves towards re-sitting the exams at a later date, if they continue at school or join a sixth form college.
Education secretary Michael Gove said: “Good qualifications in English and Maths are what employers demand before all others. They are, quite simply, the most important vocational skills a young person can have. Young people must be able to demonstrate their understanding of these subjects.”
It seems that our government has not fully grasped the scope and magnitude of the problem.
People learn at different rates, and have different abilities and skills. If we look at mainstream Maths school children, for example, we see that by the time students are 16 years old the equivalent of a five year range of ability and achievement is broadly established. Some students will have reached a standard that exceeds expectations, but at the same time some will be far below that. The least able students will only have reached a skill level roughly equivalent to that of average 11 year olds (discounting students with severe learning difficulties).
For the less successful students it is a tall order to progress through the equivalent of five years in just two short years of sixth form, particularly with the pressure of other classes as well. It is not surprising that sixth form re-sit classes in Maths are notorious for bad exam results. In fact, because results are usually so poor, many teachers don’t like taking these classes, and a fair number of sixth forms don’t even offer them. Obviously that has now got to change because of the government directive.
To many students re-sitting a subject, it is simply an “add on” to whatever they are “really” studying, something they “have to do”, because of parental or now even government pressure. It is also often something they loathe to have to do. They have experienced feelings of failure and inadequacy for years in their Maths lessons, and now they have another one foisted upon them.
Sixth form classes, unlike classes of younger years, generally have few discipline problems, because students WANT to be there, and enjoy the subject. Sixth form re-sit Maths classes are a notable exception to this. Often they are overcrowded and full of students resenting being there. In addition, they are often given to inexperienced teachers, because the results are not counted towards the school statistics and they can be used as “practice”. In fact, they actually need really skilled teachers who can genuinely inspire young people.
In order to make the re-sit provision at sixth forms, more is needed than merely providing a timetable and teacher, but unfortunately that is most likely all any school or college can muster at present.
This gradually growing gap in achievement in Maths needs to be narrowed. Much has been done in primary schools to address the issue, and by now the range of mathematical ability in children joining a secondary school is considerably less than it was ten years ago. Unfortunately, the gap redevelops further in secondary schools, and by the time kids are in year 11, you will have a set of students working at National curriculum level 3 to 5, as well as another at level 9 and above.
To put all this into context, a grade C is roughly equivalent to a level 7. So if a student took 11 years to get to level 4, they are hardly likely to progress three whole levels in two years, which would be more than double the rate of learning displayed previously. Such a student simply needs more time.
In truth, sixth form re-sit classes are only offering a reasonable success rate to students with a level 6 at the start, (grade D), less so with a level 5 (grade E).
Ideally it would be better to provide additional support and further lessons to students struggling with Maths earlier in their school career, but that is not always possible because of staffing and timetable constraints.
Bearing all this in mind, it should be evident that there is no simple solution or quick fix available here.