'We have an education policy vacuum - let's fill it'

With Brexit dominating, teachers should take the matter of the Forgotten Third into their own hands, writes Ann Mroz

Brexit has left the education sector with a policy vacuum - but the issue of students failing to secure English and maths GCSE needs to be addressed urgently, writes Ann Mroz

There is, everyone would agree, a vacuum in education policymaking. At first, this came as a relief, a longed-for respite from the crazy whirligig of change.

Now, however, as it drags on, there’s a sense of despair in some quarters. There are areas of education that desperately need attention. One such area concerns the so-called Forgotten Third – the 33 per cent, or the 160,000 or so young people, who fail to get a GCSE in English and maths by the age 19.

The intent behind making students study these subjects until they are 18 or secure a qualification in them is, of course, an admirable one. Literacy and numeracy underpin everyday life for all of us.

For employers, the GCSEs provide reassurance of a level of skill. For the students themselves, even modest incremental improvements in GCSE attainment have sizeable lifetime economic returns. On the flip side, however, those who fail to secure a pass are more likely to drop out of education and become classified as NEET (not in education, employment or training) at 18.

And when more than half of this Forgotten Third are on free school meals, we are adding disservice to disadvantage. It makes talk of social mobility seem very hollow indeed.

GCSE resits pile on the pain

For these young people, the current approach just isn’t working. All we seem to be doing is piling on the pain. Many are taking numerous resits – research last year found that more than a quarter of those resitting English were doing so for at least the third time. In maths it was 37 per cent. And some had sat the exams as many as nine times. Just imagine how soul-destroying that must be.

Especially when one considers that the failure is not solely theirs; it is very much ours too. We send students to do retakes, usually at FE colleges, where we provide less funding for them than at school where they failed the first time. There’s no extra cash for any remedial work (and no pupil premium for those from disadvantaged backgrounds) and by the time anyone at these institutions has worked out what might have gone wrong the last time – all too often there’s no data to let them know, just the student’s grade – there’s less than two terms to try to solve it. It’s completely bonkers and utterly unfair.

Sadly, while Brexit dominates the political landscape, there seems little chance of government being able to tackle issues such as this. So why not do it ourselves? In this spirit, we assembled a group of educationalists to discuss the issue of the Forgotten Third (others will follow) and try to come up with some possible ways forward. Out of this came five ideas, some straightforward and others more complex. Now we want you to stress-test them, add your thoughts and shape the agenda.

First up, the maths GCSE. Is it fit for purpose? Would it be better if it were divided in two: a functional maths for those who wish to prove their practical numeracy, and advanced maths for those who want to continue with the subject or the sciences? This could be loosely modelled on the division between English language and English literature (bit.ly/GCSEMathsReform).

We’ll publish the other four ideas soon. But in the meantime, spare a thought for places like Leeds City College, where 3,740 students resat GCSE maths last month. Sadly, the odds are stacked against them. Of the 161,139 entries last summer for students aged over 17, just 22.7 per cent resulted in a grade 4 “standard pass” or higher – down 14.3 percentage points compared with 2017.

There is a policy vacuum, so let’s fill it. The government doesn’t have a monopoly on ideas and change doesn’t always have to come from others. You’re the experts. Tell us what you think.

Ann Mroz is digital publishing director and editor of Tes. She tweets @AnnMroz

This article originally appeared in the 5 July 2019 issue under the headline “Stop waiting for government – the real change starts with you”