Amid all the excitement of England moving up the Pisa rankings, there seems to be little debate on the "forgotten third" – the 33 per cent or so of students who each year fail to achieve a grade 4 in GCSE English and mathematics.
Narrowly missing a grade 4/C in GCSE English can have major consequences for students – it strongly increases the probability of dropping out of education at age 18, ending up as Neet (not in education, employment or training) and failing to even enrol in a level 3 qualification up to three years later.
And yet it’s these students who currently face navigating a very complex system with no clear trajectories.
Conservative manifesto: £3bn for ‘national skills fund’
Labour manifesto: EMA return and levy reform
Lib Dem manifesto: £1bn funding and a wider levy
In a recent Centre for Economic Performance analysis on education and skills ahead of the general election, I and my co-authors Jo Blanden, of the University of Surrey, and Gill Wyness, of UCL Institute of Education, set out the evidence on the effects of early failure and suggest ways forward.
The “forgotten third” of students will usually go to colleges of further education to enrol in low-level qualifications (level 2 or below). These institutions have been hit by spending cuts in recent years. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that between 2010–11 and 2018–19, spending per student fell by 12 per cent in real terms in 16–18 colleges and by 23 per cent in school sixth forms.
Election 2019: pledges on FE
All three major parties have made promises on FE funding.
The Conservatives announced £400 million for 16-19 funding at the end of August, although the party’s manifesto makes no promise to increase baseline funding beyond these existing commitments.
Both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats make large spending commitments to FE in general, with the Labour Party making specific mention of aligning the base rate of per-pupil funding in post-16 provision with key stage 4.
Additional funding is important, but there are fundamental structural issues to address. If we must have a high-stakes national exam at age 16, the bottom third shouldn’t be just forgotten about.
There hasn’t been much serious policy discussion around the "transition year" proposed in the Sainsbury Review of post-16 education. The idea of the "transition year" was to prepare students for the new T levels when they are rolled out. Currently less than half of students enrolled in level 2 qualifications at age 17 progress to level 3 qualifications by the age of 20.
So the questions are, what should this "transition year" consist of? Will it be better than the status quo (and how)? And what happens to students who can’t advance to level 3 within a year?
GCSE resits: 'An appalling pass rate'
One subject on which there is much debate is what to do about GCSE resits in English and maths – although no mention is made of this in the election manifestos. Currently, students in England aged 16 to 19 who have achieved a grade 3 in English or maths are required to retake the subject. The pass rate for resits is only about 21 per cent for maths and 30 per cent for English. While this is likely to make a big positive difference to students who are successful the second time round, it is clearly an appalling pass rate.
For teachers and students to be investing in hours of preparation for a test where the odds of passing are so low seems like a very questionable use of limited resources. This is a difficult issue because within our current system, passing GCSEs in English and maths is a very important criterion for advancement within education and in the labour market. Therefore it is in students’ best interests to be helped over that hurdle if possible. However, there needs to be a better plan B for students for whom passing resits is unlikely – perhaps indicated by their exact mark on the original GCSE exam.
There are no easy answers to these problems. But one-third of young people is too many to forget about.
Sandra McNally is a professor of economics at the University of Surrey and at the Centre for Vocational Education Research, London School of Economics