Policy Exchange’s ‘resit levy’ will rob Peter to pay Paul

Policy Exchange’s “Crossing the Line” report explores “improving success rates among students retaking English and Maths GCSEs” and is a welcome acknowledgement of the funding difficulties faced in the further education (FE) sector, but presents a deeply problematic solution in a “per pupil levy” for schools where students fail to achieve a grade C.

At BSix we are proud of, and committed to, our comprehensive ethos, and for us this means enrolling a wide range of students, whether they have achieved “well” at school or not.

We have large numbers of students resitting maths and English; and we feel the funding implications keenly.

The high stakes nature of GCSEs, in particular for maths and English GCSE, for schools and headteachers means extensive intervention work and support has already been given to any student at risk of not achieving. These kids have already had everything thrown at them; retaking is not as simple as doing a few more lessons and getting their head down.

They often have very low previous attainment, and deep-seated beliefs about their own ability in these core subjects.

Given this context, it was refreshing to read a report which acknowledges the difficulty recent legislation has created for FE.

Some of the strategies the report highlights may be useful for 16-19 providers, although it is unlikely they have suggested anything most colleges have not already thought of: the report suggests the most effective providers are those which create “dedicated space and resources for GCSE retakes” – not particularly revolutionary, but perhaps a helpful starting point.

Where the report does suggest something new is in answer to how such dedicated space can be funded. They suggest a “per pupil levy on a ‘home’ secondary school to cover the costs of some or all students who then transfer from the school to continue to study in FE and need to retake their GCSEs.”

The report makes the argument that the compulsory resit policy places a large burden on FE colleges, who already face funding difficulties, and it is unfair for this burden to fall solely on them. I wholeheartedly agree.

A levy may solve one problem, but it will cause huge problems elsewhere

However the suggestion of a levy, paid by schools in direct proportion to the number of pupils who fail to achieve a grade C, is not “fair” either: it’s not fair to the schools who are struggling to get pupils to pass GCSEs, and it’s definitely not fair to the pupils in later cohorts in those schools.

Schools with fewer pupils passing GCSE maths and English are likely to be struggling. In fact, the report suggests a “Progress 8 Safeguard” to protect schools where students make good progress but do not achieve the magic C grade.

Therefore the schools that will pay the levy will only be those that are struggling – good schools are protected. It seems obvious, but apparently needs pointing out to Policy Exchange, that these schools are not the ones who can afford to lose funding.

A set of poor GCSE results is a time of crisis for a school, when they need to evaluate their provision carefully and closely, and plan for a quick turnaround to deliver better outcomes for their next cohort.

This policy reduces their funding at this crucial stage, meaning they have less money to implement strategies and interventions that will improve things for their pupils.

It may lead to “improving success rates amongst students retaking English and maths”, but what about success rates in the schools who have paid the levy? They will be hit by a financial penalty that will reduce their ability to address the issues that led to the problem in the first place.

The report is right to highlight the funding challenges implicit in the changes to legislation around retakes, and with the current Government in power we cannot simply cry for more money.

However, while a levy may solve this particular problem, it will cause huge other ones elsewhere, and I simply cannot believe there is not a smarter solution.

I also cannot believe the report doesn’t even acknowledge this as a potential problem: it’s not clear whether they thought of it, but considered it unworthy of comment, or failed to appreciate this implication for already struggling schools?

The report says Policy Exchange is undertaking wider work around how to ensure financial sustainability of the FE sector. Hopefully that work will put forward some alternative suggestions, where Peter is not robbed to pay Paul.

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