It is both a blessing and a curse that the phrase “the forgotten third” has entered the educational lexicon.
It’s a blessing because, frankly, we have waited far too long to talk about how we improve the prospects of the students who receive the lowest GCSE grades, rather than nerdily obsessing about differentiating between high achievers.
But it’s a curse that there is a forgotten third in the first place. It should be a source of national shame. Here’s why.
When we refer to “the forgotten third”, we mean the proportion of 16-year-olds who, at the end of 12 years of schooling, fall short of achieving at least a grade 4 GCSE – what the government describes as a “standard pass” – in the core subjects of English and maths.
In 2018, the most recent year for which we have this data, more than 187,000 students fell into this category.
It’s a terrible indictment of a nation aspiring to a world-class education system that we should think this level of collateral damage acceptable. And, unless we as teachers and parents call it out, this long tail of under-achievement, this annual narrative of branding some young people failures, will simply be perpetuated.
Because it is no accident that about one-third of students end up in this situation each year. It is a product of the use of “comparable outcomes”, under which the distribution of GCSE grades is determined largely by how similar cohorts have performed in the past.
The system of comparable outcomes is designed to keep the exam system stable, to guard against grade inflation, and to ensure that similar effort, ability and application are rewarded consistently from one year to the next.
But the grim paradox is that a mechanism designed to safeguard standards means that a third of students will always fall below what is deemed a standard pass.
Passport to success
This week, a "commission of inquiry" into the forgotten third, established by the Association of School and College Leaders, delivered its final report, with a headline recommendation to scrap GCSE English language and instead provide all students with a new type of assessment: a "passport" in English.
It would be taken at the point of readiness of the student, and could be built on over time at different levels between the ages of 15 and 19. It would focus on competency in the everyday English skills sought by employers, and would comprise online assessment, a portfolio of the student’s writing, plus a significant spoken English component.
The commission recommended that similar consideration be given to a passport in maths.
Crucially, these ideas would give every student the dignity of a qualification of which they could be proud. It would allow us to show what these young people can achieve after 12 years in school, rather than rubbing their noses in what they can’t.
It is perhaps worth noting that this recommendation comes not from policymakers but from a commission established by the profession. This isn’t us reacting to a government agenda. This is a profession saying that we believe we can and should be able to expect more for our children and young people.
It is a sign of how teachers and leaders are stepping forward to try to identify constructive and workable solutions: a sign that we are further turning into reality the concept of a self-improving education system.
The hallmark of this is that we set the highest possible ambitions. And this is what the commission into the forgotten third has done. Its proposals are about building a sense of achievement instead of a sense of failure for the many young people who currently finish their time at secondary school dejected, demoralised and with reduced prospects for future courses and careers.
Caught in a trap
We hope these proposals will be greeted with an open mind by ministers.
The immediate response from the Department for Education was not encouraging. “The education secretary has made clear that he won’t be changing the national curriculum, allowing teachers the freedom to focus on their teaching,” said a spokesperson.
They added: “Our education system is designed to maximise opportunity for all young people of all backgrounds, giving them the grounding they need to make the most of their lives.”
We beg to differ. If our education system was currently doing that, then we wouldn’t need to be speaking and acting on behalf of the forgotten third.
It must be obvious to everyone that, despite all the reasons given in favour of GCSEs and comparable outcomes, the current system is a trap. It cannot be in the interests of anybody to persevere with a situation that means that a third of young people will always fall short of a standard pass.
The idea of a passport in English and maths provides a way out of that trap, and one which puts in place a qualification which is robust, geared to the needs of employers and fit for the future.
If we are prepared to think differently, to be less tolerant of failure, to have a greater sense of collective ambition for our students and our teachers, then the forgotten third will disappear from the educational lexicon.
And that will be a blessing indeed.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets as @RealGeoffBarton