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'The Tories have the right idea, but the wrong solution: hold pupils back a year to set them free from failure'

Oliver Beach, second-in-charge of economics and business studies at Central Foundation Boys' School in London, writes:

The Tories have announced that children who fail to meet expected standards at the end of Year 6 will take a “resit test” in Year 7; to be marked by teachers internally.

I agree wholeheartedly with Nicky Morgan that mastering the basics of numeracy and literacy are essential at age 11 as an indicator of future success. There are too many Year 10 and 11 students who still can’t perform at an expected level for the next stage of their career and we need to think about when the first intervention is necessary.

However, rather than requiring secondary schools to take charge of underachieving pupils' progress, it is my belief that primary schools should be held more accountable to the success of Year 6 pupils before they transition to secondary.

The Conservative government’s values in education are centred on discipline, rigour and zero-tolerance of failure and mediocrity. These values are potentially damaging; children who are not academically able will not benefit from increased rigour – the glass ceiling will just feel lower, the walls closer and the barriers to success higher. That pressure is not good for an adolescent, so we must ensure that students are studying at the right ability level at the right time.

Therefore, instead of sitting a “resit test” in Year 7, perhaps those in Year 6 who aren’t achieving what is expected of them, or what is necessary for their future options, should be kept back to repeat Year 6 until they are up to speed.

I am aware that this is a delicate subject. Seeing one’s friend move into Year 7 while one stays behind would be a difficult experience for a young person. They would have to make new friends and feel "less" than their peers who were "bright" enough to move forward. It’s a tough, emotive issue, and so I suggest it with caution and understanding of its limits.

Similar systems have been implemented in Germany and the US – albeit not without their faults. In Germany, if a young person isn’t up to the standards of the gymnasium (grammar school), they may progress into a hauptschule – for the non-German speakers, "general school" – which helps learners move towards vocational education. So instead of a Year 6 pupil following their friends into gymnasium, they would venture elsewhere. 

The objective of this progression idea is, I believe, for young people to be among those at a similar level at each stage of their schooling rather than being out of their depth from day one. Young people deserve to progress when they are ready, to avoid them being placed immediately in a bottom set as they arrive at secondary school. As education evolves and becomes more challenging and rigorous, it’s imperative that young people aren’t being set up to fail and that they jump over the hurdles at the pace that is right for them.

The initial disappointment at having to stay back a year and not moving forward with the alacrity that was once hoped for may be felt in the short term but a gain would be realised in the long-term. They may have to make new friends (something that they’ll do at every stage of their life), and feel insecure briefly, but I would prefer for my child to have the necessary academic ability before they venture into the next stage of their education.

I know from experience and from speaking to my colleagues in other schools that there are Year 10 and 11 students who still have difficulty with rudimentary English and maths. Before they are launched into an environment of perpetual testing that fuels the fear of failure and pressure to perform in exams, they must be at a level that gives them a fair chance at success. It may challenge their characters, and it may be a daunting prospect to miss the mark and have to repeat Year 6, but it may be what’s necessary.

To paraphrase former US first lady Rosalynn Carter, a good education system takes people where they want to go. A great education system takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.

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