How do they get those results?    The national pass rate for GCSE maths re-sits in FE is currently around 16%.  Less than one in every five students having a second (or third, or fourth) go at achieving a grade 4 actually gets it.  For some time, I’ve been looking for a shining example of a college which bucks this trend. 

Last year I saw an advert for a position at a nearby rival (we’re corporations, remember – that's how we think of each other).  The advert highlighted that the successful applicant would be joining an “outstanding” maths team.  To be honest, I don’t want to work in an “outstanding” department.  I’ve done so before and hated it.  I’d rather work in a really good one, but that’s a difference to explore another time.  Though I did not apply for the job, it led me to wonder what their results were like.  I looked them up.  They were much higher than the shockingly low national rate.  How, I asked myself, have they done this?  And why are they not famous for it?  Why are they not travelling the length and breadth of the country showing the rest of us where we err? 

I did a little ferreting around and found my answer.  I am sure their staff are dedicated and capable (outstanding, even) but that is not what explained the high results.  It was when I found their enrolment strategy, passed to me by a friend whose partner worked there, that I said “Ah! That’s how they do it!”  This brings me to the first of three strategies I have come across for improving results without making anyone better at maths. 

They enrol everyone for GCSE maths, including the students who already have a grade 4.  The vast majority of those with a grade 4 or above go on to achieve exactly the same grade they already had – but it still counts in that college’s attainment figures!  This sounds like a trick too easy to get away with, but Ofsted were full of praise for the policy.  “All students are given the opportunity to improve their maths,” the report stated.  In a way, that was true.  Except teaching hours for those students were set at the bare minimum and a blind eye was turned to non-attendance figures which were (I am told on the grapevine) somewhat massaged at the end of the year.  It’s not surprising they didn’t make any progress.  They didn’t need to.  All the college required was for them to tread water and it would make them look wonderful.  It’s a cynical policy, chosen for cynical reasons – but easy to present in a positive light to an inspector on a tight schedule who likes the statistics it produces. 

Here’s another method some colleges employ to improve their results, this time in retrospect!  Suppose you have 100 students sitting GCSE maths and only 16 of them pass.  You would think that’s a pass rate of 16%, right?  Not necessarily.  A truly outstanding maths team does not give up just because the exam was two months ago.  What if 30 of the students who failed return to study with you the following year – in this case, you up can retrospectively decide that those students were on a two-year course.  That means they’ll count in next year’s attainment figures and now, all of a sudden, your 16 passes are out of 70 instead of 100.  Your pass rate just went up to 23%.  Congratulations! 

These students are called “rollovers,” and they are an administrative pain in the rear end, as they have to be enrolled on year-old codes and tracked and monitored separately even though they are in the same classes as everyone else.  It’s more grist for the mill of the vast FE bureaucracy, more man-hours and salaries spent on form filling and paper chasing that benefits none of the people using the service but is so endemic within it. 

Finally, one of the main measures of success for colleges is the general attainment rate.  This is simply the percentage of all students who pass their qualification.  It makes sense for BTECs and other vocational courses to be judged in such a way (apart from the powerful incentive that gives to fudge the in-house assessments and coursework), but it makes no sense at all that GCSEs are rolled up into that figure.  A student currently at grade 2 in GCSE could do either Level 2 Functional Skills (L2 FS) or GCSE under the new conditions of funding.  However, no head of faculty I know wants their students in a L2 FS class.  The reason?  A grade 2 student might not get a grade 4 in their exam this year, but even a grade 1 counts as a positive achievement for the department.  If you fail L2 FS, it doesn’t matter how close you were, you go down as a negative.  So, even when a student has failed GCSE three times in a row but might pass L2 FS, people often won’t risk putting them in for it.  Nobody trusts an inspector to look past the headline figure and try to work out what’s going on behind the scenes.  Having experienced a number of poor inspections, I can’t say I blame them. 

All of the above tactics are, as far as I am aware, legal if not entirely above board.  There are lots of decisions made in FE that fall into a sort of grey area, where you’ll get away with them if the college generally smells good and is not in financial trouble.   

What also boggles my mind is how easy these practises would be to stop.  You could end all three with two simple steps: 

1) Stop counting GCSEs as an achievement if the student doesn’t improve their grade.   

2) Insist that all students who sat an exam count on the figures, with no exception for “rollovers.”   

I cannot fathom why these loopholes persist and are so easily exploited.  The only conclusion I can draw is that the government has simply taken its eye off FE and doesn’t care that much what happens here.  Colleges are all businesses now, so as long as they are financially stable that’s all that really matters.