The 'forgotten third' dooms teachers to failure, too

A great form tutor quit because his struggling tutees fared badly at GCSE. His former colleague reflects on a needless loss


Man pushing boulder up a hill

Four days before the start of the new school year, I sat naming my personal stock of green marking pens. I doubt they will make it into October, but every year I buy a reel of Sellotape and get to work.

I have laughed about this many times with a colleague who has always shared my sense of urgency on this subject. But he is not laughing this year, and he is not naming pens. 

I found out recently that he's resigned. On 27 August. Here in the rural South West, there are limited opportunities for German teachers at a salary that would meet his mortgage commitments. So he is selling up and moving to South East London to share a flat with a friend from university.

Giving 100 per cent commitment

I couldn’t believe it. He was a fantastic, passionate teacher – 100 per cent committed to his students, and a cheerful, helpful colleague. His GCSE German results were pretty good and absolutely below the accountability radar.

So what went wrong? Well, he was a Year 11 form tutor and he had nurtured that class for the five-year duration of his teaching career. 

When he joined the school, at May half-term in 2014, he was identified as the kind of empathetic, passionate young man who would make a fabulous Year 7 form tutor for vulnerable pupils. 

He knew his tutor group inside out; he knew their parents and often their siblings. He made appointments with the parents of his tutees at parents’ evening, even when he didn’t teach any of them. He knew about the parents’ relationship breakdowns, the deaths of grandparents, the arrival – and departure – of much-loved pets. He knew them. Inside out.

So when the GCSE results of his tutor group were disappointing, he went to pieces. 

More equal than others

I am sure I don’t need to spell out to you that all tutor groups are equal, but some are more equal than others. Most of his pupils would not achieve the entry requirements of the highly selective sixth form. And there was nothing that my colleague could do about it. 

But he kept hoping and nurturing and encouraging. When the GCSE mock results came out, he redoubled his efforts and organised extra intervention for his tutees, bought additional revision guides from his own pocket and even paid for one girl to have a private tutor in English language. She got a grade 4. It wasn’t enough.

For some of you, alarm bells will be ringing. Why was this man digging into his own pocket to help these pupils in his tutor group? Well, precisely because they were considered to be “hopeless cases” by everyone else. Anyone within spitting distance of a grade 5 in the core subjects was treated like royalty: breakfast clubs, revision-plus-pizza sessions… 

But no one was going to allocate funds from a very limited budget to help the no-hopers in his Year 11 tutor group. 

I mentioned earlier that my colleague was cheerful and passionate. But when I saw him last night, he was exhausted and bitter. I have never before seen such a horrible and dramatic change. 

Right to resign

To be honest, I think he was right to resign. There is no way he could have turned up next week, ready to take on his new Year 7 tutor group. He knows, as he has seen the transition data, that – once again – his tutor group would be filled with the pupils who we are coming to identify as “the forgotten third”: the students who have no chance of succeeding at GCSE because the system of comparable outcomes will prevent them from doing so. 

So where was the senior leadership team on results day? Where was the support for this lovely man? I share a sense of helplessness and guilt that many people feel, as news of my colleague’s resignation has spread like wildfire through our small coastal community. 

I have to live with the knowledge that a man who was on the verge of a breakdown was told off – publicly – by the deputy head on results day for trying to encourage the father of one of his tutees to appeal her maths GCSE grade. Many of us stood around, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. Not one of us intervened.

So he has gone. And my school has lost one of the most hard-working and committed teachers it will ever employ. 

We have to do better.

The author is a science teacher in the South West of England

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