English and maths resits are crucial – but fewer should need them

A low pass rate for English and maths GCSEs – especially among disadvantaged pupils – is not an argument for reforming assessment but for improving outcomes

A low pass rate for English and maths GCSEs – especially among disadvantaged pupils – is not an argument for reforming assessment but for improving outcomes

31 Aug 2022, 17:30

Behind this week’s GCSE headlines, jubilant social media posts and relieved announcements on family WhatsApp groups is a different reality – that faced by all those young people who have not passed these exams, especially English and maths.

In fact, pass rates for these two GCSEs are only around 65 per cent nationally. Not only that, but young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are only half as likely to achieve these grades as their better-off peers, and pass rates drop further to a shocking 6.5 per cent for those in alternative provision. These figures illuminate a tremendous waste of potential that might permanently scar many a young person’s life chances.

Some will use that information to argue that our focus on English and maths is myopic and misguided. However, the evidence on the positive relationship between gaining these two qualifications and wider life chances is undeniable.

Our own research shows that young people with only five GCSEs excluding English and maths have worse outcomes than young people with fewer than five GCSEs including those subjects. The data tells a clear story: Young people without these GCSEs are less likely to go to university and more likely to face chronic unemployment – a very raw deal indeed, and one that is disproportionately faced by already disadvantaged pupils year after year.

So it’s right for the government to require young people who have not passed GCSE English or maths by age 16 to continue working towards these crucial qualifications in their post-16 education. But with pass rates at 65 per cent, we also have to accept that the current system is not working.

The good news is that not only is it clear where the problem lies but so too is the path forward. Two policy options stand out as having the capability to reduce this waste of potential and the high human cost that accompanies it: quality tutoring and stronger accountability on pupil premium spend.

Two policy options can reduce this tremendous waste of potential

Extensive evidence shows the positive impact of tutoring for pupils who have fallen behind. The Education Endowment Foundation found that small-group tuition brings four additional months’ progress on average over the course of a year. In 2021, 80 per cent of the disadvantaged  pupils supported by Action Tutoring (a charity Impetus has funded since 2014) achieved GCSE grade 4+ in English or maths – more than 10 percentage points higher than young people from disadvantaged backgrounds more widely.

Access to tutoring is often limited to the schools and parents who can afford it, and the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) was launched to address this disparity. Two years on, quality tutoring is still not available to every child who needs it. The Department for Education must now act to reform the NTP if it is truly committed to making the post-pandemic catch-up programme work as it was intended.

Meanwhile, pupil premium means schools with disadvantaged students receive the resources necessary to give those young people extra support. Post-pandemic, with learning loss concentrated among students from disadvantaged backgrounds and with average per-pupil funding in the most deprived fifth of schools falling in real terms, it is essential that every penny is targeted to improve the academic attainment of disadvantaged young people.

But to ensure that pupil premium is consistently going to where it is most needed, we need greater transparency about how schools spend these resources. This will not only increase school accountability but generate useful data on how best to help disadvantaged students in the future.

So, congratulations to the young people that passed their English and maths GCSES this summer, but it’s now time for us to relentlessly focus on the 35 per cent who didn’t, and the 35 per cent who likely won’t again next year without concerted action.

Ahead of every young person who does not receive English and maths GCSEs is a more difficult future. We owe it to our young people to ensure as many of them as possible receive this leg up, and widening access to tutoring and improving pupil premium accountability are key to meeting that obligation.

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  1. To make matters even worse, grades are unreliable, especially in English – to quote Ofqual’s Chief Regulator, exam grades “are reliable to one grade either way”. That means that a 3 might be a 4, or even a 5, or perhaps a 2 – no one knows which.

    To make that real. This year, about 25,000 GCSE English candidates ‘awarded’ grade 3 would have been given a 4 and (a few) a 5, had their scripts been marked by a senior examiner. 25,000 is the capacity of a medium-sized football ground – and about the same as the number of students at Oxford. These students have, erroneously, been dumped into the social dustbin of the ‘forgotten third’, without the right of appeal for a re-mark. Not because they didn’t work hard enough. Not because their teachers weren’t up to the job. But because Ofqual fail to deliver reliable and trustworthy grades.

    There are many other alarming numbers too – see, for example, https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2022/09/07/are-the-right-freshers-in-the-right-places/