The lost children of education

Subjecting the ‘forgotten third’ of those who fail maths and English language GCSE to multiple resits only causes further mental distress and disenfranchisement, writes Tara Porter. Instead, we should value every child’s contribution
7th February 2020, 12:04am
The Lost Children Of Education
Tara Porter


The lost children of education

Despite the best efforts of teachers, heads and schools, a solid third of children in each Year 11 cohort do not achieve the qualifications of maths and English GCSEs. These children are often referred to as "the forgotten third".

Exams regulator Ofqual, wanting to keep the value of a GCSE roughly equal year on year, adjusts grade boundaries to provide consistency over time. So roughly the same proportion of pupils falls short of a grade 4 (that is: a fail) each year. Without full-scale exam reforms, this will continue, condemning roughly a third to failure every year.

Maths and English GCSEs are seen as the basic passport to the next level of education and life. So the idea that, after 12 years of education, a third of children will not clear this hurdle seems a matter of concern.

As a psychologist, I am concerned about the mental-health causes and consequences of this. Is it simply that the hurdle is too high? Or are the hurdlers untalented, or not prepared properly? Or do other societal or psychological factors play into this statistic?

Quads and ends

We should be careful of anyone espousing overly simple or blame-driven explanations for complex problems such as mental health and educational failure, often to score political or moral points. The problems are not explained by children being snowflakes, falling standards or easier exams. Children are not born delinquents; this is not happening because we've lost traditional standards, or because schools have been turned into exam factories.

Or, rather, it is not any of these explanations in isolation. Failure is complex and multidimensional, not static. It occurs not at a fixed point at the end of Year 11, but as a cascade of factors throughout a child's life.

In psychology, we try to understand problems at multiple levels. We use what is known as the "cognitive quad" to capture human experience at four levels: those of their thoughts, feelings, behaviour and physiology.

The process of failing maths and English GCSE is often the process of a child becoming disenfranchised from school and from education. The cognitive quad highlights that the process of disenfranchisement can start at any time, at any of these four levels, and then quickly become a negative spiral.

For example, cognitively, a child may think they are no good at a subject, or that a teacher doesn't like them, or that school has little to offer them. That thinking style impacts on their behaviour: they stop trying in that subject, or for that teacher, and start messing around.

It also affects their emotions, engendering anxious feelings or feelings of failure and hopelessness in the child, and they become withdrawn.

Alternatively, a child may start their school journey with positive thoughts about school and learning, but with pre-existing anxiety or sadness related to some other trauma or difficulty. Being in an anxious or low state makes learning more difficult. The lack of self-belief that often accompanies poor mental health will then be confirmed by any sense of failure in the academic arena.

Or the process may start with physiological difficulties, such as learning difficulties or physical disability, which hamper the child's ability to access the curriculum.

The reality is that all of those are probably true, and a million other possible explanations, too. Each child has a completely unique psychological world, in the same way that we all have a unique fingerprint.

For each child who fails their GCSEs at 16, their psychological relationship to school, to academia, to teachers, to exams, will have been building over their 12-year school history - or even before, through their family's relationship to school.

There is evidence that childhood distress leads to poor academic performance. But there's some evidence the other way around too: children who don't do well in school feel distress as a consequence.

In both cases, the distress spills over into the child's behaviour. Some children - mainly boys - act out their psychological turmoil through violence, shouting, disruption, rudeness, disobedience. They externalise. They struggle more in school. (The distressed children who sit quietly with their misery - mainly girls - are more acceptable in a school setting.)

Externalising mental distress into disruptive behaviour is of course more likely to get you out of the classroom: into an isolation booth, suspended or excluded. These are all conditions likely to add to spiral of academic failure, emotional distress and negative self-belief, leading cumulatively to a failure to get your GCSEs.

But children don't exist in a vacuum. The child's individual psychological profile develops over time, but it does not develop in isolation.

In psychology, we are not only looking at the experience of the individual child, but also at their experience within their social context.

The most basic unit of social context for a child is the family. The child of a drug addict is more likely to be late for school, to be unfed when they arrive, to have no support with homework. Witnessing or experiencing violence and abuse are traumatic to children and may lead them to be in a chronically anxious state. They may be wired to react to discipline or criticism with a fight-or-flight reaction, because of high levels of cortisol and adrenaline in their bodies.

A family with a low level of educational achievement may consciously or unconsciously communicate to their child a lack of belief in school or education. Parents with a lower socioeconomic status may not have time to help their child with homework, because of the demands of shift work or top-and-tailing work.

Equally, a family with lower socioeconomic status may have a smaller choice of schools than wealthier families, because higher-performing schools tend to attract a house-price premium. These families have less access to private tuition than their affluent counterparts, or to the kind of private educational assessments that allow for additional time in exams.

Two more factors are crucial and need to be mentioned here: being in care and being without adequate housing. Children in care lack a strong attachment relationship and a sense of containment to their emotional world.

A lack of safe, adequate housing acts at a practical level: children have poorer sleep and space to do their homework. But it also affects them on an emotional level: children literally and metaphorically need a secure base from which to explore the world. A permanent home is an extension of the attachment relationship.

Schools on the front line

What is the role of schools and the education system in the forgotten-third statistic? Schools are the front-line service on which all the social and family deprivation, the childhood trauma and the distress lands. Schools are also at the sharp edge of the opposing pressures of, on the one hand, relentless scrutiny and accountability, and on the other hand, universality. Schools are open to all; they are where all manner of social, family and individual problems are played out.

All the family and individual factors - from learning difficulties to poor mental health, abuse, drugs, poverty and knife crime - will impact on a school's ability to teach children. It's not a surprise that some schools have to resort to rote learning to pass the test, rather than genuine understanding. Perhaps because schools are the at the front line of all social problems, they are more and more resorting to the sledgehammer of off-rolling or exclusion.

This is your classic chicken-and-egg situation: the distressed child acts out, is excluded and then becomes more distressed. Half of these children are on free school meals, and half have mental-health difficulties. Condemning such children to multiple resits, with less support, will only cause further mental distress and disenfranchisement.

Every child needs to be given a chance to be educationally excellent, but not every child has the individual, family and social background to be capable of taking that chance.

Other children don't want it. Where is the school role for them? I sincerely believe that everyone's work matters, yet our education system seems to be designed by graduates to narcissistically produce mini versions of themselves.

Some children will grow up to be butchers, and bakers and rubbish-bin takers, and school should be a meaningful experience for them, too. It should engage them as stakeholders in society and give them some of the generic knowledge and skills - literacy, numeracy, life skills - they need to do their work.

A third of children are not getting maths and English GCSEs. Exclusions are at a record high, particularly among those from deprived backgrounds. Tutoring and extra exam time are at a record high among the more affluent population. A&E presentations for self-harm and suicidality are at a record high. These are signs that the system is broken.

I've spoken to professionals from pupil referral units, to youth offending teams and to careers advisers for NEETs. One message came through stronger than all others: the perpetrator is the victim.

The child failing their GCSEs maybe stroppy and uncooperative - criminal, even. They may not work hard. But the pattern of this behaviour is a function of their own experience of the system. They are not born bad; they are acting out their emotional distress through behavioural means. They are often the victims of social, educational and family dysfunction, and often there is little that either health, education, social services or housing can do to tackle that in isolation.

A third of children are left disenfranchised by education, and it is these children who are at risk of becoming disenfranchised from society. Final exams, such as GCSEs, should be designed to capture the range of children's ability, and not to declare a significant proportion of children to be failing.

Education is dominated by an academic argument, driven by academically qualified professionals (myself included), who, by definition, value qualifications. Instead, we should value each child's contribution. Each child should be given an opportunity to experience success at school, through their own hard work, natural ability and interest.

But those children who are not academic - or not interested - should not be subject to repetitive failure. They are more than a statistic. They are the lost children of education, left behind by a results-driven ethos embedded in a fractured system.

Dr Tara Porter is a clinical psychologist at the Royal Free Hospital NHS Trust and the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, as well as Tes mental health columnist. While the views expressed here are her own, she is grateful to Vivienne Dasilva and Dr Roberta Babb from the New Horizon Youth Centre, Stephen Taylor from the Family School London, and Nathaniel McGowan at C&K Careers for their time and insights. She tweets @drtjap

This article originally appeared in the 7 February 2020 issue under the headline "The lost children of education"

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