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Blog post Part of special issue: Exploring issues in secondary subject English: Reconnecting curriculum, policy and practice

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better (Beckett, 1983): GCSE English students’ relationship with failure

Jo Bowser-Angermann, Associate Professor of Applied Teaching and Learning at Anglia Ruskin University

The pressure to ‘fail better’ weighs heavy in GCSE English resit classrooms, echoing Samuel Beckett’s famous words from Worstward Ho. However, this oft-repeated mantra, stripped of its original context, masks a morbid genuineness of failure and nothing more. This misinterpretation creates undue pressure on students, particularly in high-stakes environments such as GCSEs. Instead of relying on this simplified version, we need a more nuanced understanding of failure in education. In this blog post I reflect on the negative impact of GCSE English resits and consider the role that Dweck’s growth mindset (1999) has on student motivation, recognising that our response to failure or perceived failure is a choice.

Since 2014, students in England aged 16–19 who do not hold a GCSE grade 9–4 (or A*–C) in English have been forced to resit the exam until they reach the required benchmark standard of grade 4 (or C). Despite technically passing the exam, students with a grade 3 are often left feeling labelled as failures as it triggers a resit requirement, facing possible cycles of failure.

My research suggests that the effect of the GCSE English resit policy is damaging (Bowser-Angermann, 2024). It weighs heavy on students and teachers and has a detrimental impact of teaching and learning. To prevent this, the English curriculum in the post-16 sector needs to go beyond relearning failed content from students’ secondary education and labelling their achievements as failures. This can happen meaningfully by reviewing the purpose of our subject of English, from key stage 1 through to key stage 4, A-level and degree level, and reviewing what our measurement of success of the subject is. We need to ask ourselves what is a grade C/4? Does it demonstrate a sound knowledge and understanding of English – or simply demonstrate that students have learned to play the game?

‘Does achieving grade C/4 demonstrate a sound knowledge and understanding of English – or simply demonstrate that students have learned to play the game?’

What if the message to students was actually, ‘You’ve achieved a grade in GCSE English, well done; if you try again, you might achieve an even better one’? GCSE English resit students, like everyone, carry their previous educational experiences with them, so the mandatory resit cycle may result in them equating English with failure. GCSE resit teachers therefore need to reflect on their students’ prior learning experiences, consider how they might best learn, and challenge their own perceptions of what their resit students are capable of.

One tool to help with this is focusing on mindset. It is argued that there are two types of mindsets: Fixed (entity theory of intelligence) and Growth (incremental theory of intelligence) (Dweck, 1999; Aubrey & Riley, 2019). Dweck (1999) argues that students can develop a growth mindset through teacher interventions, but she also acknowledges that growth mindset learners by nature are intrinsically motivated and not motivated by an external stimulus. This suggests that no matter the pedagogical interventions, for a student to improve on their GCSE English grade, they need an intrinsic motivation. An external force is not enough and ultimately will not change their inner learning beliefs.

However, mindset isn’t necessarily that simple. Ablard and Mills (1996) suggest that mindset isn’t dichotomous, but fluid, and is different across academic domains. In 2015, O’Brien compared Dweck’s mindset theory to nothing more than a fairytale, stating ‘mindsets aren’t magic wands’, and cautioning educators that any mindset intervention from a teacher could be seen as ‘try-harder medicine.’ My doctoral research presented observational evidence of how ‘mindset’ can help re-motivate learners, but also how it is less effective in learners who carry their negative previous experiences of GCSE English with them (Bowser-Angermann, 2019; 2024). The risk is that some GCSE English students who are finding this ‘medicine’ hard to swallow will become further disgruntled, and this will result in conflict with the teacher trying to help them.

Although ‘mindset’ can bear fruit, it could equally be a further obstacle for students studying for compulsory GCSE resits. There is an inherent dissonance between the GCSE resit policy’s intentions and what is happening in GCSE English resit classrooms because the policy enforces a cycle underpinned by a perceived failure, and in the game of GCSE English resits, ‘failing better’ can feel rigged.

Perhaps, as Beckett suggests, it’s not just about trying again but about questioning the very definition of failure itself.


Ablard, K. E., & Mills, C. J. (1996). Implicit theories of intelligence and self-perceptions of academically talented adolescents and children. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Social Science Collection, 25(2), 137–147.

Aubrey, K., & Riley, A. (2019). Understanding and using educational theories (2nd edn). Sage.

Beckett, S. (1983). Worstward Ho. Grove Press.

Bowser-Angermann, J. (2019). If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again: The case of GCSE resit students, teachers and policymakers in 2016-2017 [Doctoral thesis]. Anglia Ruskin University.

Bowser-Angermann, J. (2024). Government U-turn: A policyquake in action. Journal of Academic Perspectives, 2024(1).

Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Psychology Press.