Why Policy Exchange’s report is about much more than fining secondary schools

Tom Middlehurst, Head of Public Affairs, SSAT writes…

Much of today’s commentary and twitter-response to Policy Exchange’s report Crossing the Line has focused on the rights or wrongs of raising a ‘resit levy’ on secondary schools whose students fail to get a C in English and maths GCSE, but the report raises some far more nuanced and important points.

Ultimately the report highlights the lack of funding for 16-18 provision, whether in sixth forms or in FE colleges. The delivery or retakes exaggerates this problem further, and although students resitting English and maths are currently more likely to attend an FE college than sixth form, we know from our conversations with members that a growing number of schools are offering GCSE resits in yr 12. The question, then, is not whether schools should be fined for failing to get their students a C, but how best to deliver English and maths curricula, leading to accreditation, post-16.

The report also points to the fact that resit cohorts have a low success rate. We must question the reasons for this, and consider what the system can do to better support these vulnerable students.

As many people have pointed out today, there are already a number of perverse incentives in the system, which may lead to decisions that detriment the long-term learning of students. Schools are under pressure to enter the whole cohort for English and maths, regardless of whether all students are ready or not.

From a student perspective, this has two negative results. Firstly, it encourages teachers to teach to the test, rather than developing the deep skills and knowledge that would be of greater use in later life. We know that some teachers feel under pressure to cover the KS4 curriculum content, at the expense of correcting severe gaps in understanding and addressing misconceptions. This in turn has the effect of turning the student off the subject entirely. It’s hard to enjoy writing an essay on Shakespeare’s treatment of nationalism in Henry V if you can’t access the text independently to begin with.

But nonetheless, the system encourages schools to enter these students for the exam, even when the chances of success are small. Then, when they do fail, they go on to post-16 education or training, without a solid foundation in literacy and numeracy, turned-off by English and maths, and we wonder why they fail again.

Surely, it would be better for secondary schools, post-16 providers, and above-all the students themselves, if teachers could use their professional judgement at KS4 to teach students to the appropriate level? As a society, we want young people who (amongst other things) are literate and numerate; the best way to do this is to restore trust in our institutions and allow for proper progression over time.

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