Rarely has autumn crept up on us so quickly. In the process, it has wiped away the tension that gripped so many teachers and leaders as August’s examination results season grew closer.
The first headteacher to tell me of his sleepless nights worrying about what his school’s GCSE results might look like made contact long before the exam season arrived. It was during the Christmas holidays.
This is what a high-stakes accountability system does to us. In the worst-case scenario, it renders us panic-stricken, passive, reactive, impotent.
What we had predicted about the volatility of the summer’s results season – big changes at A level; a new grading system in GCSE maths and English – didn’t fully materialise. The turbulence felt in some schools was suppressed overall, as we always knew it would be. The application of that system of national stabilisers – known as comparable outcomes – ensured that the overall pattern of student attainment in practice was in line with what it was in the theory.
So another exam season, with all its jangling nerves and stomach-churning anxieties, is behind us.
Except I find myself continually returning to a single question.
What must it have been like on 24 August to be a Year 11 student who gained a grade 3 in English or maths?
This was your results day, the occasion when, after 11 years of being taught by a succession of primary and secondary teachers, coaxed on perhaps by teaching assistants and your form tutor, you came into school to get your long-awaited results. You noted the whoops of delight from more confident students around you. You moved away from the crowd and opened the envelope. You looked at your exam slip. You had gained a grade 3, a grade lower than that deemed nationally and very publicly a "basic pass". Therefore, by definition, you hadn’t "passed".
In 1996, Michael Barber wrote a ground-breaking educational manifesto, The Learning Game. It proved to be the systematic template that drove the Labour Party’s "education, education, education" policy from 1997 for the next 13 years. In his book, Barber talked of three easily overlooked groups of students - the "disappointed, the disaffected or the disappeared".
'We're letting students down'
That grade 3 student of ours last August is one of the disappointed. He certainly didn’t fit the official Department for Education results day narrative – how the shiny new GCSE grade 7, 8 and 9s were a sign of fizzing new rigour, international ambition, stretch and challenge.
So what was it like to be at the other end of the scale, failing after 11 years of state education to gain a pass that publicly was deemed worth talking about? By now our student will be in college, allocated to a maths and English resit class, consigned to sit and resit.
If you’re one of the disaffected, you’ll have kicked against the system and gained attention. If you’re the disappeared, you will have been removed from mainstream education. But it’s the disappointed who most worry me and should worry us all. Because we’re letting them down.
This is the child who, back at the start of his educational career, will have arrived at primary school as eager to please and keen to learn as anyone else. He will have fallen behind, perhaps less well supported by the cultural and emotional climate at home. And thus by the age of 10 – failing to gain a sound level 4 in the key stage 2 tests – his educational underperformance will almost certainly have become fixed. His near-miss at key stage 2 will have translated, almost inexorably, into a near-miss at GCSE.
This, by the way, isn’t pessimism; it’s not gloomy inevitability. It’s the system we currently have. The disappointed are out there, now packing our schools and colleges, enjoying their post-16 vocational courses but consigned – on a sometimes industrial scale – to resit the same qualifications that tripped them up last summer.
Why on earth don’t we extend the educational lifeline to these students for a fresh start – a basic literacy and numeracy qualification that gives them a different curriculum diet, a different form of testing, a test certificate that employers would recognise and welcome?
Why are we so apparently intent on rubbing these students’ noses in their disappointment by simply dishing up more of the same exams? Why are we so determined to build an educational system that so gleefully appears to celebrate its overall success via the ingrained underachievement of so many young people?
This is where we need some new thinking, and a joined-up approach from early years, primary, secondary and post-16 teachers. We need a national mission on behalf of the disappointed.
We with a voice need to speak for those without. High-quality literacy will be at the heart of what they need from their earliest years – rich conversation, reading and writing, constructive feedback, a collective determination that 11 years of being in school must not leave some young people cut adrift and marginalised.
This is where our efforts now need to focus. It’s not glamorous or headline-grabbing, of course. But it’s the one approach that will narrow the scandalous gaps between the word-rich and the word-poor. It’s time to welcome back the disappointed.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton