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28 August 2015updated 04 Oct 2023 11:57am

Far from helping students, fines for resits will make things worse

Teachers and pupils alike will feel the pressure if a new scheme goes through, warns Joe Fell. 

By Joe Fell

Failing schools ought to be fined, says a think tank. But contrary to popular opinion, sharing is not caring in the modern education sector. An expanded system demands better funding.

According to a report published on Tuesday by the right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange, schools where students fail to achieve a C-grade or above in English and Maths GCSE should pay a levy to help fund each student’s (mandatory) re-sit, should they choose to attend a Further Education college (FE). While the details of the proposed levy are not laid out in the report, a preliminary sum of about £500 per pupil is suggested.

Policy Exchange, set up in 2002 by Michael Gove among others, has long been close to the door of Downing Street, its suggestions taken seriously by education policy makers. The report strongly supports the change in education policy which means that, from September 2015, all D-grade students and below will have to be entered for GCSE-level qualifications in Maths and English. Apprenticeship schemes too will have to offer training in these ‘functional’ skills.

Mandatory retakes for below C-grade candidates will place further pressure on FE colleges that are already being stretched to capacity. While the colleges currently receive £4,000 for a 16-17 year-old, and £3,300 to teach a full-time qualification, this figure does not include funding for remedial teaching in English and Maths.

Because of the lack of funding-protection for 16-19 year-old education, support to the sector has been slashed successively over a number of years. This means that FE colleges, which on average take in 5 times more students for English GCSE retakes and 6 times more for Maths, are facing enormous budget pressures. According to the think tank, FEs have already seen “external venues needing to be hired, other classes cancelled to make room for exams, and temporary staff drafted in to invigilate exams.”

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While issues do clearly exist, the report seems to miss several fundamental problems with its proposal. The notion of an already struggling school, as the vast majority of those that produce low-achieving pupils are, being punished for struggling, is nonsense. Natasha Porter, the author of the report, describes schools as “pass[ing] the buck” on to organizations who have not caused the problem themselves, as if, through laziness or negligence, teachers treat their lessons merely as the first attempt of many. The notion that teachers need to “redouble their efforts” is both patronizing and dismissive of the very real difficulties faced by teachers in some of the most challenging areas in the country.

The Department for Education already provides post-16 funding on a per-pupil basis, with an extra £480 per student, per subject for those with GCSE English and Maths below a C-Grade. It is unlikely that £500 would make a significant difference to the far-reaching and systematic problems mentioned in the report. Christine Blower, leader of the National Union of Teachers, said proposals would “penalise secondary schools without improving matters substantially for further education colleges.”

In the furore over FE college funding, we must not forget that many schools are facing similar issues. The argument that school budgets have already been protected in cash terms for the next five years ergo schools can afford to lose thousands of pounds in fines each year doesn’t really hold water.

According to the Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Malcolm Trobe, school funding can be a postcode lottery, with the poorest schools failing to attract experienced and effective staff. There is no doubt that this spells bad news for poorer schools given the Department of Education’s prediction of a budget shortfall of £4.6 billion by 2018-2019. Money will primarily be spent because of increased teacher pay and pension contributions, more people of school age, and, ironically, “costs associated with new policies”.

Blower says “The answer is not to rob Peter to pay Paul but to fund all schools and colleges properly, to recruit more teachers and help them support students to make the most of the talents of our young people.” Porter’s response is of the normal ‘given the current economic climate…’ ilk, saying on BBC4’s Today Programme on Tuesday: “In an ideal world everything would be funded at a huge level… but tough decisions need to be made”, before adding “I don’t think education is the only sector which is finding it challenging.” This reasoning seems fundamentally bizarre. The fact that a lot of other sectors are also feeling the squeeze does not legitimise the creation of a bonkers pseudo-marketisation of the education system – an expanding sector that cannot really afford to fail. If, as Porter says, FEs are struggling so much financially, presenter Justin Webb’s comment “Why not just fund the colleges?” seems to make a lot of sense. John Widdowson, President of the Association of Colleges, agrees, saying:

“Whilst Policy Exchange’s specific proposal to place a levy on schools, payable to FE colleges, for those students who failed to get a A* to C grade, would bring welcome additional funding into colleges, it would be easier if the Government recognised the new challenge taken on by colleges in the national funding system. It is extremely disappointing therefore that Government consistently refuse to place a protective funding ringfence around the education for 16 to 19-year-olds, leaving their education extremely vulnerable in the spending review, unlike the 5 to 15-year-olds who are protected.”

To take punitive measures against establishments struggling almost as much as the ones they are helping would be to spread fairly meagre resources even more thinly over an expanding sector. Putting every effort into FE-improvement is an implicit admittance that the 5-15 education system at the lowest end is failing. The Policy Exchange suggestion seems to scream “Retreat! Fall back to the second level!”, rather than aiming to treat the symptom at its earliest manifestation.

Teachers and students alike would be affected by this change. While initiatives like TeachFirst have been working hard since 2002 to attract bright young teachers to struggling schools, a move like this would be a step back, a way of demonizing people in the education industry.

Blower said on Tuesday’s Today Programme: “I think it’s a rather strange idea that being fined would be the incentive to help children to do the best they can”, adding that “There will be a point when there’s one mark between getting a C and a D… The idea that you would penalise schools because a young person is one mark below just seems absolute nonsense.”

A degree of competition in education has long been a successful part of the schooling system. Pupils at struggling schools wondering whether they’re going to put their school out by a grand – not so much.

Ex-teacher and author of 2003 ‘I’m a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here’ Francis Gilbert commented “I don’t think fining schools and creating a culture of fear amongst our young people is going to work. We need to make exams much less “high stakes” and develop meaningful assessment systems which motivate students and more accurately tell them and us what they can do. I am beginning to sympathise with Maria Montessori who believed we should never formally examine students, but continually assess them throughout their schooling through looking at what they really can do.”

As Gilbert says, the issue of whether pupils should be forced to retake exams until they pass is itself contested. He continued “it’s more a question of wanting to educate all young people so that they can [lead] meaningful, creative and productive lives; literacy and numeracy are obviously a big part of this, but children develop at different rates”. There is no quick fix to the Maths and English challenge facing the education system. A more productive response would see the government working with employers and colleges to ensure alternative Maths and English qualifications are available which reflect the workplace and everyday life. The idea that a C in GCSE Maths is synonymous with the numeracy skills needed for life is an overly-simplistic approach that’s nice to hold on to for those who are passing, but needs re-evaluating and re-contextualising for lower-achieving students who need real-life practical skills.

Widdowson comments: “Some [students] will struggle to achieve this level or would prefer something more suited to the workplace. Many employers also stress the importance of communication and numeracy skills which are designed to meet the needs of the modern workforce rather than traditional academic approaches. This is especially the case with young people doing an apprenticeship”.

If there’s one thing Tuesday’s report has, perhaps inadvertently, revealed, it is the problems that run deeply within the education system’s obsession with exams and grading performance.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said recently: “The secondary sector is crying out for some vision from government. Instead, obsessive tinkering over many years has short-changed students and created unnecessary pressure on education professionals.”

Whether Policy Exchange’s levies are the vision the government has in mind remains to be seen. But you can bet your GCSE results that it’s not the outcome Hobby or anyone else on the frontline is hoping for.

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