Reputable right-of-centre thinktank Policy Exchanged has this week suggested that schools whose pupils fail Maths and English GCSE should be fined, and this levy should be paid to further education (FE) colleges to help them pay for obligatory subsequent exam resits. The proposition, if enacted, will hinder schools that are already financially struggling. Surely this is just another means by which the government could pass the consequences of their dismal education funding on to schools.

The proposal follows the government’s compulsory resit policy that was brought in last year, meaning that the 100,000 pupils who missed the required grades at GCSE now have to study and take these exams again, many at a FE colleges. To pay for it, the report suggests that schools should be charged a resit levy per pupil, of around £500 per head, to compensate for their failure to ensure that the student has achieved baseline qualifications and to cover the cost of transferring these pupils to an FE college to resit.

Policy Exchange was founded in 2002 by the former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and is seen as highly influential; the government often takes heed of its political suggestions, so it is likely that this proposal will be fiercely debated and pushed forwards towards David Cameron in the coming months. And it could be severely damaging for schools in poorly performing areas.

Natasha Porter, the author of the report, said: “It is unfair for some schools to pass the buck to FE colleges who are already facing extreme funding pressures to fix a problem they have not caused themselves. To recognise the additional burden on FE colleges and shoulder more responsibility, schools should cough up and pay a resit levy.” It is increasingly necessary that young people are as literate and numerate as possible, but the focus needs to be placed upon greater funding for all FE institutions. Not to pass money from one to the other in an attempt by the government to avoid injecting a large sum of money into the education sector itself.

“It is increasingly necessary that young people are as literate and numerate as possible, but the focus needs to be placed upon greater funding for all FE institutions. Not to pass money from one to the other in an attempt by the government to avoid injecting a large sum of money into the education sector itself”

Porter is right that FE colleges have been severely hit by government spending cuts in recent years, more than schools have, and with potentially more to come in the spending review. According to the Guardian, in 2013, FE colleges took in 82 per cent of English resit students (100,239 pupils), and 60 per cent of Maths (110,811). The introduction of compulsory resits and requirement of intensive teaching clearly constitute a hefty expense for FE institutions.

Many students do need continued help and support in English and Maths post-16, and FE providers should receive the funding they need to deliver these courses. But, the idea of a ‘fine’ on the secondary schools where these students originally sat their exams is more damaging than beneficial. State schools are facing unprecedented budget cuts and difficulties in recruiting staff, in particular qualified maths teachers. A resit levy could hinder motivated students from wanting to enter the profession. Just last week, The Times reported that there is a shortage of 5,500 maths teachers in secondary schools alone, citing claims from members of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education and the Association of Teachers of Mathematics that some classes were being taught by under-qualified teaching assistants, supply teachers and cover supervisors.

Whilst it is clear something needs to be done, placing more burden on already financially struggling schools is not a helpful or viable solution. Only last month, the out-of-touch governmental stance on education was demonstrated when Nick Gibb, Minister of State and Department of Education, said: “despite the numbers of teachers not increasing over the last 15 years, I don’t believe there is a crisis.”

“State schools are facing unprecedented budget cuts and difficulties in recruiting staff, in particular qualified maths teachers. A resit levy could hinder motivated students from wanting to enter the profession”

Fining schools for pupils who do not pass their maths and English GCSEs is surely just a few steps away from fining primary schools whose students fail their 11 plus examinations, fining teachers for every pupil that does not reach their target grades in their SATs, and fining sixth forms where students miss their university place grades.

Brian Lightman, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, potently argues that there will always be students who will not achieve the desired C grade at 16, due to tougher new exams, and many students whose first language is not English. Both fines and resits would be both demoralising and demotivating for schools and students, for many whom a D grade may represent considerable progress. For the many schools committed and striving to help students develop in challenging circumstances, imposing fines would be another disincentive that could lead to further problems in teaching recruitment.

Why should the government be able to dictate that below a C in Maths and English is unacceptable? In response to the report, the Business Innovation and Skills Committee said they were not convinced that a C grade should be the only measure of competence in literacy and numeracy. Rather, training in functional skills could be more effective and the Army is an excellent example of functional skills training that raised literacy and numeracy levels in recruits.

“Both fines and resits would be both demoralising and demotivating for schools and students, for many whom a D grade may represent considerable progress”

The correlation between poorer areas of the UK and the under-achieving status of schools proves that fines are not a solution. Last year, a BBC led analysis of school results in England showed that in the most deprived areas, 31 per cent of students did not achieve the expected levels in English and Maths. The thinktank’s proposal would certainly place an unbearable strain on schools in these areas.

Policy Exchange insist that the levy would be capped in order to provide some surety of financial planning, but there is no suggested figure for the cap. In addition, the report claims that students with special educational needs and disabilities would have to undergo physical and medical assessments to prove that they were not able to achieve the grade C in that particular subject, allowing them to be exempt from the levy.

The government is placing both students and schools in an unwinnable situation. If more students gain above a C grade, examinations are accused of being too easy. They are then reviewed and made more challenging, causing more failures and subsequently more fines to be paid according to the new proposals. The education system is becoming a vicious cycle for both students and institutions.

“The correlation between poorer areas of the UK and the under-achieving status of schools proves that fines are not a solution”

As Christine Blower, the General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, 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.” Whilst the Department for Education provides £480 per student per subject for all those with GCSE English and Maths below a grade C, and FE colleges receive between £3,300 – £4,000 for every full-time student, this funding does not take in to account resit costs. The government refuses to place a protective funding barrier around 16-19 year olds education, leaving their education funding extremely vulnerable.

Fining schools whose students fail GCSE Maths and English is not going to help students or schools. Institutions will struggle financially and teachers and students will be further pressurised to prevent financial loss. The solution is for the government to increase the level of education funding to all institutions that are required to deliver this additional post-16 education provision, and to stop passing the buck on to schools whose budgets are being tightened each year.

Sophie Morris

Image: Wellington College via Flickr

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