“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t.”
The quotation introduces the interim report of ASCL’s new Commission called The Forgotten Third. It is apposite.
Each year in England over half a million 16-year-olds take their GCSEs. A third of these students do not achieve at least a standard pass (grade 4) in English and mathematics.
The commission is asking some pointed questions, common to all subjects:
- Why is it that a third of 16-year-olds, after twelve years of compulsory schooling, cannot reach what the Department for Education (DfE) describes as ‘standard pass’ level?
- Why is there not proper recognition of the progress these young people have made as they move on to further education and employment?
- At age 11, as they leave primary school, a similar third of children fail to reach expected national standards in reading, writing and mathematics. What is happening in homes and schools that means too many children and young people are judged not to be competent at a basic level?
- Does the answer lie with: a. the students; b. their parents; c. teachers; d. the content of the GCSEs e. the design of the examination system; f. the national accountability measures?
- As one 17-year-old student, with a grade 3 in English Language, asked the Commission: “Do a third of us always have to fail so that two-thirds pass?”
A thinking nation should be asking all of these questions. Might I suggest some answers?
A very small number of children will underachieve because they haven’t worked hard enough. Adolescence is distracting. I’m leaving them on one side.
Some children may appear to be underachieving, but actually they’re doing pretty well, because their KS2 grade may not reflect their true ability in year 6. This is for two reasons. First, published performance tables do terrible things to education: watch Monday 25 March 2019’s Panorama for more on this. Second, national progression data works well in big datasets but is hopeless at individual progress level.
The very concept of a GCSE ‘pass’ at grade 4 standard or grade 5 higher is troubling. We have a single examination to assess every child at all levels of aptitude for testing. So why do some grades have more intrinsic worth than others? Again, two reasons. There are levels of skill that are obviously important for adult life. If you’re secure at that level, you may find adult life easier. Employers expect a level of competence, fair enough. Not all jobs, however, require this level and not all children progress at the same speed.
The real reason for the ‘pass’ nomenclature is a combination of elitism and international comparison. Singapore or Ontario or Finland or Shanghai have a certain proportion of children able to do certain things by the age of 16, so the UK will only be globally competitive if we do too. That’s a superficially attractive argument, but it wobbles in the slightest breeze, like Winnie-the-Pooh’s spelling. Other jurisdictions aren’t committed to inclusive schooling where every child is included in the common school system and its measured outcomes. Other jurisdictions are not beset by a zombie obsession with selection at 11 which serves no educational purpose and depresses the achievement of children in selective areas. Other jurisdictions are not beset by class obsession with private education which undermines national pride in our common schools.
And finally, the very slightly improved accountability measure of P8 itself remains shamefully dismissive of children’s endeavour. ‘Comparable outcomes’ require some children to fail so that others may succeed. It has to produces a failed bottom third if it has willed that the top two-thirds pass.
We value what we measure. In England we appear to value ranking and blame, and their brothers elitism and failure. It’s no way to model human value. We could make a very small step in the right direction by refusing to use the word ‘pass’ altogether. We could make a bigger step by finally, permanently rejecting any threshold measure in school performance. We could change the world by valuing perseverance and effort over accidents of birth and social standing.
I’m happy that people should have to pass a driving test. I’m happy that children should learn how to work hard and stick at it. I’m furious that only the two-thirds who are good at tests are allowed to value their effort and experience after 12 years of compulsory schooling. This can’t be what we intended. As Winnie says:
“When you are a Bear of Very Little brain, and you Think Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”
This is one of them.
My title is the incomparable Beachcomber’s parody of one of A A Milne’s more sugary poems, but it captures the DfE’s view of 170 000 of our young people, every year. Look again, Secretary of State.