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Zero-tolerance resits rule could cost schools £10m

Fining sixth forms for pupils not doing resits and introducing minimum teaching hours will disadvantage all students and could see nearly £10 million seized from budgets.

The warning comes from head teachers who say “out-of-the-blue” changes are “simply unrealistic”.

Last week, the government announced that sixth forms will have to teach pupils who failed their English and maths GCSE for a minimum of three to four hours a week or risk losing funding. This would be pro-rata for those studying part-time.

Under the “condition of funding” policy, the Department for Education will claw back funding for any eligible pupils who have not enrolled to do resits from 2027.

Currently, clawback only kicks in when more than 5 per cent of students without a grade 4 pass in English and maths do not enrol for resits. 

Schools Week understands that the DfE drew up the plans after becoming concerned at consistently high rates of pupils not enrolling for resits.

Ministers were also worried that schools and colleges had moved away from in-person teaching hours after the pandemic. 

‘Simply unrealistic’

But Sacha Corcoran, principal at Big Creative Academy in Waltham Forest, said it was “simply unrealistic to think that those students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, with sometimes complex lives, will all engage with the retake program – despite our best efforts”.

The 16 to 19 free school had nearly £59,000 clawed back for 2021-22, with 53 students not meeting the funding condition. 

“To be financially penalised when we are still providing all of the resources necessary to deliver the GCSE retake program simply disadvantages the other students,” Corcoran added. 

“With an increase in mental health concerns, keeping students engaged is so important. For some young people who may have failed the GCSE twice before, using funding as a weapon to force them into these classes is not the answer.”

Schools Week analysis shows how 125 schools, sixth-form colleges and university technical colleges (about 6 per cent) were fined in 2021-22.

If the new “zero tolerance” rule had been applied that year, nearly half (1,004) of schools would have been fined. The clawback would have amounted to £9.3 million.

It also comes despite the amount being clawed back falling dramatically by 77 per cent since 2014-15.

The Association of Colleges said the 5 per cent tolerance gives providers “some flexibility” to ensure students with high levels of anxiety or those with special educational needs “can stay in college, benefiting from the wider skills which are the main purpose of college”. 

Chief executive Russ Lawrance estimated that Haringey Sixth Form College would take a  £40,000 to £60,000 budget hit under the new zero tolerance rule.

 “That’s money we can’t use to support students’ education, but we are still having to educate them… It’s a cumulative negative effect in an already massively challenging aspect of our provision.” 

The tolerance will fall to 2.5 per cent for pupils starting in September next year, then drop to zero for those enrolling in 2026. However, money would not be clawed back until two years later.

‘Publish evidence’

James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said there “should always be a tolerance to allow institutions to make professional decisions about individual students. 

But he added: “If there is a problem with how the tolerance is being used, publish the evidence and focus on those sixth forms with a very high level of non-compliance.”

On the minimum hours, Kewin said it will require “more maths teachers, more space and re-timetabling”, adding: “Where is the evidence base for this? Both are last minute measures that came out of the blue.”

Lawrance would need to recruit an additional teacher and find teaching space for 15 classes per week to meet the new minimum hours requirement, but with “no significant increase in funding”.

A report on Thursday by the Education Policy Institute found a “very high level of policy churn” in the UK’s post-16 education and training which has been “detrimental”, including to  staff morale.

Kewin added: “Ministers should engage with the sector on the resit policy rather than simply introducing even more red tape.”

The department said minimum classroom teaching hours “reflect the established practice noted across institutions pre-pandemic”.

It added: “We know that many settings are already meeting the minimum hours or are on a journey back towards this. Our amendments will ensure that this progress is consistent across the country, so that all students receive a standard number of taught hours.”

Removing the tolerance would help “as many students as possible” to achieve English and maths qualifications. 

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