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GCSE pass/fail-rate and resits.

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

One of the most important roles I have as an independent tutor is working with students who are resitting their GCSE English and Maths exams. This is one of the most impactful and rewarding challenges I face as a tutor. A pass-grade in these two GCSEs are a requisite for any course in further training or higher education and not having them is a huge roadblock for many people in their lives. It’s shockingly common for people to have neither grade - in fact over a third of students (35%) leave school without either of these GCSEs. This might be the single most lamentable statistic I know of in the UK education system, if only because it’s so unnecessary. Around a third of pupils are leaving school essentially doomed to being locked out of any further training and, by extension, many career options. Fast-forward ten years and the difference between a person that has left school with those two exams and someone who has neither is often stark.

What percentage of students should be passing the exam?

This is an interesting question. Should every exam be passable by everybody? Clearly not – there is little point in an exam that cannot be failed. The question is what is the lower threshold of ability for passing these exams? In my experience, the majority of resit students that I work with are perfectly capable of passing the exams. In my own practice around 80% of students go on to gain a pass grade within one or two sittings. If those results were expanded out across the population, the pass-rate would rise to 93%. This is one model for what pass-rates would be if students were adequately supported, challenged and prepared.

Does the pass/fail rate correspond to IQ?

In a word – no – and it’s not even close. Even if we go down the route of incorporating a crude, though widely measured statistic related to cognition - IQ – the current pass rate should be much higher. Only 16% of the population have an IQ of 85 or below. You might reasonably suggest that these students, with slower and less accurate ability to abstract would find the exams more difficult and be more likely to fail. Even if this were the case, it still wouldn’t account for the 35-36% failure rate. If we take as a premise that everyone with an IQ greater than 85 should be able to pass the exam, our pass rate should be 84%. Clearly we are a long way from this situation. On the IQ-based model were are left with 20% of all students, one-in-five, failing the exam when they should be passing it.

What are the factors in getting a student to achieve a pass grade?

In general, over the years I have learned to treat IQ scores with a considerable amount of caution. By far the strongest predictor of a student’s academic success are conscientiousness and support. Turning up to class, focusing, doing the work set and, where necessary getting extra help are a far better predictor of academic success than a raw IQ score. Mental application, training and memorisation – good education in simple terms, are the strongest predictors of academic success.

Students failing their GCSEs are often people who either did not apply themselves enough in school due to lack of maturity, accountability, or unfortunately often due to disinterested teaching. My own list of formerly failed GCSE students who went on to attain a pass grade is telling. Among this group are two students who achieved and A-grade in English, half-a-dozen who attained B grades and people who have gone on to study engineering, computer science, nursing and accounting. Others have gone on to work in family businesses or done vocational courses in traditional trades. These are all capable young people that have gone on to do very productive things once they were able to navigate their GCSE English and Maths with the right help, support and accountability.


On many occasions I have asked myself, how many people out there would pass these exams with the right support? How many people are needlessly locked out of further training and of building more productive and rewarding lives? The answer is, undoubtedly, millions of people nationwide and worldwide that number probably runs into the billions. This is enough motivation for me as an individual tutor, but as a sector the tuition profession can help thousands of students every year to increase the possibilities in their lives by getting the academic grounding they need for further training. The positive effects of the transformation from a fail to a pass grade reverberate through a students life long into the future, both in terms of career development and self-confidence.

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