I Failed My Maths and English GCSEs and Thrived at Uni Anyway

The UK government plans to block those who don't pass certain exams from taking out student loans. Here's what former GCSE 'failures' think.
A young person checking their phone. Photo by Chris Bethell.
 Photo by Chris Bethell

Here's some fun news: Pupils who fail their Maths and English GCSE could be banned from taking out student loans, as part of new government plans aimed at “levelling up” Higher Education (whatever that means).

The proposals, first reported by The Telegraph earlier this week, suggest that unless a student earns the equivalent of a “C” grade in both subjects, they could be denied access to government money. In other words, good luck going to art school or studying music at uni if you’re not rich. In fact, good luck doing anything if you're not rich (and that’s on top of student loans going up, on average, by an extra £110 per year from April).


Seems a bit weird to base people’s entire academic worth – and, in many ways, life trajectory – on exams that people take at 16. With that in mind, we spoke to current and former university students who failed their Maths and English GCSEs about how these proposals would have affected them.

Tom Neilson, 31: ‘I failed my Maths GCSE three times and went on to get a First in Music Management’

I worried that I wouldn't be able to get into uni without a [Maths] GCSE, but I actually contacted the university directly to tell them about my music work outside of my qualifications.

I did music production from the age of 16, working in a recording studio in Wales. I worked my way up to producing for a couple of artists that were signed, so I was able to build a bit of a portfolio.

I failed my Maths GCSE three times and went on to get a First in Music Management. I went to the University of West London and had a great time! I even did well in the mathematical modules.

Not every profession requires the knowledge of Pythagoras’ Theorem. Without diversity of thought, we'll constantly be hitting a wall when it comes to inclusivity in the workplace.

Aviah Sarah Day, 34: ‘I was homeless during my GSCEs and now work as a university lecturer’

I did worry about not having my Maths GCSE. I went on to do an in-house Maths exam to get onto my MA at Goldsmiths which I passed. But other than that, it’s not been too much of a problem.

However, I know that just seeing [the new proposal] will put a lot of people off. My brother has a D in English and an E in Maths and he won't even call up to see if anything can be done because he thinks they don't want him.


I was homeless during my GCSEs and got an E in Maths. I went on to do a PhD and now work as a University Lecturer. My grades were inconsistent because I turned up for the topics that I enjoyed and bunked off the ones I struggled at and had no adult guidance at all.

I'm really heartbroken by this news – for family members, members of my community and also my students. Most of the students are older adults who didn't do well in education when they were younger. These measures would destroy the hopes of so many older students and honestly it’s heartbreaking.

Kyle Zeto, 34: ‘I failed my Maths GCSE and ended up with an MA in Fine Art’

I failed my Maths GCSE and ended up with a BA and MA in Fine Art – I’m not from a moneyed background either.

I did some apprenticeships in the creative industries via City & Guilds BTEC courses and I received Education Maintenance Allowances (EMAs) for going to those.

Through that, I built a portfolio of work which then got me into Central Saint Martins to do a BA in Fine Art in 2017 and, later, an MA at the Royal College of Art.

I received a student loan for going to Central Saint Martins and I pay that back in small increments now which basically acts like a pointless tax, because my repayments don't even cover the interest on the loan.

Kids who might be the first of their families to go to university is something I think the Tories want to discourage because they seem to believe universities make people left-wing.


Jacob Samuels, 24: ‘I failed my English GCSE, but I’ve now graduated my Masters with a First’

I desperately wanted to go to university as a way to escape my home situation, domestic violence and a very difficult divorce. I went to the University of Liverpool as an undergraduate and did my Masters at Manchester.

I failed my English GCSE because I was going through it at 16, but I’ve now graduated my Masters with a First.

When I failed English I did panic but I was able to do it again while doing my A-Levels. I also got a full student loan of £8,600 a year because I come from a low-income background.

We know those from low-income backgrounds, Black students, kids from difficult homes, all struggle with academic attainment (I did my Masters thesis on this).

But it’s not just an attack on those kids. It’s an attack on any kid who might struggle at school and wants to go to uni. I doubt this will be affecting kids at grammar and private schools. Basically, if you’re rich you’re safe.

The whole framing of “mickey mouse” degrees is so unbelievably short-sighted. If you’re doing a degree you are learning something and will ultimately contribute to the advancement of our society.

Cheryl Fyfield, 26: ‘I failed my Maths and English GCSE because I was in hospital during my exams’

I thought failing my GCSE English and Maths would be an issue as I wanted to be a nurse and I knew I couldn’t without those qualifications. 

I failed my Maths and English GCSE because I was in hospital during my exams. I’m now a student nurse. It’s terrifying to know I wouldn’t be able to get a loan to do my nursing training because of this.


I managed to retake my GCSEs at college but the damage was already done and because of failing them the first time my college wouldn’t let me pursue more academic subjects. 

I did an animation degree at the University for the Creative Arts. This degree enabled me to get into Children’s Nursing at the University of Surrey which is where I’m currently studying.

People can fail their GCSEs for many reasons, but this shouldn’t define their education or career choices. To know that an exam you take when you are still so young can stop you from getting a student loan is shocking! 

Student loans are the only realistic way for students to be able to afford to attend university. I believe this is a way to stop people from going to university, which is backwards and twisted.

Flick Pepper, 34: ‘I got an E in Maths and dropped out of education until I became a mature student at 26’

I got an E in Maths and an A in English and then dropped out of education until I went to uni as a mature student at 26 studying English Literature.

I am a lone parent too, so it was a lot to study at the same time with such a gap in my education. I also had to commute, due to letting agents discriminating against me as I was on benefits.

I think the new proposal is classist, discriminatory and worrying - it’s going to lock a lot of people out of higher education when often the GCSE will have no relation to the degree they are doing. 

I think there was such a huge emphasis placed on Maths and English GCSE. For so long I always felt that English was all I was good at and I had to overcompensate somewhat for being truly terrible at Maths.