GCSE resits result in worse grades

Roger Titcombe's picture

The following is from an article thatappeared in the Sunday Times on 10 January 2016. I have read the full version in the newspaper.

"Tens of thousands of pupils who resat maths and English GCSEs in 2014 obtained lower grades than the first time they took the exams.

According to an analysis of official figures by Labour, two-thirds of 16 to 18-year-olds who retook GCSE maths failed to improve their grade and half achieved a lower one. For those retaking GCSE English, 60% failed to improve their grade and 40% fared worse than the first time they sat the exam.

Only 11% of the teenagers who resat GCSE English and 7% of those who resat maths scored a grade C or above second time around."


This is truly dire. It certainly causes problems for David Cameron's plan for every school leaver to have at least a GCSE grade C in English and maths.

An interesting maths problem would be to work out on this resit success rate how long it would take for 95 per cent of Y11 pupils to eventually achieve at least a GCSE C grade in maths. It is quite possible that it would never be achieved.

My hypothesis is that if all Y11 C grade pupils were made to take GCSE maths again a year later in FE Colleges then a very high proportion would achieve D or less. If all of these were then made to retake the exam until they achieved a C, in only a few decades there could be no adults with a C+ grade in maths at all, except a declining number of OAPs like me. 

Lucy Powell, the shadow education secretary, said a shortage of maths and English teachers in schools and further education (FE) colleges lay behind the failure of many pupils to improve their grades."

This sounds reasonable but is it true?

On 29 January 2014 I posted a thread on the LSN website with the provocative title, ‘Is school improvement a good thing?’ This is one of the anonymous responses:

 "I completely agree with you about the false concept of ‘school improvement’. I can give an example from my own experience. To get the % of maths C+’s up the school employed a range of strategies including the following:

 Pupils began studying the GCSE curriculum in Y7 and as soon as they were able to get a C they sat the exam (many of them in Y8). There were many, many resits until the magic C was achieved.

 From Y9 the C/D borderline pupils were taught in small groups with multiple teachers – all other groups were larger with just one teacher (and the groups got bigger through the year after each round of exams).

 Maths was given more time on the timetable at the expense of everything else. Maths teachers were ‘encouraged’ to provide daily ‘maths intervention’ classes in the morning before school and at the end of the day.

 Pupils were rewarded for attendance with free take-away food. C/D borderline pupils were ‘paid’ with shopping centre vouchers if they got their C in Y10 instead of Y11.

 Pupils were withdrawn from other lessons to do extra maths in the fortnight leading up to the exam.

 Pupils were entered for multiple exam boards.

 Pupils were entered for multiple routes (linear and modular) at the same time.

 Private tutors were bought in by the school to work one-to-one with individual C/D borderline pupils."


Teachers have told me of other techniques used to obtain the C grades vital for the school and the Head's job. For example, the teacher can carefully research the range of questions and their marking schemes. It is then possible to select a number of the easiest topics from the syllabus which, if answered correctly will achieve a grade C. These topics are then taught by rote with lots of repetition and reinforcement right up to the day of the exam. Although this may be tedious, maximum pressure combined with incentives of the sort described by my correspondent can be applied.

I wrote an article about 'teaching to the test' here

Could the problem be that in our FE Colleges, where most of the resits will be taken rather than in the pupil's former schools, there are not too few English and maths teachers, but too many naive older teachers who assume that their job is to teach their subjects properly?

Pernicious and extreme 'teaching to the test' is a consequence of the marketisation of the education system brought about by the 1988 Baker Education Act, which was exploited so gleefully by Tony Blair's New Labour government.

There has been a succession of completely useless Conservative and Labour Secretaries of State for Education, followed by still more hopeless Shadow Ministers in Ed Miliband's opposition.

I have so far been very disappointed by Lucy Powell. Despite my sending her a copy of 'Learning Matters' she has made little impact so far and has done nothing to suggest that she understands that the marketisation of the education system is the root cause of everything that is wrong with it, including pupils getting lower GCSE grades in their resits than they achieved in Y11.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 15/01/2016 - 09:19

It appears that more of the same (ie repeating GCSE English and Maths content) doesn't result in pupils increasing their grades to C or above.  This focus on grade C is based on the incorrect assumption that a Grade C is the minimum required to being able function in society.  But the minimum required is actually Level One which starts at GCSE grade G.  Pupils with GCSE grades G-D have functional literacy and numeracy.

Grade C and above is supposed to be the gateway to further study - A levels and Level Three vocational exams.  But requiring all pupils to gain Grade C presumes all are capable of doing these higher level exams.  But that assumption actually reduces the value of A levels and Level Three.  The A is supposed to stand for 'Advanced' not 'Additional exams for all'.

Michael Pyke's picture
Mon, 18/01/2016 - 09:59


Roger, it is not surprising that re-sit results are poor.  Quite apart from issues of resources and pedagogy, most re-sitters have poor motivation and low morale.  In an age-stratified system, the mere fact of re-sitting marks out the student as having got "behind" and invests her/him with low status.   I am meeting Lucy Powell in a fortnight.  I shall ask her if she has read your book!

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 18/01/2016 - 15:20

Michael - I am sure you are right about low morale of resitters. But why is this? I am suggesting that the way students have been taught in KS4 in our high stakes system is a major part of the problem. See the work of Sue Johnston-Wilder and Clare Lee of the 'mathematical resilience' movement.


This is from their 2010 BERA paper you can access from the link. Read more in Section 5.4 on 'Learning Matters'.

" We have studied literature relating to recovering from adverse conditions and abuse (e.g. Borman & Overman, 2004 and Newman, 2004) and have found it helpful in coming to an understanding the source of these difficulties. In fact the more that we studied stories from people who exhibit mathematics phobia, and read the related literature, the more that it appeared to us that the way that mathematics is often taught in English mathematics classrooms is an unwitting form of cognitive abuse. Instances of ways of working that seem calculated to cause anxiety are asking learners to perform tasks that require feats of memory at a rapid rate or to memorise formulae without understanding in classrooms where the mathematics is divorced from the reality that it models so powerfully. These ways of working have been shown by many researchers (e.g. Boaler 2009, Jain & Dowson, 2009 and Baloglu & Koçak, 2006 ) to cause anxiety. Acting in such a way that many people are made to feel anxious, concerned or fearful seems to us to be acting in an abusive way. "

You cannot separate poor motivation from bad pedagogy. The cause of the former is the latter. The cause of the latter is the high stakes target driven culture brought about by marketisation. There is more of this being pushed by 'CentreForum' led by David Laws as reported in today's newspapers.

I am very pleased you are meeting with Lucy Powell and will mention my book. I have signed up for direct messaging on the new version of the website. I would be very interested in your conversation. Please let me know, or post an article about it.  If you can get me a meeting with her I would be delighted (I am a Labour Party member).

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.