GCSE grade changes and a policy rethink?
Does a slight lowering of the bar on the GCSE pass requirements for maths and English hint at a future policy U-turn on forced resits for 16- to 18-year-olds gaining the next grade below pass? I do hope so.
This summer the Government is testing the new GCSE grades from 9 (equivalent to A*) down to 1 in maths and English. Now, if you gain the new level 4 (deemed a standard pass), you do not need to resit even though the higher level 5 is the same as the old grade C standard pass.
But for those who fail, the question is this: does repeatedly forcing, say, an engineering apprentice to continue to study a writer like Jane Austen as part of a compulsory English resit until they pass make the best use of anyone’s time?
I’m fiercely committed to the idea of everyone getting properly skilled up in maths and English but not via GCSEs. I know many examiners police the resits system through gritted teeth as it’s pretty appalling.
The creep, creep of demoralisation
Teachers, however, still have to help students pass. And if students’ exam skills are poor, they’ll be beating their head against a brick wall and get increasingly demoralised as they continue to have to resit. The same goes for teachers in their attempts to help students pass.
EmpIoyers differ widely over whether formal qualifications in maths or English give them what they need in the workplace. Some argue “if it was good enough for me …” Others say the Government should do what works – and the current system patently doesn’t – and they are much happier with the idea of students gaining maths and English functional skills. These are practical qualifications that equip them for life and the daily demands of the workplace but still only open to students failing GCSE maths and English by more than one grade .
However, all agree they need an able workforce with vocational skills, the ability to communicate, handling numbers etc.
See-saw role of coursework
They argue fiercely about how you measure that in qualification terms and how you skill up people. Up to 2013, coursework played a considerable role in GCSEs. Then enter ‘back to the future' Michael Gove, compulsory Shakespeare, the reintroduction of end-of-course exams only – and, worse still, compulsory resits.
Where’s all this going? Sadly, collateral damage occurs whenever reforms are introduced. Until the pendulum swings, we have to chip away at this retro approach to qualifications that is so heavily biased against whole groups of students, particularly those on vocational rather than academic courses.
Giving context to learning
When, say, you see a group full of bricklayers being forced to study a 19th-century author, imagine the psychological damage being inflicted on most students’ willingness to undertake any sort of learning for the rest of their lives and the consequences of that.
I’ve just read about a new bricklaying machine that can lay perfect brick courses and work four times faster than a human. Without a readiness to learn new skills, what will their lives, their children’s and their grandchildren’s lives be like when they are permanently on the dole and then, when dole is taken away, they have to struggle to survive?
We simply don’t want bricklayers finishing training now with a strong feeling in their gut that says ‘learning’s not for me, the exam system tells me I’m thick’.
So what are the answers? One approach that may prove key is making better use of contextualisation – moving the bar as far as we can to make what young people study in maths and English relevant to their whole life, particularly in the workplace. Teachers have always done it but this is about doing it more often and better.
Another powerful approach is to ask those who don’t just struggle with maths and English but question the basic reason for learning: “How would you like to operate as a parent? Would you like to help your kids read and write?” Suddenly they get that 9,000-watt lightbulb moment – most people want to be ‘good’ and the best parent they can be.
Back in the '80s I taught at a college that got lauded for its concentrated effort to achieve a resit pass rate of 30% (national average 14-15%) out of all student starters. According to Education Datalab figures, in August 2016 the total resit pass rate for 17-year-olds was just 29.5% (maths) and 26.9% (English), based not on starters but purely on numbers making it to the exam hall. Need I say more?
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