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Supporting learners yet to secure a good pass in GCSE English and Maths.


Achieving level 2 in English and mathematics, preferably through attainment of GCSE, is widely accepted as demonstrating good literacy and numeracy skills. Since 2014, students without a good pass in English and Maths GCSE (a ‘4’ or higher under the new GCSE grading system) must continue to study these subjects until they are 18, or secure a qualification in them.

This policy was modified in 2015 so that learners achieving a grade ‘3’ (roughly equivalent to a ‘D’) must be enrolled on a GCSE course, whereas those with lower prior grades may take functional skills courses.

The benefits of securing good skills and grades in these key subjects is clear: even modest incremental improvements in GCSE attainment have sizeable lifetime economic returns across the spectrum of GCSE achievement.

However, supporting older learners to secure these qualifications is challenging. Given that these are young people who have already been studying English and maths for 11 years and haven’t achieved the target grades, they are more likely than other learners to feel disaffected and disengaged.

The challenge of improving post-16 attainment is a particular issue for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A majority of students eligible for free school meals (FSM) have not achieved a good standard in English and mathematics by age 19.

The EEF is working with J.P. Morgan to improve the evidence about the best ways to improve English and Maths outcomes for these learners.

Toolkit strands

Evidence Summary

There has been little research done about how to improve the English and maths skills of older, lower-skilled learners. The EEF commissioned a review of the available literature before making our first grants in this area, and the Centre for Vocational Education Research published another review in April 2017. Both identified a need for more research that uses rigorous methods such as randomised controlled trials, as there are very few of these available to guide teachers at the moment.

With the caveats about the security of the evidence in mind, research suggests that some features of effective English teaching include peer-mediated support that is sustained over time, and using a range of strategies rather than just focusing on one approach. In maths, the key features of effective teaching appear to include effective diagnostic assessment, embedding the content in vocational learning, and developing students’ motivation.

Some EEF evidence from studies with younger learners is likely to be relevant – for example about Feedback and monitoring pupil progress, literacy and mathematics – though careful thought is needed to ensure approaches are implemented in a way that is relevant for these particular students.

Through our funded projects, we hope to generate more useful findings and practical evidence for post-16 teachers. 


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EEF commissioned Alpha Plus to undertake a literature review of the available evidence in 2016

CVER also undertook a review in 2017

The Department for Education published a report in 2017 on Effective practice in the delivery and teaching of English and Mathematics to 16-18 year olds by CFE, which looked at the practices associated with higher GCSE resit results: 

Organisations like Education and Training Foundation provide resources to develop English and maths outcomes. In June 2019, the EEF worked in partnership with ETF to publish guidance on the role of Learning Support Assistants (LSAs) in the Further Education and Training sector, which builds on the EEF’s Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants guidance report.

If you are applying for funding for work on this theme, please review our Post 16 Guidance Notes