From the Director

GCSE re-sits: grasping the nettle

An article from our Director, Charlie Stripp


GCSE re-sits: grasping the nettle

I’ve always thought that GCSE Mathematics is an awkward beast. It is just about impossible to get it right because it aims to serve two vital functions:

  1. Enabling all young people to learn the basic mathematics they need to succeed in everyday life and work
  2. Preparing young people for more advanced (Level 3) study in mathematics, and disciplines that use mathematics

Up to the age of 16, this is entirely appropriate – everyone needs (i), and everyone should have the opportunity to do (ii). However, for students who have not passed GCSE Mathematics by the time they’re 16 (by ‘pass’, I mean achieving a grade C or above, also known as Level 2), it is certainly true that they need (i), but they are unlikely to need (ii). So post-16 re-sit students only really need a GCSE qualification that is structured to encourage them to learn and understand the maths that will be useful to them in life and work

This observation has become vastly more important in the last 12 months because of the dramatic increase in the numbers of post-16 maths re-sit students. Because of the requirements in the new Study Programmes (see below for full explanation) roughly 200 000 extra young people every year will be aiming to achieve a Level 2 (Grade C) pass in GCSE Mathematics between the ages of 16 and 19.

I think this is a very good thing. All students need a sound understanding of basic maths to function effectively in society, and since a Level 2 pass in GCSE Mathematics is so important to employers – if you don’t have it, you are hugely disadvantaged in the job market – it should be a major priority for all students.

But anyone who’s taught a GCSE maths re-sit class knows that it can be very difficult to enthuse someone who’s spent 11 school years learning a subject and still not managed to overcome the hurdle that everyone says is so important. This task is even more difficult if teachers just serve up the same diet of lesson content that the re-sit student has already struggled with for years.

I think there are two key ways in which we can adjust the landscape to start to crack this nut.

First, we can look at the GCSE diet that’s delivered to the lower-achieving (foundation tier) 14-year-olds from the start of Year 10. My view is that this should be firmly targeted on the maths needed for everyday life and work. For the new GCSEs in Mathematics, for first teaching from September 2015, it is vital that the tiering is structured so that students following the foundation tier focus on the aspects of the curriculum they will find useful, and so will be motivated to learn and understand. Students who can demonstrate they have a good understanding of this mathematics should achieve a Level 2 pass, and not need to enter the re-sit world.

Moreover, a GCSE foundation tier designed in this way could, as a knock-on effect, really encourage good teaching and learning for re-sit students. Teaching and assessment could be designed to emphasise the practical applications of mathematics, which would help students to see the point of learning maths. This would help motivate students and improve success rates, rather than them seeing maths as a meaningless chore they must endure for the sole purpose of passing an exam.

As well as getting the qualification right, the second challenge (and it’s a big one) is the need to have sufficient GCSE Maths teachers in FE to meet the huge new demand. To help address this issue, the NCETM developed a ‘Mathematics Enhancement Programme’ (MEP), a six day CPD programme designed to train-up teachers of Numeracy and Functional Skills, and other subjects, so that they’re able to teach re-sit GCSE Mathematics classes.

To be able to deliver this high-quality CPD to FE teachers the NCETM first trained 80 GCSE Mathematics Professional Development Leads. Working through the FE Centres of Excellence in Teacher Training (CETTs), with financial support from the Education and Training Foundation, these PD Leads will have trained over 2000 FE teachers through the MEP before the end of this academic year.

At the NCETM, we have been struck by how much the teachers have enjoyed and valued the enhancement programme. Among numerous positive comments we have received are these:

“Thanks for such a productive and cooperative day. Like the others, I had feelings of trepidation about starting the course, wondering if I could cut it. Instead, I came away feeling supported and empowered.”
“Finding the course very worthwhile. My confidence has improved and I feel better prepared for teaching GCSE next year.”
"All of it was absolutely fantastic. The most useful training I have ever been on. If all days are as productive and useful as this, then it will contribute an enormous amount towards my professional development."

Together, the success of the two programmes underlines the importance of both giving teachers relevant training, with the time to do it, and developing the professional skills of those who deliver that training. This touches the core of the NCETM’s DNA.

Despite the anecdotal success of the programmes, their impact will not be fully understood until student results start to become available from summer 2015, and far more training and support will be needed to ensure all young people re-sitting GCSE can receive the high-quality mathematics teaching they deserve.

And there’s a bigger, longer term picture that all of us in mathematics education should address.

To meet the challenge of teaching GCSE Mathematics to so many more students sustainably, FE Colleges need more than just extra teachers of maths at this level. All colleges need to develop an integrated approach to teaching mathematics, ensuring the subject is properly embedded across different vocational courses and that its importance is properly understood in different contexts and disciplines. This means developing and establishing cross-college leadership in mathematics. Some colleges are already doing this and their successful results speak for themselves. The new post-16 Study Programmes mean all colleges must support maths in this way. If they don’t, they will be damaging their students’ chances of success; if they do, more young people will have a positive experience of mathematics post-16, succeeding in their GCSE Mathematics re-sit, dramatically improving their employment prospects and contributing to developing a more positive attitude to mathematics in our society.

At the NCETM, we stand ready to help the FE and Skills sector as much as we can in creating this new landscape.


Background information on Maths in the new post-16 Study Programmes

New post-16 Study Programmes now mean that any student who did not achieve a grade C or above in GCSE Mathematics must be enrolled on a post-16 Study Programme that enables them to work towards that goal. This is part of the implementation of the recommendations of Professor Alison Wolf’s review of vocational qualifications, which recommended that: Students who are under 19 and do not have GCSE A*-C in English and/or Maths should be required, as part of their programme, to pursue a course which either leads directly to these qualifications, or which provide significant progress towards future GCSE entry and success. From September 2014 meeting this recommendation will become part of the conditions for funding FE programmes.