2019 Autumn Term 1


  • Strength in numbers
    Geoff Barton welcomes members to a new academic year and says over the next 12 months, ASCL will continue to evolve into a trade union fit for the 21st century, setting the education agenda, and representing and listening to the views of members across the UK. More
  • The forgotten third
    Chair of ASCL's Commission of Inquiry on The Forgotten Third, Roy Blatchford CBE, presents the commission's findings on why a third of 16 year-olds leave school without a 'standard' pass and the impact this has on their futures. More
  • A friend in need
    Emma Moss's world was turned upside down when she became gravely ill. Support from the ASCL Benevolent Fund has helped Emma and her family deal with the practical and personal fall-out ever since. More
  • Stop the rot
    Former ASCL Specialist Anna Cole explains how schools and colleges can harness the power of the #MeToo movement to help keep students safe. More
  • Time for T
    The first three T level qualifications in digital, education and construction will become a reality from September 2020 but just how prepared are providers for delivery? NFER's Suzanne Straw investigates. More
  • Leading women
    An ambitious programme designed to empower, inspire and support women into leadership has been launched by a partnership between ASCL, the Leading Women's Alliance and Leadership Live. Carol Jones and Gwen Temple explain the rationale. More
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Chair of ASCL’s Commission of Inquiry on The Forgotten Third, Roy Blatchford CBE, presents the commission’s findings on why a third of 16 year-olds leave school without a ‘standard’ pass and the impact this has on their futures.

The forgotten third

ASCL launched an independent Commission of Inquiry in October 2018 to help improve the prospects of what we have called ‘The Forgotten Third’ – students who do not achieve at least a grade 4 standard pass in GCSE English and maths at the end of 12 years of schooling.

The fact that this represents roughly a third of 16 year-olds, year in and year out, is not an accident but the product of the system of comparable outcomes whereby the spread of GCSE grades is pegged to what cohorts of similar ability achieved in the past. Young people who fall below this bar pay a high price in terms of reduced prospects in progression to further and higher edu¬cation and careers.

Throughout the past year the commission has focused specifically on how we can do better for these young people in respect of English, although many of its observations could also be applied to maths. Evidence was gathered nationally from seminars, school inset sessions, conferences and direct responses, and culminated in a report launched in London on 11 September 2019 – see the full report at www.ascl.org.uk/forgottenthird

Main conclusions

  • Too many children face challenges and disadvantages from the start of life. High-quality early education has huge potential to improve outcomes for children. However, the current entitlement of 30 hours of free childcare or early education per week for three to four year-olds is limited to working families and is unlikely to do much to improve social mobility of the more disadvantaged. The teaching of English is compromised by a discontinuity between primary schools where national tests place a contrived focus on the use of grammatical and linguistic techniques, and secondary schools where teaching is determined largely by GCSE assessment objectives.
  • The current GCSE English Language qualification is not fit for purpose. It is focused on a restrictive choice of writing tasks with an emphasis on literary analysis, and consigns spoken English to an adjunct which does not contribute to the GCSE score. It is therefore not a suitable test for denoting competency in English and should be replaced with a competency-based qualification – a ‘Passport in English’. This would assess a basic standard of performance and could be taken at the point of readiness by stage rather than age.
  • The current requirement for students aged 16–18 to retake GCSE English and/or maths if they have not achieved at least a grade 4 in these subjects is not achieving the intended outcomes. Too many young people are no nearer the coveted grade 4 at the end of this demoralising process. The introduction of a ‘Passport in English’ – and in maths – presents an attractive and workable solution.
  • There are many problems with the high-stakes nature of our system of tests and exams. In primary schools, SATs have driven a narrowing of the curriculum. In secondary schools, GCSEs are used for too many purposes beyond being a test of student competence. Comparable outcomes mean one third must ‘fail’ in order that two thirds ‘pass’, and the sense of failure is reinforced by changes to the grading system which describe a grade 4 as a ‘standard pass’ and a grade 5 as a ‘strong pass’. Where does that leave those who attain grades 1, 2 and 3? 

Starting the thinking

The commission has not sought to address all these issues in a single report. Rather, it has devised a set of recommendations designed to improve the system as it is now and to start the thinking about what we might do for the better in the future.


Early years

1. The DfE, local authorities (LAs) and third-sector providers should continue to invest in high-quality support programmes for parents and carers, rooted in evidence-based models.

2. The government should extend the entitlement to 30 hours of free early education per week to all three to four year-olds, and it should ensure the level of funding is sufficient to meet the cost of sustainable high-quality provision.

3. The government should work with LAs and education providers to improve the skills of early years practitioners, working towards ensuring that every early education setting is graduate-led.

Curriculum and pedagogy

4. The DfE, LAs, multi-academy trusts, school partnerships and schools should continue to invest in language programmes which are having a measurable impact on closing the language gap. And, where possible, should provide training in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) techniques for all teachers and support staff.

5. As part of schools’ and colleges’ curriculum development, primary and secondary subject specialists should consider building into their planning the vocabulary needed to develop students’ competence in their subjects, and the opportunities to practise this vocabulary.

6. Primary and secondary schools should consider how to implement high-quality whole-school programmes which explicitly promote oracy and articulacy, and the essential stepping stones in reading and writing which underpin children’s learning in all subjects.

 7. The DfE should commission a focused review of the English curriculum from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 3, with a view to providing greater continuity between what is taught in primary and secondary schools, and encouraging secondary schools to build more effectively on the strong foundations laid in primary.

Teacher education

8. Professional development providers should be encouraged to run innovative courses for senior leaders on ‘language at the heart of the leader’s mission’ – promoting the concept that every teacher in every classroom is a teacher of the English language.

9. From September 2020, all primary and secondary teacher training programmes should include substantial courses on the teaching of reading, writing and oracy; ESOL teaching techniques; and developing teachers’ own skills as fluent and accurate writers.


10. A working group representing the DfE, Ofqual and professional associations should be established to introduce a ‘Passport in English’ to replace the current GCSE English Language. This highly respected qualification would be taken by all students ‘graduating’ from school/college into the workplace or higher education.

The ‘Passport’ should be criterion referenced and could be taken at different levels between the ages of 15 and 19, ending the wasteful GCSE resit industry. 

It is recommended the ‘Passport in English’ be certificated by a body with international standing, with employer approval and branding. It is also recommended that similar consideration be given to a companion ‘Passport in Maths’.

11. All students should continue to take GCSE English Literature as a core subject. To safeguard good curriculum breadth and students’ access to ‘the best that has been thought and said’, the examination should be taken at the end of Year 11 only.

12. A new approach to primary assessment and accountability should be developed to replace Key Stage 2 SATs, in order to redress the distorting effect on the curriculum of the current approach.

13. The DfE – supported by Ofqual – should no longer use the unhelpful terminology of ’standard’ and ‘strong’ pass when announcing GCSE results to students, parents and the media. A grade is a grade.

14. The government should establish a cross-sector review of England’s GCSE exam system which is currently rooted in testing and assessment designed for a different era; and, in parallel, review the current high-stakes school accountability systems which are outmoded for students, parents and schools today.

We must do better

If these recommendations are adopted by policymakers, we are confident they would represent a significant improvement in the prospects of ‘The Forgotten Third’.

It is surely not acceptable to continue to insist on a system which fails so many young people on the grounds that this is how we do things. It is our responsibility to do better.

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

Student retaking English and maths GCSEs

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