GCSEs: We need a better plan for English and maths

Our report, Youth Jobs Gap: The impact of English and maths, suggests young people are more likely to go to gain a degree and less likely to end up not in employment, education or training (NEET) if they have GCSEs in English and maths, than they are if they have five GCSEs in other subjects.

The research compares a group of young people who have achieved at least a C at GCSE in both English and maths by age 16 – but who do not have five or more GCSEs at these grades (the English and maths group), with a group of young people who have achieved at least five C grades at GCSE by age 16 – but who do not have either English or maths, or both (the five passes group).

Below the report's author, Ben Gadsby, explains why colleges need more support to help young people pass their GCSEs in English and maths.

Sometimes, I feel like I am the last person left standing banging the drum in favour of young people resitting GCSEs in English and maths if they don’t succeed at school.

It’s not because I am some form of sadistic monster who wants to torture teenagers.

I remember when “five GCSEs” was considered the benchmark of success at 16. In fact, my friends and I were the first cohort to sit GCSEs in schools that were being judged on “five GCSEs including English and maths”. But it turns out that “five GCSEs” isn’t a helpful benchmark.

Worse outcomes

In fact, young people with only “five GCSEs” that don't include English and maths have worse outcomes than young people who pass fewer than five GCSEs, but do pass English and maths.

Using the government’s LEO dataset, we’re able to compare the long-term outcomes for these two very similar groups of young people. With English and maths you’re less likely to be NEET and more likely to end up at university.

This matters - a lot. This is the latest piece of evidence showing the importance of those crucial C grades (now grade 4) at GCSE.

It builds on previous research, such as the paper from the Centre for Vocational Education Research showing that missing out on these grades by a single mark has a negative impact on your life chances.

Given we know how important these subjects are, why do we not do more to make sure all young people get them?

Colleges are not blameless in this – I have a qualified criticism, if you’ll pardon the pun. Colleges get one or two years to deliver what a school didn’t do in five; while for political reasons, post-16 funding has fallen even when schools funding has largely been protected.

But I don’t think the post-16 sector is right to campaign for resit requirements to be dropped.

Do employers prefer functional skills?

Why do we have a #FullyFunctional campaign and not a #FullyQualified campaign? Some young people are told that “employers prefer functional skills” – but I’m not sure there is much evidence for this.

I think it’s very telling that there isn’t a campaign to get functional skills treated as a GCSE equivalent for all young people in schools.

What’s really needed is a campaign for proper support to give every young person who needs it a proper second chance.

Why do we not have a Teach First for getting great English and maths teachers into FE? Teach First manages it for early years, primary schools, and secondary schools, and similar schemes exist for prison officers, the police and social work, all backed by government money. Why are resit students being overlooked?

Why do we not have more tutoring interventions in colleges? If you’re in alternative provision, you might get tutoring from a charity like The Tutor Trust (founded 2011). If you’re in primary or secondary school, you might get tutoring through a charity like Action Tutoring (also 2011).

If you’re in college and on track for a place at a good university, you might get tutoring through a charity like The Access Project (2008).

If you need to resit your GCSEs, the equivalent charity is called Get Further and they are less than two years old. Why are resit students being overlooked?

The will to succeed

Why is there so much more comment from the 16-19 sector about the difficulties of GCSE resits, than the solutions needed to make it work?

The three long-standing charities listed above show that with the right support, every young person can succeed. That’s why Impetus funds them.

Early results from Get Further also show promise. We can see success in post-16 for GCSE resit students too.

Now more than ever, colleges need more support to make this work. This September, the sector will enrol thousands of students who didn’t get a chance to sit their GCSE exam because of covid-19.

They could be sitting an exam in the autumn having left school in March.

This does not intuitively feel like a recipe for success, and colleges will be dealing with the consequences.

Now more than ever, we need to do more to support colleges to succeed with GCSE students. Now more the ever, resit students cannot be treated as second best.

This article originally appeared as a guest blog for TES.

Ben Gadsby is Head of Policy and Research at Impetus.

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