'We're failing the 16-year-olds who feel like failures'

Every year, thousands end their GCSEs feeling like failures - why can't we recognise other talents, asks Wendy Adeniji

A third of students leave school without a good GCSE pass in English and maths

Thousands of 16-year-olds finish each year feeling like failures and without having their gifts and talents recognised.

“I am a better person than these grades show.”

“This grade makes it look as though I can’t read or write.”

If you fail, you are nothing.”

“Do a third of us always have to fail so that two-thirds pass?”

These are the words of four young people among the 187,0003 students who, in August 2018, were informed that they had failed to secure at least a standard pass (grade 4) in English and maths combined (taken from the summary paper "The Forgotten Third").

A third of young people leave school without a good pass in maths and English, and are effectively failed by our system. 

GCSEs: 'The forgotten third'

And they feel like failures. There is nothing the current system can do about this. Even if the teaching in our schools improved significantly, still the same percentage of students would gain grades 4 and 5: the grade boundaries would just become higher. And still the same third of young people would leave having effectively failed in English and maths.

Let’s take English. Being able to read, write, speak and understand your own language is vital to success in most jobs. 

As the Association of School and College Leaders has recently asked in its commission, ‘The Forgotten Third", why is it that a third of 16-year-olds, after 12 years of compulsory schooling, cannot read or write English at what the Department for Education describes as “standard pass” level? It’s either a failure on the part of schools or on the part of the DfE, which is responsible for our qualifications system. 

Why is there not proper recognition of the progress these young people have made as they move on to further education and employment?

World-class technical education

England has always prided itself on having a world-class education system, but its current examinations in English literature and English language (it is required that students take examinations in both these subjects in order for their English grades to count in schools’ progress measures) are geared towards academic students with a focus on preparation for A levels

It is right and good that we have these type of exams. But for many young people, it is more important to have a strong grounding in the English language, which will prepare them for everyday life, as well as a love of reading. I fear that we do not have the right qualifications for this, nor are they recognised in school progress measures.

I have visited schools from Germany to New Zealand, where vocational subjects are valued, taught well and well-resourced. 

The German technical schools are the envy of the world. They produce well-educated young people who feel valued, even though they are not highly academic, and have the qualifications to prove that their talents are considered worthy by society. 

In New Zealand, a colleague visited a technical school where students built a house on-site, as part of their learning. 

Unaffordable alternatives

I have seen well-resourced alternative-provision schools in England with motor mechanics, hair and beauty and construction taught either on- or off-site. But these are resourced to the tune of £16,000 to £20,000 per student. No ordinary school can afford to run and resource these types of courses. A young person should not have to be permanently excluded from school to be able to access this sort of provision.

The DfE points to University Technical Colleges (UTCs) as the government’s solution, but these have for the most part failed. They were a scattergun approach, not part of an overall strategy. 

In addition, their main failing was that they required students to leave their current school at 14. Many schools did not want to advertise the fact that students could have an alternative at 14, as they could not afford to lose the funding that went with these students. And so UTCs suffered from a lack of uptake.

A country like ours, which prides itself on innovation and is about to enter the brave new world of Brexit, needs more than ever to be recognising, developing and giving value to the talents of all its young people. If we don’t do this, and allow a third of young people every year effectively to feel like failures and that they cannot contribute to society, then we will have failed them, and ourselves as a country.

Wendy Adeniji is head of a West Yorkshire secondary school

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