Around 37% of 16 year olds in England do not achieve at least a grade 'C' GCSE in mathematics and 34% do not so in English. Everyone agrees that 16 year olds without a Level 2 in English or mathematics should continue to study these subjects until they reach this minimum standard until they are 18. The disagreement is over the type of qualification young people must take to achieve a Level 2 in these key subjects, namely GCSEs or functional literacy and numeracy level 2 programmes.

Only 8% of 16 year olds without a grade 'C' GCSE in English and 7% without a similar grade in mathematics achieve a grade 'C' through resitting GCSEs by age 18. Post-16, achievement of level 2 qualifications in English and mathematics takes the form of functional literacy and numeracy programmes rather than GCSE resits.

One third of 16 year olds without a GCSE grade 'C' in English and mathematics stay on in school sixth forms where the curriculum tends towards academic rather than the vocational. By contrast, two thirds of 16 year olds without GCSEs at grade C in these subjects enrol at FE colleges, especially general FE colleges, where the curriculum is more vocational than academic.

Achievement of a Level 2 in English and mathematics specifically in the form a GCSE is very important in terms of employability and recruitment into jobs by employers – particularly by employers who know what GCSE is and are not familiar with alternative qualifications. Deep down, the prime minister and the education secretary support a policy of mandatory GCSE re-sits in English and mathematics until a grade 'C' is attained. The FE sector, meanwhile, counters by arguing that it is counterproductive to insist on 16-18 year olds re-taking a type of examination that they have failed pre-16 at school and indeed college, and therefore the focus should be on functional literacy and numeracy programmes at Level 2.

The decision between mandatory GCSE resits and functional programmes is clouding the excellent policy of continued study of English and mathematics at whatever level until age 18 so that our young people can hold their own in these basic subjects with the best in the world.

A potential compromise which could bring together traditional educationalists and the FE sector is a policy where every 16 year old without a grade 'C' in English and mathematics should be obliged to resit their GCSE once. If they fail to obtain a grade 'C' they should have choice between re-sitting their GCSE or taking a functional Level 2 literacy and numeracy programme. Young people do grow and develop by trying again and achieving something they originally failed: what must not be allowed to happen is a situation where young people fail the same thing over and over again.

Mark Corney is an independent consultant and policy adviser to CfL