Jonathan Wells, Ofqual External Expert in Assessment and a director of ForSkills, the UK's leading provider of diagnostics and e-learning resources for English, maths and ICT Functional Skills, shares his thoughts on compulsory re-sits of GCSE Maths and English and the negative impact this can have on lower ability learners.

Maths and English GCSE compulsory re-sits – are they a good thing? Is it creating an "underclass" of 16-18 year olds who can't find a traineeship or an apprenticeship because they haven't passed GCSE at grade C or above?

In August 2014 it became compulsory for all students aged 16 who do not achieve an A*-C in their GCSE English and Maths to continue to work towards achieving this grade and to take compulsory re-sits. According to Matthew Hancock, former Minister of State at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 40% of pupils do not get GCSE grades A* to C in English and maths by age 16. Worse still, 90% of those who don't reach this basic standard by 16, still haven't achieved it by age 19.

But is forcing those in the lower ability quartile to re-sit their Maths and English GCSEs a good thing?

I believe that continued focus on teaching and learning maths and English is essential. The fact that maths and English are the most important skills in any learner's toolbox is correct, but insisting that GCSE is the right qualification for everyone is wrong.

The Minister is right when he says that 90% of students who fail GCSE at 16 continue to fail GCSE. This leads to disappointed, demotivated learners who gain no benefit from further study towards a maths and English qualification. It also means that training providers are much less likely to take on learners who do not have GCSE passes and this can only result in the creation of an "underclass" of 16-18 year olds who can't find a traineeship or an apprenticeship because they haven't passed GCSE at grade C or above.

For these students Functional Skills present the best route to success and employability - practical skills in English, maths and ICT which provide an individual with essential knowledge, skills and understanding that will enable them to operate confidently, effectively and independently in life and work.

Research by the Education and Training Foundation published in March 2015 found that employers accept, and indeed prefer, Functional Skills as basic maths and English qualifications over GCSEs. Functional Skills are rigorous, practical, contextual and real-life. They require learners to master the basics so they can get these right, in any context, every time.


The success of Functional Skills since their introduction in 2007 also means that many vocational tutors are experienced and comfortable in teaching them, something that isn't always the case with GCSE.

So improving maths and English is absolutely the right thing, but let's do it via Functional Skills.

Jonathan Wells is Ofqual external expert in assessment and a director of ForSkills, which provides diagnostics and e-learning resources for English, maths and ICT Functional Skills

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