GCSE resits can help students feel like successes – not ‘failures’

The Tes reports that the keynote speaker at this year’s Association of Colleges national conference who spoke with most conviction about GCSE resits was not minister Anne Milton, nor opposition-leader Jeremy Corbyn, nor Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman – it was former table-tennis champion Matthew Syed. Although, he probably wasn’t aware he was doing it.

He was convincingly revisiting the well-known but recently-maligned territory of growth mindset – professor Carol Dweck’s theory that improvement and progress is always possible, whatever your starting point. In that hall, where majority opinion was against the resits, challenging destructive fixed mindsets had never been so apt. Opponents of the resit policy repeatedly label our young people with “failure” in their careless rhetoric, themselves failing to acknowledge the progress agenda and its accompanying numerical grading system that inherently rejects the binary of pass or fail.

“So many of us have self-limiting beliefs,” Matthew Syed said. This is true of resit students to a certain extent. They hear the word “fail” from cruel mouths, although it is not written anywhere on their results transcripts. So they come to us with their confidence knocked and their defences up, but if you nurture, support, and make some effort to help them enjoy your subject, they can overcome their self-doubt.

Anne Milton speaks of resit learners having “failed to learn English and maths by the age of 16”, seemingly unaware that with grade distributions predetermining that 35 per cent of any cohort will not attain a grade C or 4 in Year 11, the most literate generation ever would yield the same numbers who “failed to learn”, by her measure. She imagines that resit teachers are “banging their heads against what feels like a brick wall”. A “brick wall” is a very fixed image and not something I would ever use to describe the great privilege I have every day, working with young people who are full of potential and desperate for opportunities.

I give my students low-stakes writing journals that aren’t marked or corrected, but that encourage writing for no other reason than the pleasure of it. This student took his home over the October half term and when he came back he had filled 34 A4 pages. With the fear of “failure” removed, the floodgates opened and he found his voice. In the GCSE, 50 per cent of the marks come from the writing sections. This learner will need to achieve just a handful of marks to have made recognisable, tangible progress. Of course, it won’t show up in the statistics of those who still talk about grade C or 4 attainment, who also never quite caught up with the metric system and who probably spend their evenings pawing at their TV remotes looking for Ceefax. Those same who had shamefully viewed this learner as a “brick wall” and given up. I will not accept that mindset in educators.

Matthew Syed spoke of the growth mindset in aviation. Neither crashes nor near misses are viewed as inevitable, so when either occur there is rigorous analysis and a determination to do better. Nobody suggests we just abandon flying and take a boat. I think this is how we need to approach resits. Let’s look at where we are “suboptimal” and commit to improve. For these learners most of all, it’s so important that the planes keep flying.

Read the full article GCSE resits can help students feel like successes – not ‘failures’

How have you helped your GCSE resit students feel more confident? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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