The Future Of GCSE Resits

The compulsory resit policy in England is under fire once again with statistics revealing that some students have had a resit of their English and/or GCSE maths exams a staggering nine times. Clearly, there is an issue with the resit policy, which places pressure on students that critics say is unacceptable. So what’s the problem, why is this happening and what could the change be in future?

For some time now, students who wished to go on to higher education, and studying certain subjects, had to hold a grade C or above core subjects in the previous marking style of GCSEs. Eventually, this was raised to a grade B in English and maths, depending on subject areas such as medicine, teaching and similar vocations.

With the new style of marking in England, GCSEs are graded from 1, the lowest grade, to grade 9, the highest. Grade 5 is roughly the same as an old style grade B, and a grade 3 is similar to a D grade.

Most schools will focus on ensuring that their students achieve a grade 4 in English or maths, mainly because it is now considered essential for everyone and not just those students entering specific vocations or courses.

What’s the Problem with Resits?

The theory sounds simple enough. Pushing students to achieve grade 7/8 is no bad thing. Figures show that in the summer of 2017, 86,000 entrants to GCSE English and maths were sitting the exams for at least the second time. A quarter of resits were students sitting the exam for the third time, and in maths, 37% were resitting maths for the third time. 

Students can resit the exam at any time from the original exam at 16 right through to 19 (and beyond in some cases). But the figures are not encouraging – only 12% of those students without a pass in English or maths (that is, grade 3) at 16 had secured a pass by the age of 19.

And there’s more bad news. Cambridge Assessment research found that with every resit, the probability of improving the grade fell each time. There is also evidence that suggests that for students from poorer backgrounds, the resits figures are slightly worse.

So why are we pushing students to resit when the data clearly shows that the probability of them achieving the desired grade reduces each time and that they are more likely to pass their driving test at 17 than get the pass needed? 

The Effects of Resitting GCSE English and Maths

Effectively, it is the conditions of funding that make resits effectively compulsory for students with a grade 3 in English and/or maths. The numbers of students being entered for resits is increasing, with over 300,000 entries for older students across both English and maths.

For some students, the resit exam signifies a wall that they simply cannot climb. And the effect of their mental health could mean that there are serious issues that will need to be dealt with in the future.

There is evidence to suggest that the cycle of resit failure is having an adverse effect on student mental health. Some see it as a continual cycle of punishment, getting in the way in many respects, for the technical skills they go to college to learn.

However, on the opposite side of the fence, there are those who advocate the need for students to have a grade 4 in both subjects simply because they may not be aware of the impact not having a pass in English and/or maths will make in the future.

brown pencil on equation paper

Is the Answer to Drop Compulsory Resits?

The solution may be a little more complicated than this. Leaving students without the required pass grade in either GCSE English and maths could mean that their future plans don’t work out as they want.

With employers, as well as colleges and universities, insistent on a grade 4 or its equivalent at GCSE for courses and some apprenticeship training schemes, allowing GCSE grades to slide is not acceptable nor appropriate.

But there has to be a solution, say critics, because we cannot allow students to be caught in the miserable cycle of GCSE English and maths resist. So what is the answer?


It’s no secret that schools, along with other essential services such as medical care, the police etc., have been nearing the brunt of budget cuts for years now. The cracks are beginning to show not just in the results we are seeing, but in the physical fabric of schools and colleges too.

There is clearly a need to invest heavily in both these core subjects as in others, making sure that all students have the resources and the teaching they need to make the probability of gaining the lofty grade 7/8 in GCSE English and maths a high one. 

Investment, however, goes further than this. The need to attract and retain exciting candidates in teaching is essential, especially in the field of maths. 40% of new teachers are leaving the profession within the first six years of teaching, blaming the lack of work-life balance, the stress and pressure of meeting targets.

With a nationwide shortage of qualified maths teachers, the time has come to examine who the teaching profession attracts and how gaps in skills and knowledge can be filled.


The other issue is to change the way that aspects of GCSE English and maths are taught. But this isn’t enough on its own, say some critics.

The way that students are taught for resits needs to change too. And there are some colleges showing the way. Sussex Downs, for example, is pioneering a new approach to maths resits called Essential 8.

In terms of English resits, there are new curriculums under development for use with students with low grades GCSE.

The Get Further scheme is utilising the skills of experienced teachers into colleges to support students.

pencil and pencil on container

Fighting for the Same Thing

It’s rare within both political and educational circles for everyone to agree on the same thing. But, when it comes to the resit argument, it is clear everyone agrees on one key outcome – that ALL students, regardless of their background or ability, are giving the right teaching and training for them which ultimately leads them down the career path of their choice.