Jayne Dowle: Something doesn’t add up when so many are failing at school

MY son Jack still has a blissful year at school when he doesn’t have to worry about his GCSEs. Or so he thinks. I’m telling him already that whatever else happens, he must, must, must pass his maths and English. When I mention this, he does that eye-rolling to heaven thing that almost-13-year-olds specialise in. However, I think that I am getting through. He knows enough teenagers who left school without these two most basic of qualifications to recognise that passing first time is the way to save a lot of stress, time and heartache.

Resitting your GCSEs is no fun. I should know. I left school with a D in my maths O-level and spent the first year of my sixth-form course attempting to pass the blasted thing. Without it I would have no chance of going to university.

The anxiety I suffered was penance for frankly, messing about in maths from age 14 onwards when I should have just got my head down and got on with the work. It was no fun whatsoever dragging it around with me. Unencumbered by maths, I would have had three hours a week to sit and drink coffee and read the NME in the cafeteria. Instead, I was still frying my brains with sines and cosines. I learnt my lesson. The question is, why hasn’t education?

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Why has nothing changed in 30 years? In fact, why has the situation got many times worse? It’s so bad that more than 600 students re-sat the recent GCSE English exam at Kirklees College, and 1,800 young people retook their maths. In both subjects, the number of resits has doubled in 12 months. The demand was so high, the college had to take over a nearby leisure centre to accommodate all the students.

At further education colleges across England, the unprecedented numbers of resit students have created huge logistical issues. Office staff and support workers have had to step back from normal duties to be retrained as invigilators. Some colleges have had to suspend their entire curriculum while they use every classroom at their disposal as makeshift exam halls. City College Norwich even hired the arena at Norfolk Showground for the English GCSE resit, transporting more than 1,000 students in a fleet of double decker buses. The college principal says that the whole exercise cost more than £50,000.

I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but there is only one thing we can conclude from all this. Our schools are failing thousands of teenagers every year. The evidence is incontrovertible. If thousands upon thousands are having to re-take these most basic of qualifications, something has gone terribly wrong with the system. So far, the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has been quiet on the subject. I’d say though that she needs to make sorting it out an absolute priority, especially as head teachers predict that the situation will get even worse next year with the new, more academically-rigorous GCSEs, and the requirement that all students who achieve a D grade in maths and English will have to retake.

From a parent’s point of view then, what must be her priorities? She must encourage secondary schools to take steps to ensure that every pupil is engaged in learning from the off, and stays that way. Teachers say that disruptive pupils in class are the biggest barrier to progress. Be tough on them then, and exclude them if they refuse to toe the line so others can concentrate.

She must express to teachers that in turn, they must express to their pupils the vital importance of these basic qualifications. Without them, they have no chance of achieving a place at university, on an apprenticeship or completing further qualifications at college. And, of course, they may enter the adult world with no idea of how to structure a written sentence or work out a percentage. Pretty basic life skills. Now I know that half the time teenagers don’t listen to a word we say. Still, I am always surprised at how many I talk to who just don’t know that their future will be on hold and possibly scuppered if they can’t tick the boxes marked English and maths. Drill it in, and keep on drilling it in.

However, although schools have a crucial and pivotal role, the issue must be seen in the widest context. The GCSE system has undergone reform after reform and is still being reformed. Is it any wonder that pupils – and teachers – find it tough to keep up? Any changes must be brought in with strict consideration for the pupils themselves. The storm over the Edexcel maths paper last week proved that. Youngsters took to Twitter in their droves to complain that parts of the exam were incomprehensible and impossible to tackle without a calculator. Was the paper devised and rushed through without due diligence?

The truth is still to emerge, but I’ve yet to find a GCSE candidate who wasn’t stricken by the experience. Will the fall-out from this hit the further education colleges in September and make a bad situation even worse? Whatever happens, it won’t add up.