2019 Spring Term 1


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  • The forgotten
    Chair of ASCL's Commission of Inquiry on The Forgotten Third, Roy Blatchford CBE, looks at why many of Britain's 16 year-olds leave school without a 'worthwhile pass' and the detrimental effects this is having on their life chances. More
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Chair of ASCL’s Commission of Inquiry on The Forgotten Third, Roy Blatchford CBE, looks at why many of Britain’s 16 year-olds leave school without a ‘worthwhile pass’ and the detrimental effects this is having on their life chances.

The Forgotten

Each year, after 12 years of compulsory schooling, around a third of 16 year-olds are not awarded an educationally ‘worthwhile pass’ in the core subjects of English and maths. A basic passport to further education and employment has been denied to them and, in particular, children from poorer backgrounds are disproportionately represented. 

As a society, we must address that there is an important social issue here of common dignity, and what perceived failure does for the self-worth of so many young people.

“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.”

“I feel as though I am trapped in the English and maths waiting room.”

These are the words of four young people among approximately 190,000 students who, in August 2018, were informed by the examination boards that they had failed to secure a standard pass (Grade 4) in English and maths combined (see https://tinyurl.com/y74o7o6j). When GCSE results were published in 2017, ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton commented on this very issue and said, “It’s those middle and lower ability students who need our relentless focus – the ones for whom learning is neither intuitive nor always enjoyable; the ones most likely to become disaffected by a shoe-horned curriculum diet. “None of our international competitors will take the same gleeful delight in designing a tougher qualification that leaves more children and their parents feeling disappointed at the end of 12 years. “At some point we must give our attention – undistracted and laser-sharp – to the students at the margins, to those least well served by today’s new GCSEs.”

ASCL's Commission of Inquiry

High on ASCL’s agenda is the appropriateness of the present examination system at 16+, social mobility, and primary to secondary continuity. This is why, in October 2018, ASCL asked me to lead a national Commission of Inquiry on The Forgotten Third. The commission’s focus is on English and the heart of its final report will lie there. However, if the commission concludes that approximately 190,000 16 year-olds are trapped annually by wider system failure, it shall say so – to policymakers, examination boards and the wider professional community. The commission’s aim is for this report to be of lasting value in the context of a changing social and economic landscape. The commission’s remit is as follows: 

  • to ensure that all students receive meaningful recognition of their achievements at 16+, marking 12 years of compulsory education. 
  • to ensure that all children and students in the English school system master the national language in order to flourish as 21st-century citizens. 
  • to make recommendations, at different levels, on how to achieve the above goals in the nation’s schools and colleges. 

English is the global language of communication and young citizens of the world learn English as a cornerstone of their education. Therefore, it is surely a matter of national pride that UK students should have a strong oral and written command of their native language. Learning language begins at home and is a continuous learning journey, and, from the ages of 3 to 18, learning the English language is mandatory in our education system. ASCL’s Commission of Inquiry comprises 14 members – teachers and school leaders who teach English across the 3 to 18 age range. Members of the commission meet regularly, taking evidence from a wide range of sources and aim to publish a final report by the end of the summer term. Early discussions have focused on the following questions: 

  • What can be done differently with parents and carers to ensure that all children entering school have a better command of spoken English? 
  • Is English language learning through primary and secondary a smooth gradient, or is it interrupted by the structure of the Key Stages? 
  • How can schools secure richness in oracy and articulacy for all pupils? 
  • How should ‘mastery’ of the English language be defined? 
  • Should all teachers be trained in language acquisition, reading and English as an additional language (EAL) techniques? 
  • Do we examine and recognise what students know and can do in the way that GCSE was originally designed? 
  • Should we trial a National English Language Examination, examined online, similar to the driving test theory? 
  • Should we retain an exam system that year in, year out creates a forgotten third at age 16? n Can we put an end to the wasteful resit industry at the ages of 17 and 18, where two-thirds of students again fail to secure a Grade 4?

A heavy price to pay

The Director of the Centre for Economic Performance, Stephen Machin, has explored the costs of just failing an exam in English language, taken at the end of compulsory schooling in England. His report makes for sad reading, concluding that in a well-functioning education system, “There would be ladders for the marginal student – or at least alternative educational options with good prospects. Our study suggests that the marginal student who is unlucky pays a high price.” (See Stephen’s report online at http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/cp534.pdf

Among a number of leading economists, the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) predicts that, by 2030, the UK economy will have overtaken that of Germany to be the largest in Europe, and the UK population is projected to reach 70 million (see https://tinyurl.com/y7opomde). The nation’s productivity is crucial to the wellbeing of our public services and business sectors. Therefore, our recommendations for how children and young people can acquire mastery in English and be examined appropriately, will be even more important. So too will our broader messages about the educational life chances and economic productivity of current and future generations. 

The architect Richard Rogers argues compellingly, “Architecture is measured against the past, you build in the present and you try to imagine the future.” We shall attempt the same and, while we are working, we shall not forget the young person who said so eloquently, “I am a better person than these grades show.” In the end, it is a matter of dignity.

Have your say

The commission needs your help to secure evidence of the negative impact that this is having on your students. Please share your views by emailing Roy at: roy@nationaleducationtrust.net

Roy Blatchford CBE
Founding Director of National Education Trust and Chair of ASCL's Commission of Inquiry of The Forgotten Third

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