Pupils ‘will face demoralising cycle of retakes if they fail GCSE exams in maths and English’

Around 300,000 fewer top GCSE grades are predicted to be awarded on Thursday (PA)
Around 300,000 fewer top GCSE grades are predicted to be awarded on Thursday (PA)

Many more teenagers will be forced into an “utterly demoralising” cycle of retakes when they fail English or maths GCSEs this week, education experts warned on Tuesday.

Under current rules pupils who fail to get a grade 4 in maths or English GCSE must retake the exam until they leave school. But the situation will be worse this year as increasing numbers of teenagers are predicted to fail their exams because of a return to pre-pandemic grading standards, experts said.

It comes as Action for Children today revealed young people referred to social care at any point in their childhood were twice as likely to fail the subjects than their peers. The charity said this is a “worrying attainment gap” that must be urgently addressed.

Around 300,000 fewer top GCSE grades are predicted to be awarded on Thursday, which will be a “shock” to pupils and their parents, according to Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham.

Exams regulator Ofqual is deliberately lowering results to nearer 2019 levels, after grades spiralled during the pandemic. It did the same for A-levels, and results published last Thursday showed 73,000 fewer top grades were awarded than the previous year.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The adjustment of GCSE grades this year to 2019 standards will mean that many more students do not achieve at least a grade 4 GCSE in English and maths. This in turn consigns many of these students to a cycle of retakes in post-16 education in which large numbers continue to fall short of Grade 4. It is utterly demoralising.”

He added: “Confidence in literacy and numeracy is of vital importance but the current system has the opposite effect on many students.” Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “It is clear that GCSE retakes are not the best means of developing literacy and numeracy skills. Forcing re-sits is demotivating for many students and the low pass rate is a clear sign of policy failure. Educators know the weaknesses of the current system and have suggested many alternatives, from functional skills tests to modular assessments. The Government should re-think this outdated policy.”

Professor Smithers said grades in English and maths are among the lowest for all 48 GCSE subjects, and added: “The figures raise in stark form whether tuition in these central subjects is as good as it could be. What is striking is how few actually pass second or third time around. It must be soul-destroying to continually have to retake exams that you have failed in, perhaps several times.

“There is an urgent need for a policy rethink. Politicians should beware of projecting on to others the study of what has been good for them.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “This year GCSE grading is largely returning to normal in line with plans set out by Ofqual almost two years ago, to ensure qualifications maintain their value and students get the opportunities they deserve.

“For students collecting their results, those opportunities will be greater than ever before thanks to our brand new T-levels, alongside A-levels and other vocational and technical qualifications.”