GCSE mathematics resits - what's the problem, and what can be done about it?

By Will Vince posted 15-04-2024 16:57


In light of the Government's ongoing consultation about The Advanced British Standard and compulsory maths education to 18, STEM Learning have been reflecting on the current GCSE resit policy and how our interventions have supported young people.

The Challenge

Since August 2015, students who fail to achieve a grade 4 or above in GCSE Mathematics have been required to resit the subject. This continues until the student has either achieved a grade 4 or above or has left full-time education. Achieving a grade 4 in GCSE Mathematics is essential for many post-secondary routes; it is an entry requirement for most undergraduate courses as well as most apprenticeships. This policy change has put a tremendous importance on achieving this grade 4, which in turn puts extreme pressure on students who find themselves resitting.

Despite the importance placed on passing this exam, more than 100,000 students every year fail to achieve at least this vital grade 4. This figure has continued to increase annually - from approximately 146,000 in 2022 to approximately 167,000 in 2023.

The reality is that most students who fail to achieve a grade 4 in GCSE Mathematics on their first attempt continue to fail on subsequent resits. In 2019, only 17.4% of GCSE Mathematics resits resulted in a grade 4 or above; in 2023 this declined further to just 13.3%.

ERA Maths in FE Colleges Pilot

Between 2021 and 2023, STEM Learning and the ERA Foundation ran the ERA maths in FE Colleges pilot, with the aim of demonstrating what works to improve outcomes in GCSE maths for young people in FE colleges. Working with 50 further education colleges in total, the pilot consisted of three parts:

Part 1 - Three half-day CPD sessions delivered by trained consultants to the colleges’ mathematics departments. The sessions saw colleges evaluate their current mathematics teaching and explore how to develop mathematical reasoning and problem solving skills.

Part 2 - Subject leaders attended a two-day residential summer school at the National STEM Learning Centre in York. The summer school covered how to support curriculum planning and implementation. Subject leads developed an action plan during the summer school to be implemented in the following academic year.

Part 3 - Consultants provided individual support to colleges to help implement their action plan. This took the form of lesson observation, feedback, lesson planning and any other support to meet the needs of the individual college.

Challenges Presented by the Covid-19 Pandemic

This pilot was significantly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic led to college staffing difficulties, colleges not accepting outside visitors and teachers working from home delivering lessons remotely. As such, many FE colleges that had expressed interest in the programme were unable to participate. It became impossible to run the pilot in a single phase with 50 colleges, as had originally been intended. Instead, the pilot ran in two phases, with 31 colleges participating in phase 1 (2021 – 2022) and 19 colleges participating in phase 2 (2022 – 2023).

Despite the significant challenges created by the pandemic, 42 of the participating colleges engaged with all training and support provided, with 12 providing full feedback on the activities. The full report is here - and here are some of the key findings.

Impact on Students

78% were confident that they would achieve a grade 4 in their upcoming exams

90% agreed that their GCSE resit lessons had helped them to improve skills they would need in the workplace

84% felt more confident `having a go` when presented with an unfamiliar or difficult question

Feedback from Teachers

“By leveraging the expertise and experiences of the group, we aimed to enhance the quality of our teaching and create a supportive environment for students' mathematical growth”

“My own philosophy has changed dramatically, and I no longer panic about complete syllabus coverage for all students”

“Students have more tools to answer questions - getting them to think before asking to help.”

Lessons for the future

Achieving a grade 4 in GCSE Mathematics provides a young person with so many more opportunities for further study and future employment. We all know the importance confidence has in allowing a student to reach their potential! Too many students are not reaching their potential because they have low confidence in their mathematic ability and do not see the relevance of what they are learning to their lives.

While this is a complex policy issue that requires further investigation from organisations such as STEM Learning, there is work that can be done today to support students facing GCSE Mathematics resits.

The ERA Maths in FE Colleges Pilot has demonstrated that a change in approach to how we teach mathematics to young people facing these resits can make a difference. Making the learning of mathematics more relevant to their other learning, and to their life more generally, can significantly boost their confidence in their mathematic capability. Whilst this alone is unlikely to solve the crisis of students repeatedly failing to attain that grade 4 in GCSE Mathematics, it is a crucial first step.

If the government were to implement The Advanced British Standard, we would need to ensure the FE sector has the proper support in place to enable more young people to achieve grade 4s and above in their GCSE maths resits. The ERA Maths in FE Colleges Pilot provides an insight into how this can be achieved.




17-04-2024 11:20

It is great to see resilience being increased for these young people in the report - thank you for sharing. 

We have modified the growth zone model which many people have found helpful - see Addressing Mathematics Anxiety: A Case Study in a High School in Brazil (

The Mathematical Resilience Book will be published by Routledge in June.  It must be emphasised to the policy makers that precious time, resources and young people's opportunities will continue to be wasted if we do not prioritise recovery from prior adverse experiences of maths and protection of maths well-being. We can keep trying! All the best, Sue JW

16-04-2024 09:27

Thanks for sharing Will. I know that a lot of good things are happening in FE in order to improve the experience and outcomes for GCSE resit and Functional Skills students - not least supporting the teachers!

We have a specialist maths FE team at MEI (you can see their contribution to the project in Appendix one).  They continue to provide an extensive professional development programme, funded by the Department for Education - designed for teachers of students who are working towards achieving grade 4 or higher by resitting GCSE Mathematics or studying Functional Skills Maths.  More details available on our website