The practicalities of making students study English to 18

More teachers will be needed to teach students who don’t really want to be there. . . and just as more budget cuts are about to hit further education. Why hasn’t someone thought this through?

After teaching English in secondary schools for 12 or so years, I began working as an FE lecturer in Warwickshire; but chose a tempestuous time to make my move.

Though my timetable consists mainly of A-level English teaching, I also have two GCSE English classes – one is an evening group and the other I affectionately, but slightly less imaginatively, call my “GCSE resitters”.

These students did not get a C grade their first time around. A policy introduced by the coalition government requires that for as long as they are in further education they must keep resitting until they hit the mark.

The reasons why they did not get a C vary. It could be because of poor attendance, lack of confidence, laziness or poor exam technique (missed a whole question – or worse, a whole section). In some cases it was poor teaching or wrong information given to them by their former schools.

This group has taught me a lot, and they are lessons worth sharing, given that Labour has pledged to force all young people to study maths and English to 18, and the other parties seem keen to encourage it.

You need a Kevlar-covered rhino hide to teach GCSE English resit students forced into classes

Teaching forced resitters is tough. After the first few lessons, I was wondering what I had done. Some days it seemed easier to take a snake on a lead for a walk.

When turning up to class they would bring bags of resentment and fear, often masked in behaviours such as class clowning, truculence and defiance. In some cases they voted with their feet and wouldn’t show up at all. If you thought you need a hide of a rhino to teach in secondary school, then you need a Kevlar-covered rhino hide to teach students forced into these classes.

Although I have relished the challenge and loved seeing my resitters move from truculent apathy to being (mostly) calm and studious, I suspect that recruiting for a GCSE resit class is not easy. Getting more people to teach English and maths to 18-year-olds won’t be easy either.

Secondary schools fall over themselves to recruit great maths and English teachers, offering a salary and teaching and learning responsiblity awards.

Colleges struggle to compete. Small school sixth forms also might struggle. Yes, yes, teaching is about more than the money – but we all have bills to pay so it would be foolish to deny the issue of pay.

It is also not uncommon in FE for teachers of level 1 English and maths courses to not be subject specialists. A fellow teacher is a case in point: he is an English specialist who is now teaching functional skills maths. This can work at entry level, but it will be difficult to achieve if every student must study until 18 as their abilities will vary so much.

Also, how can you recruit and retain the best specialist teachers with an ever dwindling budget? With a terrible sense of inevitability, it seems we are heading for a bottle-neck of increased numbers of students studying core subjects (English and maths) for longer, whilst FE faces budget cuts of about 25 per cent and schools face austere times, too.

The proposal to study English to 18 throws up more questions than it answers: If they have still not got their GCSE English at a grade C, will it be the GCSE course in perpetuity? If they have achieved their C, are we going to shunt them on to an AS English course, or will there be alternatives offered by QCA and the exam boards?

For those who want to keep studying English, is there room for them to pursue their own interests in some way? Will employers and industry play a role in deciding what will be taught? Where will the money come from to fund the extra teachers? Will school sixth forms and FE colleges be able to collaborate or will we be set against each other?

And the final question must be, has anyone actually thought about the practicalities – for colleges, teachers and students – of making students study English to 18?

Gwen Nelson is a former secondary teacher and now an FE lecturer

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  1. Tim Delaney

    The AQA L1/2 certificate in English Language (modelled on, and often called, the IGCSE) answered many of these problems, students still sit a comprehension plus composition type examination similar to GCSE bug for 50% of the marks they have to research, write and also present orally a lengthy discursive essay on a topic of their choice. This requires them to develop valuable skills that have been cut from the end of KS4 GCSE. The exam has the same status as GCSE for the purposes of university entry etc.

    Last year if was announced that this syllabus (and others like it — including the IGSE –would no longer count in the Y11performance tables. Unsurprisingly most state schools won’t be using these exams (although independent schools will cling to the IGCSE). AQA announced earlier this year that they were axing the exam fro 2017 onwards. This won’t affect schools at KS4 but it is hugely disappointing for those of is teaching re-sit classes post 16 to lose such a relevant and motivational course.

    This reveals one of the many weaknesses of running our examination system on free-market principles. AQA have discontinued this syllabus, not because it no longer offers all the advantages they were marketing last year and the year before, but simply because without the Y11 entries from state schools it isn’t a financially profitable venture. It’s all about the bottom line.

  2. Gwen is surely right to point out the problems of overcoming 5+ years of GCSE aversion therapy. And it would be folly to put those young people through the same experience that failed them already. But the question we have also to ask is ‘will getting English (and maths) GCSE enhance our students’ life chances?’Would anyone say ‘no’? So the challenge is not “should we? ” but “how can we?” There are various things happening to push this along (many of them organised by the Education and Training Foundation). CUREE made its own modest contributions to this via our report on the teaching challenges (http://www.curee-paccts.com/files/publication/%5Bsite-timestamp%5D/MathsEnglishReportETFMay14Pub.pdf) and work we are doing for NCETM and others on the Maths Pipeline. Our report found that many of the features of good teaching and learning in the FE sector were valuable in maths and English teaching (and missing in weak teaching of those subjects in school). But FE teachers often lacked a high enough level of command of their subjects and a set of often quite technical skills. With the right resources and enough time FE can ‘grow its own’ However, there is no valid argument against the charge that Gwen raises that you can’t increase the demands on FE at the same time as serious budget cuts and increasing competition with schools for the already scarce resource of skilled teachers

    • Even when FE teachers have a high command of their subject (educated to PhD level English)it is still difficult to engage those from vocational subjects who are resitting GCSE English for the second or third time. I came to FE from a higher education lecturing background and found myself teaching four resit classes a week in a FE college. Many of the students were eager to gain a higher grade (and some did), but attendance/aversion is a always a problem and at the time, the college departments which sent the students to resit did not focus upon this as problematic. I enjoyed teaching resit classes and many of my students were committed to gaining the elusive C and did so, however I do believe some are not capable of it no matter how many times they resit – so as suggested above a different and recognisable qualification would be beneficial to all involved.

  3. I personally wish they could bring back Level 2 Functional Skills English. The college I used to lecture at withdrew this opportunity because we didn’t achieve a high enough pass rate for the Reading Paper (for L2 FS English) and then there was a brief year of WJEC GCSE English which was an absolute nightmare (too many controlled assessments and not enough time to concentrate on the exam). At the time of leaving the college, we had only offered two years of IGCSE English, through CIE, but this was dropped due to funding changes. The new GCSE English Language paper incorporated pre-1914 literature which is not appropriate for resit groups.

    • Deborah Sentance

      FE colleges should be able to offer an alternative GCSE English and Maths exam, perhaps something more relevant and less 19th Century. In my experience in both Secondary schools and FE, Literature is really pushed in secondary school with less attention put towards Language (which in my view is what Students need for their future), this then makes it harder to engage them from the offset because they disengaged at school due to a dislike of poetry and 19th Century fiction. making these exams more relevant, especially for those taking vocational routes, using extracts from documents like: Health and safety manuals, Advertisements, Business Reviews, and Departmental Reports etc, would therefore engage students into the practicality of how they use these within their chosen career path.