Natasha Porter: Schools should be fined if pupils don’t make the grade

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IN amongst the celebrations of GCSE results last week, and the news that Yorkshire’s performance was the second most improved in the country in terms of A* to C grades, were those students who did not achieve the grades they had anticipated.

Despite its progress, Yorkshire still has the lowest proportion of grades at a C or above in the country. Last year, 37 per cent of Yorkshire pupils didn’t make the expected amount of progress in English from the end of primary school until GCSEs, and 40 per cent didn’t make enough progress in maths.

Since 2010, the education agenda 
has been committed to addressing standards, with a particular emphasis on closing the achievement gap and raising academic outcomes for those coming from the poorest families. There have been changes to school structures, curriculum and assessment, as well as accountability measures and school oversight. Since 2013 the school leaving age has increased, and young people are now required to remain in education until 18.

Alongside this, those who failed to achieve a C in English or maths GCSE are now required to continue studying it post-16. This shows a welcome commitment to numeracy and literacy, and a recognition that these are valuable skills. Studies show that the most common shared characteristic between young people who are not in education, employment or training is that they have failed English and maths GCSE.

In 2014, over 25,000 of students in Yorkshire did not achieve a required qualification in both English and maths by 16. Nationally the introduction of post-16 continuation of maths and English affects hundreds of thousands of students nationally each year. Last year 126,700 pupils who took English GCSE last year did not achieve a C grade or above, and 178,600 of those who took maths.

Most of these students choose to attend Further Education colleges post-16, either because their school requires a minimum number of GCSEs at A* to C to attend (often including English and maths), or because they would prefer a different learning environment.

This puts a huge amount of extra pressure on FE colleges. In 2011 (the most recent data available), FE colleges took five times more students who failed to achieve a C grade in English than schools, and almost six times more in maths. Students who choose FE colleges are also much more likely to be further behind when they arrive with a much greater proportion having achieved below a D grade. It is not only the sheer numbers who need to retake English and maths that puts enormous burden on colleges, but also the lower level they arrive at.

Colleges need to focus on improving their provision for students continuing maths and English without a C grade. At an institutional level, they enter a much lower proportion of their students for GCSE retakes than schools or sixth form colleges, with only 22 per cent of those who achieved a D in maths being re-entered and 20 per cent of those with a D in English.

Instead students are put on easier courses, and although weaker students might need these to act as stepping stones towards a GCSE qualification, they lack the workplace value of GCSEs and are not suitable for those already able to achieve a D grade.

Thankfully, from this September, students who have already achieved a D grade will have to be entered for GCSE qualifications. It is still important, however, that expectations remain high of those who achieve lower qualifications, and that rates of GCSE entry increase for them as well. There are also ongoing concerns around the pass rates for those retaking English and maths GCSE in all settings. These are already low (under 40 per cent), and provisional 2015 data shows they are getting lower.

The biggest challenge for colleges is that they are less well funded than schools to address this gap. Since 2009, the adult skills budget (a core part of FE College budget) has been cut by around 35 per cent and is expected to face a further 24 per cent in this financial year. Funding for 18-year-olds has been cut by 17.5 per cent, and unlike schools, FE Colleges do not have their VAT reimbursed. The outlook for this part of the education landscape is also dark – the funding for 16 – 18 year olds (including those in school sixth forms) is unprotected, so we might expect to see further cuts.

The only way that FE colleges are going to carry out their remedial role will be if they have additional funding. GCSE results are improving year on year, yet some schools are unfairly passing the buck to FE Colleges. These colleges are facing extreme funding pressure themselves and often lack the experience schools have in academic GCSEs.

That’s why our report recommends that schools are required to pay a “resit levy” to FE colleges for any student that fails to get a C in GCSE English or maths, who also hasn’t made expected levels of progress through their time at secondary school.

Natasha Porter is deputy head of education at the Policy Exchange think-tank. She is author of a report which advocates that colleges receive a resit levy from secondary schools.