The "forgotten third" of pupils who do not achieve at least grade 4 in English language can be found “throughout the system, in all types of schools from 'outstanding' to 'inadequate'”, researchers have found.
Work by FFT Education Datalab found that 31.6 per cent of pupils from state-funded schools – equivalent to 167,000 – did not achieve at least a grade 4 in English language in 2017.
It said that despite these pupils being dispersed throughout the school system, those who achieved a grade 3 or lower were more likely to be boys, be disadvantaged and have special educational needs compared with those who achieved a grade 4 or higher.
More than 40 per cent were disadvantaged – eligible for free school meals at some point between Year 6 and Year 11 – and at least 70 per cent had at some point been on a special educational needs register.
GCSEs: 'The forgotten third'
Those achieving grade 3 or below were also slightly more likely to be summer-born and have a first language other than English.
"Forgotten third" pupils were not linked to any specific type of school, though compared with those who achieve grades 9-4, they were less likely to attend an "outstanding" one. They were also slightly less likely to attend schools in London and the South East.
More than half of the pupils in the "forgotten third" achieved a grade 3 pass in English language, though 16 per cent did not receive a grade, a figure which includes those not entered for exams.
Comparing their performance in English language to other subjects, Datalab found that almost a quarter achieved at least grade 4 in English literature, and 30 per cent grade 4 or above in mathematics.
In total, 60 per cent of the "forgotten third" had to resit both English and mathematics during their first year of post-16 study.
There was 19 per cent who achieved level 2 – equivalent to five or more 9-4 grades at GCSE, including non-GCSEs.
Datalab said that on average pupils who did not achieve grade 4 or above in GCSE English language achieved a Progress 8 score of -0.91, but only -1.28 in the "English bucket".
It concluded: “Although some will achieve well in other subjects, many don’t. The spread of Progress 8 scores for the group shows that they tend to achieve less well than other pupils with similar prior (key stage 2) attainment. Perhaps, in these cases, a poor command of English language is preventing them doing well.”
The Association of School and College Leaders last October launched a commission of inquiry into GCSEs, after it emerged that more than half of pupils in state-funded schools did not achieve a grade 5 "strong pass" in English and mathematics.