//Repeat After ‘E’: the treadmill of post-16 GCSE maths and English retakes

Repeat After ‘E’: the treadmill of post-16 GCSE maths and English retakes

By |2016-12-07T12:55:12+00:0025th August 2016|Exams and assessment, Post-16 provision|

Today will not be a happy occasion for the typical 17 year old re-taking GCSE maths and/or English. The government now requires them to continue studying these subjects if they did not achieve a grade C at age 16 and many are entered for these qualifications again after just a year of additional study.

For those that are re-entered at age 17, only 29.5% and 26.9% will achieve a C or better in maths and English, respectively.



Condemning young adults to fail a qualification over and over again does not seem ideal. And it isn’t reasonable to blame the post-16 sector for these results; they would quite rightly argue that schools had 11 years to get their levels of literacy and numeracy up to scratch. There is so much that we need to do to improve attainment in literacy and numeracy, particularly for those starting secondary school without the prerequisite standard needed to get on (these excellent posts from @HinTai_Ting highlight possible solutions to the problems we face in maths). These are all long term strategies though.

There is an alternative curriculum for those achieving a grade E, F, G or U first time round. Rather than re-sit the GCSE they are able to take an alternative Functional Skills qualification (which counts towards the new level 2 English and maths measure in Post-16 Performance Tables). What is curious is that there are so many students initially achieving these lower grades who still go onto re-attempt the GCSE itself. The table below shows they have almost no chance of converting their initial grade E or below to a grade C within a year.


What we don’t know is why they are re-attemping the GCSE just one year later, rather than studying functional skills qualifications. It may be the student’s choice; in which case perhaps they need stronger guidance about their prospects of passing. They may be at institutions (such as schools) with small sixth forms that do not offer functional skills classes. Or their institution itself might judge that re-attempting the GCSE over multiple years is a better route to eventual success. Even if this were true, it must be very demoralising for students.



About the Author:

Rebecca Allen is an associate research fellow, having led FFT Education Datalab from its launch in February 2015 to January 2018. She is an expert in the analysis of large scale administrative and survey datasets, including the National Pupil Database and School Workforce Census. In January 2018 she took up a position as a professor at the UCL Institute of Education, leading the Centre for Education Improvement Science.


  1. Steve 25 August, 2016 at 4:55 pm - Reply

    It’s an interesting one. To some extent it depends on the ‘reason’ for the E (or whatever).

    I’ve taught some year 11 students who tried really hard and had a great work ethic – for them gcse again in Year 12 might not be the best thing.

    I’ve taught others who were, to be frank, lazy and either realised too late, didn’t care enough at the time or just buried heads in the sand. For these a gcse retake in year 12 could well be the right thing as the ‘problem’ that caused the fail is, for some, more easily solvable in that they suddenly realise the implications.

    The thing that gets me us the number who actually get worse from y11 to y12. Do they attend lessons in body but not mind? Do the school actively chase those issues up as firmly as they would in y11? Do schools prioritise the teaching of those students or is it a timetable afterthought?

    • Stephen Down 30 August, 2016 at 10:02 am - Reply

      Is there any data on how many pupils have got worse? I can’t see anything in the article about it.

      It would be interesting to see a breakdown as to whether pupils are at school, sixth form college, apprenticeship or some other provider type – I can imagine that that might make a difference, and sixth form colleges that are focused on level 3 provision might not have the expertise in teaching less able pupils.

  2. Chris West 26 August, 2016 at 1:23 pm - Reply

    I am struggling to understand how this combines with comparable outcomes. Presumably the prior attainment of the “resit” pupils is factored into the comparable outcomes algorithm when setting grade boundaries for the whole cohort…. but haven’t we “selected” these “resit” pupils as something like “pupils who struggle with E or m”? If these pupils are also more likely to have low KS2 prior attainment (LPA) (is that fair?) then won’t the comparable outcomes of LPA pupils be changed “unfairly” in one direction or the other?
    Also if comparable outcomes assumes no national improvement in secondary phase education, and if we assume that there is some annual improvement, then each year the C grade gets harder to achieve (compared to a crierion based method… which is basically what counts for an individual student)…. if so, then we should expect a low rate of improvment in these stats.

    • Dave Thomson 26 August, 2016 at 5:41 pm - Reply

      Hi Chris. As far as I know- and I can’t claim any expertise- the comparable outcomes approach is based just on the results of 16 year olds. We plan to blog on this soon.

  3. James Maloney 27 August, 2016 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    The difficultly of FS Level 2 has increased (at least for Maths) and I suspect it’s easier to show progress from an E to a D than to get E grade students passing a level 2 FS exam. Any progression is probably deemed less demoralising than failing completely. Also, I think performance measures will focus on progression made from this year.

  4. Rachel Lewin 30 August, 2016 at 1:35 pm - Reply


    Our students passed their Functional Skills English (Edexcel) Level 2 tests in Year 10. I have two students who have FS Level 2, but failed to gain a C in GCSE English Language. Does this mean that they do not need to retake? Thank you for your article – it could make a big different to those two students!

  5. Paul McGrath 14 September, 2016 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    Before recommending an alternative to GCSE maths it would be worthwhile investigating the success rates of the alternative. From my experience students find level 1 functional skills very difficult, both Edexcel and City and Guilds (the College to which I refer switch from Edexcel). I would then assume that level 2 is even more difficult and isn’t considered a prefered option to GCSE at the said college, the chosed the FS level 1 to GCSE route.

  6. Paul McGrath 14 September, 2016 at 3:13 pm - Reply

    I’m finding it really difficult to understand the table, Maths Resits for 17 year olds…. (wouldn’t some reference have been useful?). The headings are not clear, for instance is the heading ‘% of resits that led to a higher grade’ is that the % of students who achieved a specific grade in 2014 and then went onto resit in 2015? It probably is but I would prefer not tp have to make assumptions. Also it would help if more decimal places were provided, so for instance I assume that the 0% B grade re-sit in 2014 is so because the percentge rounded to nearest integer is zero, perhaps 1 d.p. would have been more helpful. The final column I’m assuming is the total 2014 maths entries because I know it’s approximately 500,000 every year. But working backwards from these numbers the A* to C pass rate for 17 year olds would be 21% (assuming the 0% = 0.4% for B’s and A’s) not the 29.5% stated earlier in the article. I’ve probably missed something, perhaps a link to more detail would have helped me.

  7. Jim Beran 22 September, 2016 at 1:35 am - Reply

    I can’t speak for all colleges but I believe the low results are influenced by some general FE Colleges who believe they will score higher points in value added (performance on progression) if all the students resit GCSE and potentially go up a grade – hence from G to F and so on. This is extremely demoralising for the students and the teachers and works for no-ones benefit. It also confirms the comments by Rebecca Allen. It is also contrary to government guidelines that those with a grade D must resit a GCSE, not those with an E, F, G or U.

  8. Kathleen McBride 28 November, 2017 at 11:53 am - Reply

    Aren’t the conditions of funding for FE colleges connected to students taking GCSEs in Maths and English rather than FS? As far as I am aware, there is very little choice in who sits what qualification. From 2015 onwards these compulsory re-sits have been in effect in colleges up and down the country. What would be really interesting to know is what percentage of learners make progress under the recent reforms in comparison with pre- 2014/2015. Have these changes been worthwhile?

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