The Re-sit Cycle: The Hidden Crisis of our Education System

"If we don’t have a serious conversation about how we break this costly cycle of failure, then the extra help and support that I received a decade ago will be much harder to deliver in the future."

For anyone who has ever failed an exam, the hardest part is reading those cold, hard numbers on a piece of paper you are given in August. You may have known that you hadn’t done well, maybe you even kidded yourself that you bluffed your way through it. But now you are faced with two difficult choices: either give up on education altogether or go again and hope that this time things will be different.

When I was at school just over ten years ago, the policy on re-sitting GCSEs was simple: If you failed the core subjects of English and Maths, it wasn’t obligatory to retake them, but of course it was advised that you should, given their importance. Since 2013 government policy has been that all students must re-sit the core GCSE subjects of English and Mathematics until the age of 18 or until that receive a passing grade of C or above.

While there is of course merit in insisting on greater academic standards, given a lack of extra support for schools and an accompanying increase in funds to deal with all these effective extra pupils school, it is little surprise that this policy has not solved the problem.  Recent data from the Department of Education shows that about 77% percent of pupils retaking such exams continue to get grades below that minimum standard, with many caught in the cycle of resits until they reach the age of 18.

This is causing increasing concern from the schools themselves, who have to pay for all these resits out of their own budgets. Last year it was estimated that school had lost 6 million pounds of funding that year alone over re-sit charges, and this at a time when the Education budget is already coming under serious pressures from issues of overcrowding and a high turnover of teaching staff.

In order to get on top of this issue, and to salvage resits we need to start looking fundamentally at how we deal with those students who fall through the educational system. We need to rethink the way in which we offer them extra support and mentoring, and how we take them out of the environment and mind-set that caused them to fail in the first place. We also must look at the place vocational training has in our education system: the lower tier on which it has been placed in the UK’s education system has been to the detriment not just of education standards, but the wider economy.

Speaking from personal experience, I know the difference this sort of support and a change of environment can make. As someone who took exactly these sorts of re-sits 10 years ago, I can say from experience that this issue does not get enough attention from the national media or investment and support from the government.

Back then I was lucky enough to avoid the stigma of sitting in classes with people a year younger than me, as I managed to get into my local sixth form college about 40 minutes away that allowed for separate resit classes. Sometimes it wasn't easy, but through the help I received from teachers and mentors, and an environment that was generally more open and caring than the restrictive Secondary School experience that I’d had, I always felt that I had the necessary encouragement. Crucially, I was in classes with people going through the same thing. Sometimes in life a feeling of progress is important, which being in a class with people younger than you simply does not provide.

Since then, much of that support has gone: my local council no longer provides subsidized bus transport, and there have been a number of budget-related reductions at my old college since I left for University. That such places are now often now obliged to take re-sit pupils through to the age of 18 regardless of their means that there is increasing pressure on such facilities, and on the support I received.

If we don’t have a serious conversation about how we break this costly cycle of failure, then the extra help and support that I received a decade ago will be much harder to deliver in the future.


Nathaneal is a Young Fabians member, and Membership Office on the Young Fabians executive. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanealSansam

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