New resit guidelines are not based in reality

By Kevin Gilmartin
ASCL Post-16 Specialist

Imagine there are concerns about a shortage of tea bags. Supply problems arising from shipping attacks in the Red Sea area are to blame. Well, wouldn’t it be strange if the government then said to the public: “We recognise there is a tea shortage – so we want you to all drink more tea. And not only drink more tea, but whilst these supply shortages exist we would also like you to use two tea bags per cup instead of one.” Madness and nonsense of course – but this is what the new DfE guidelines on resit maths add up to.

In the midst of the worst shortage of maths teachers ever, where at least one in seven classes are taught by non-maths specialists, the government has just announced that they want more maths to be taught to more students in the sixth-form phase. They are specifying a new minimum number of four hours per week, and that this must be in the form of “stand-alone, whole-class, in-person,” teaching. And the DfE doesn’t just want providers to do this, if schools and colleges don’t comply by 2025-26, then the government will invoke updated condition of funding rules to claim money back from the already cash-strapped schools and colleges in question. For 2024-25, the government has very kindly said that whilst it “expects” providers to put on these extra maths hours, it won’t impose financial penalties if they don’t. How understanding!

The ridiculous rules do arise from an understandable policy aim, i.e. that the government believes more 16-19 year-olds should study maths, especially if they haven’t achieved the holy grail of GCSE maths grade 4-9. But surely having a goal is one thing – insisting on hitting that target without creating the necessary conditions to be able to do that is quite another (similar rules apply to resit GCSE English as well, with a minimum of three hours per week).

So, is there a huge clamour from the third of 16 year-olds who don’t achieve the magical grade 4 at GCSE to have more attempts at that same old maths syllabus? Well, certainly the feedback from ASCL members up and down the country has not been that students are inundating them with requests along the lines of: “Please sir can I have lots more maths forever until I do pass the exam that I didn’t pass before, even after ten years of maths teaching?” Just wait until these 16 year-olds arrive back in their school sixth form, or arrive fresh-faced and enthusiastic at their local college to start their BTEC level 3 in, for example, art and design or performing arts, only to be told: “Right, you have got seven hours a week of resit GCSE English and maths and none of these hours can be delivered online, so we expect you all bright and early in class please. And we are very sorry but we have had to reduce your main vocational subject hours to accommodate the maths and English lessons.” We are not just talking about a few people being impacted here – of the 120,000 students who start a full-time level 3 AGQ programme each year, around a quarter will not have attained their level four in maths and around a fifth won’t have achieved it in English.

So, perhaps there is a clamour from our maths teachers to teach more resit students more resit maths? Quite the opposite, actually - just ask those poor teachers trying to enthuse these cohorts and cajole them into post-16 maths lessons. Good luck with that.

Maybe it’s the school and college leaders then who want to put on these extra classes? Well, not according to the frazzled, near-apoplectic college principal who wrote in to ASCL saying: “I have over 4,000 16-19 students, 90% of whom are studying maths or English – they currently receive two to three hours per subject. How on earth can I double those hours? I haven’t got the staff and I haven’t got the physical space to timetable yet more hours.”

So, given that there aren’t enough maths teachers around, presumably there is a long-term strategy to address this? Well it seems that apart from mutterings about upping teacher starting salaries a bit, there isn’t one. 

So, the big question then is why on earth is the government doing this? It seems as if it is because this is the first stage of moving towards the Advanced British Standard, which will require students to study some form of maths and English up to the age of 18. The difference is that the ABS won’t be introduced for a decade, if at all, whereas the new resit guidelines apply almost immediately.

ASCL likes to consider evidence-based policy – this is noticeably absent here yet again. ASCL has also constantly argued for an end to the demoralising GCSE resit policy which rubs students’ noses in their own disappointment, and has called instead for a competency-based, passport-style qualification in literacy and numeracy. It seems as if the government has turned a deaf ear to this and also to the reality of the implications of their new policy. The policy is not going to work. It needs to be withdrawn. This is a policy that belongs in the box marked “bonkers.”
Posted: 22/02/2024 14:24:19