EEF Blog: How do you solve a problem like GCSE resits?

What's the EEF doing in the post-16 sector to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students? That's the question programme manager Kathryn Davies tackles here, with an update on our partnership with J.P. Morgan to generate much-needed evidence of how most effectively to help those students who have yet to secure their GCSE pass grades in maths and English...

I recently joined the EEF as a programme manager. One of the areas I look after is our post-16 work. In a previous role at the Sutton Trust, I’d worked with this cohort of students on a daily basis. But while the Trust’s focus is on students who are likely to attend Russell Group universities, the EEF is concerned with those students who miss their pass grades in maths and English at 16.

Since 2014, students without a good pass in English and Maths GCSE (a ‘4’ or higher under the new grading system) have been required to continue to study these subjects until they are 18, or secure a qualification in them.

The purpose was clear enough. There is a well-researched link between students attaining good passes in both English and maths and having improved later life outcomes. The more students secure good passes in these core subjects, so the argument goes, the better for them and for wider society.

However, this year’s GCSE data show the scale of the challenge. Only 22.7 per cent of students aged 17-plus achieved a grade 4 or higher in their GCSE maths. The GCSE English outcome was a little better, but still only 33.1 per cent.

And sadly, it’s no surprise that students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionately likely to find themselves in the group without the grades they need for further study or an apprenticeship or a decent, stable job.

The most recent figures reveal that, by age 19, a majority (50.2%) of all students who had been eligible for free school meals had still not achieved a good standard of recognised qualifications in English and maths.

Whatever your position on the government’s reform, it is clear we need to understand more about how we can better support those post-16 students who need to improve their English and maths. Indeed, the need for more and better evidence in this area was one of the key findings of our literature review on the topic.

And that is the important endeavour we embarked on a couple of years ago, in partnership with J.P. Morgan. And there’s no better week then #collegesweek to update you on the work we’ve begun…

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We have now committed over £1.5 million to the delivery and evaluation of four projects aiming to improve English and maths outcomes for disadvantaged post-16 students.

Please note we remain keen to identify further opportunities and encourage those with high-potential ideas to contact us to discuss them (our guidance notes for the original funding round are available here and remain a good place to start).

  • Texting Students and Study Supporters: this programme aims to improve attendance and attainment by sending text messages to students and ‘study supporters’ (a peer, parent or mentor that each student identifies as helping to keep them on track). 3,800 students in 31 further education colleges are part of a trial in which they receive text messages to themselves, their chosen study supporter, both, or are in the control group. The project is being delivered by the Behavioural Insights Team and independently evaluated by NatCen. Though scheduled to report in Spring 2019, the findings are likely to be delayed by the Department for Education’s post-GDPR decision to change its rules about researchers accessing student data from the National Pupil Database, which is currently causing significant delays on this and other, similar, EEF-funded projects.
  • Maths-for-Life: this programme aims to make GCSE resit classes more student-centred, focusing on problem-solving and discussion through approaches such as dialogic teaching. Following a successful pilot year, the grantee, University of Nottingham, has now recruited 100 settings to the largest randomised controlled trial in the post-16 sector that we know of. Training is about to get underway, led by the 20 teachers trained in the pilot year. It will be independently evaluated by the Behavioural Insights Team.
  • Embedding contextualisation in English and mathematics GCSE teaching: this programme, delivered by the Association for Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), aimed to improve post-16 learners’ engagement with English and mathematics by teaching more of the content using real-life contexts wherever possible. Piloted in six schools, we will soon publish the findings of the independent evaluation by the London School of Economics.
  • Assess for Success: this project, developed by The Manchester College, is piloting a new approach to assessing GCSE resitters’ English skills and supporting teachers to plan appropriate teaching. Early indications of its potential scalability if found to be effective are encouraging, with some colleges choosing to include in the programme all of their students who are resitting their English GCSEs. The findings from the independent evaluation by the Behavioural Insights Team are due to be published in summer 2019.

In addition, the EEF is funding the independent evaluation of a new Department for Education pilot programme, which will provide additional funding for post-16 settings in disadvantaged areas. Over 450 FE colleges and other settings (totalling some 48,000 students) have been recruited by the Department for Education to take part in the trial, which will compare outcomes to similar settings in areas not eligible for funding in order to measure the difference in grade ‘4’ pass rates.

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As ever with the EEF, we don’t stop at generating new evidence; we also want to ensure the evidence already available is as widely known and acted upon as possible. This is particularly the case in the post-16 sector, where we realise our work – and relevant resources such as our Teaching and Learning Toolkit – are less well known.

This has included convening a workshop with Impetus-PEF last year, aimed at encouraging practitioners to focus on what changes to pedagogy and practices might improve outcomes. We are also working with the Education and Training Foundation to adapt our evidence-based guidance report, Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants, to make it accurate and actionable for the post-16 sector. We aim to publish and promote this in the new year.

Finally...

We hope this update highlights the commitment the EEF and our co-funding partners, J.P. Morgan, have in supporting the post-16 sector – FE colleges, schools, and sixth form centres – to improve outcomes for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, in the core subjects which will be so important to their future life success.

And, once again, can we re-iterate our invitation to those already working in this area to get in touch with me if you have evidence-based ideas you are keen to test through an EEF trial? The scale of this challenge really does require all of us wanting to develop answers to work collaboratively together.