Why levelling up must focus on 'The Forgotten Third'

The new education secretary's pledge to tackle illiteracy shows he wants to help children facing the biggest challenges, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi needs to focus on 'The Forgotten Third' in schools, says ASCL leader Geoff Barton

Even by the queasy standards of recent times, these have been an unsettling few days in the world of education.

The Guardian reported that the Department for Education was considering the return of national tests at 14 and ditching limits on teachers’ working hours.

The prime minister announced plans to pay early career teachers in shortage subjects a “levelling up premium” to support recruitment and retention – in what appeared to be a dusted off version of a similar initiative that was proposed and then binned two years ago.

And the latest set of attendance statistics showed the havoc that continues to be caused by Covid, with over 200,000 pupils out of school for coronavirus-related reasons – and heaven knows how many absent staff.

Nadhim Zahawi's focus on innumeracy and illiteracy

But one of the most interesting – and potentially positive – pieces of news was a glancing reference in the new education secretary’s speech to the Conservative Party conference to a schools White Paper in the new year.

Nadhim Zahawi said that this would outline plans “to tackle innumeracy and illiteracy”. There was no further detail but it is interesting that virtually his first act as a secretary of state is to focus on improving outcomes for children who face the greatest challenges.

Of course, very few children are actually illiterate or innumerate, so we assume he is talking about those who fall short of the benchmarks at key stage 2 and GCSE.

In pre-pandemic times about one-third of pupils did not reach the expected standard in reading, writing and maths at the end of primary school.

And a similar proportion did not achieve at least a grade 4 standard pass in GCSE English and maths at the end of secondary school.

ASCL published a report on how to improve the prospects of these children and young people – whom we called "The Forgotten Third" – in 2019. 

I hope I am not reading too much into Mr Zahawi’s speech but it is interesting that shortly before announcing his plan for a White Paper, he spoke about the importance of early years education.

“Forty per cent of educational inequality is baked in by the age of 5,” he said.

And, indeed, our report on "The Forgotten Third" contains recommendations about extending the entitlement to early years education and improving investment in the sector for exactly the reason articulated by Mr Zahawi.

The sad reality is that disadvantaged children are already 4.6 months of learning behind their peers by the time they start primary school, and that this gap then widens to 18.1 months by the time they finish secondary school.

If all children were able to start school at a similar level of learning it would clearly make a massive difference to closing this attainment gap.

Our report on the forgotten third makes several other recommendations about how the prospects of these young people could be improved.

Replacing GCSEs

One of these is the idea of introducing a Passport in English to replace the current GCSE English language, and, in time, a companion Passport in Maths. The Passport, we said, should be criterion-referenced, comprising online assessment, a portfolio of a student’s writing and a significant oracy component.

Crucially, it could be taken at different levels between the ages of 15 and 19.

The point of this new approach is not "prizes for all" but the availability of a qualification in which students can build achievement over time; that gives every young person the dignity of a qualification of which they can be proud and which is meaningful to employers.

A lot of the general public probably don’t realise that under the current system of GCSE grading, there will always be a forgotten third.

The use of comparable outcomes to distribute grades means that – in normal exam years – roughly the same proportion of young people will receive grades 1 to 3 from one year to the next.

It surely cannot be fair or sensible to persist with such a system, in which a third of students will always fall short in the gateway qualifications of GCSE English and maths, with all the consequences this has for further study and careers.

We have to do better for them than this wretched and miserable predeterminism.

Opportunity to change

If there was ever a time to make this change, this is surely that time. Two years of turmoil have disrupted the system of comparable outcomes, and the pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of an exam system built almost entirely on a relentless set of terminal exams.

We do not know what will be proposed in the forthcoming White Paper and we might be hopelessly naïve in holding out the hope for a change of this nature.

But Mr Zahawi’s focus appears to be in the right place – on the children and young people who need the most support. And improving their prospects is what will take our education system from being good to being world-class – which surely is what levelling up should be about.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

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