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Developing a joined-up, research-informed approach to post-16 GCSE English and maths resits

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REBECCA MORRIS, TOM PERRY AND DEBBIE GRACE, UNIVERSITY OF WARWICK, UK

GCSE resits in England

Colleagues across education will be aware of the importance of GCSE English and maths for students’ future educational and life opportunities, and also for schools in terms of performance measures such as Progress 8. For many students, however, the summer of Year 11 is not the end of their GCSE journey. Current government policy means that if young people do not achieve a grade 4 (equivalent to the old ‘C grade’) in English and maths, then they are required to continue studying these subjects in Key Stage 5 (age 16–18). Of these, most will ‘resit’ GCSE examinations in English, maths or both, sometimes multiple times. The small proportion of students who do not get entered for the GCSE may take functional skills assessments instead.

The numbers involved are substantial. Last year, just 73.9 per cent and 61 per cent of students achieved a grade 4 or higher in English language and maths respectively (Martin, 2023). Also concerning is the currently low proportion of retake students that do go on to achieve a grade 4 or higher. In 2022–23, just 16.4 per cent of students resitting GCSE maths gained a grade 4; the figure for English was 25.9 per cent (Camden, 2023).

The resit requirement has been controversial for a number of reasons. Some researchers, practitioners and students believe that the ‘forced’ nature of the resits is problematic, arguing that it can reinforce a sense of failure for young people and that students should have more choice over whether they continue with their maths and English studies beyond 16 (see, for example, Bellamy, 2017; Ireland, 2019). Others, including some sector organisations, argue that there needs to be an overhaul of resourcing, curriculum and assessment approaches, in order to better support and engage students and maximise their chances of success (Davies et al., 2020; Sezen, 2023; Vidal Rodeiro, 2019). The government and advocates for the policy suggest that improving the English and maths skills of post-16 learners is vital for addressing skills gaps in the labour market and provides increased opportunities for further study and skilled employment (DfE, 2021; Wolf, 2011).

Remarkably, given the scale of resits, the relatively low pass rates and the salience of the issue for policymakers and post-16 providers, there is not yet a substantial or coherent body of research literature focused on this topic. In this context, our recent Education Endowment Foundation-funded study sought to bring together understanding from across research and practice. We are continuing this work with a current impact and development project that draws upon expertise from across the sector. In this article, we outline key findings and implications from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) practice review (Crisp et al., 2023) and our current work, identifying key issues connected to GCSE resits and some ways in which the sector might address them and continue to improve post-16 English and maths outcomes.

EEF practice review: Evidence of effective practice for GCSE resits 

The aim of our practice review (conducted in partnership with CfEY, the Centre for Education and Youth) was to ‘build a more robust and objective picture of what current practice looks like within the post-16 space, including what the key challenges are, and to identify questions that practitioners would like answered’ (Crisp et al., 2023, p. 5). The project used a mixed-methods approach, including a desk-based literature review, interviews with practitioners and sector organisation representatives, and focus groups with post-16 learners.

Taking a systematic approach to identifying and analysing the research literature in this area, we examined a total of 59 studies relating to post-16 English and maths. This a relatively limited evidence base, highlighting the lack of sustained research attention on the issue. Looking across the literature, we observed a substantial imbalance between subject areas, identifying 40 maths-focused studies alongside just five in English. The remaining 14 either covered both subjects or were more general in their focus. Part of the reason for this imbalance was the high number of action research studies that were facilitated by the DfE-funded Centre for Excellence in Maths (CfEM) initiative (n=28). This is indicative, though, of the wider policy and practice attention that GCSE maths resits have received in recent years, compared with English. The majority of included studies were based in single organisations and focused on student/staff experiences or perceptions of GCSE resit practices. Only a handful looked directly at the impact of various approaches on students’ attainment outcomes. 

Key findings from the practice review

Our findings from the research review and the discussions with practitioners, leaders and sector organisations were organised under the following, often overlapping, themes:

  • curriculum and pedagogy 
  • resources and technology 
  • learner needs, backgrounds and experiences 
  • teacher needs, supply and development 
  • leadership and organisation.

 

The literature review highlighted that while there are numerous, diverse practices and approaches to improving provision and outcomes in GCSE resits, there are relatively few ‘packaged’ interventions designed specifically for this cohort and context. There was also very little connection between approaches from the literature and those mentioned by staff and practitioners in the interviews.

Practitioners highlighted the importance of diagnostic assessment for informing teaching and learning, and of formative assessment approaches for supporting students’ development. However, despite an appetite for exploring students’ views on feedback and assessment, we found no clear evidence of effective strategies within the literature.

Questions around how resit programmes should be delivered in terms of curriculum and organisation featured significantly, but again there was only very limited evidence on what might ‘work’ well here. Some suggest that English and maths can be effectively embedded or ‘contextualised’ within wider programmes of study (e.g. alongside vocational courses). Others argue that a more distinct, targeted approach is needed. Some research, supported by practitioner perspectives and student insights, suggests that a combination of both approaches may be promising but more evidence is needed on this key issue.

A further interesting finding centred around whether examples of effective pedagogical approaches from other phases and subjects could be useful for promoting at post-16 level. Examples of relatively well-established, evidence-informed principles, such as formative assessment, cognitive science (e.g. spaced learning) and mastery approaches, were highlighted as part of the review. While transfer of these into post-16 contexts is potentially promising, we need to know much more about how these principles and practices can be effectively adapted and translated into resit contexts. Connected to this issue, our study points to a need to further consider learners’ requirements and adverse prior experiences of learning. The challenges and barriers faced by some resit students have been well documented in the literature (Ireland, 2019). However, we know relatively little about the most effective ways of tackling these challenges for specific groups within the cohort, or the potential for integration of academic and socio-emotional approaches that may foster progress.

A final key finding relates to a broader issue affecting much of the education sector in England at present: teacher shortage. Post-16 providers reported clear concerns about the recruitment and retention of resit teachers, indicating that this was one of the most significant barriers to delivering high-quality teaching. A number of participants also noted the value that they placed on CPD (continuing professional development) for developing teachers, particularly for those who were coming to the role without English or maths subject specialisms or experience of the qualifications.

Developing, connecting and sharing knowledge across the sector 

Our findings above point to the need for more research in relation to post-16 education, particularly in terms of identifying ways in which to effectively support lower attainers and/or those from less advantaged backgrounds. Following directly from the review, we note that there is considerable potential here to develop a stronger pipeline (from piloting through to full-scale trials) of potentially promising interventions and approaches for improving resit outcomes. These could include the incorporation of valuable strategies from Key Stage 4 or the university sector, or those used with particular groups (e.g. students with English as an additional language). There is also some evidence (Maughan et al., 2016) pointing towards more holistic, ‘combined interventions’ that attempt to have an impact on more than one outcome (e.g. academic, attendance, social/emotional).

But while we think that there is space for exploring further interventions and approaches, we would also urge caution here. ‘What works’ research in school-based settings has, over the last decade, yielded relatively limited findings in terms of identifying ‘packaged’ approaches that practitioners can easily adopt and roll out with their classes. Instead, we would suggest that more attention should be targeted on understanding the underlying principles or ‘active ingredients’ that are likely to positively impact teaching, learning and outcomes in post-16 settings. 

Beyond this, there is also a need for more sustained and developed programmes of work connected to wider issues of post-16 study, including topics relating to transitions between pre- and-post-16 learning; curriculum delivery and organisation; assessment options and approaches; and the onward trajectories of learners. Further knowledge in these areas would provide vital context for more targeted work in the field.

Key to all the above recommendations and developments is support for the post-16 workforce and institutions. Post-16 provision, like the majority of the education sector, has been significantly under-resourced and under-appreciated in recent years. Despite these challenges, there are examples of valuable networks and professional learning communities. Our research indicates that further strengthening of and investment in these, and indeed facilitating further sector-led opportunities for research-engaged practice and CPD, may be beneficial.

Next steps for research, policy and practice?

In recent months, there have been some potentially positive developments in relation to post-16 funding and research. Last year, the government announced an increase in the national funding rate and published details of £40 million of investment for the EEF and their research programme (DfE, 2023). While very welcome, we do not yet know what this additional funding will mean in practice. The political context and an upcoming general election this year also add to the uncertainty. 

Looking at this situation and taking into account existing debates around the resits policy, we remain optimistic that there are positive ways forward in terms of supporting and developing provision in this area. In light of this, we suggest that there is an ongoing need to maintain and develop practitioner- and researcher-led networks, promoting more system-wide engagement with research-informed practice. Our new project, in partnership with the Association of Colleges and the CfEY, aims to further facilitate connections between research, practice and policy. Working collaboratively with teachers, leaders and sector organisations, we are currently developing and curating an online ‘hub’ containing guidance and resources for resit practitioners and convening a series of spotlight conversations and enquiry workshops. Finally, we will be facilitating a set of policy conversations (in collaboration with practitioners and policymakers), with a view to contributing to upcoming debates and discussions on 16–18 education.

Get involved!

We are very much welcoming involvement and contributions to this work from post-16 practitioners, leaders and researchers. If you are interested in learning more, please get in touch with us (rebecca.e.morris@warwick.ac.uk) or connect on Twitter/X (@GCSEresit_hub).

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