The Forgotten Third: The students destined to fail – and what we can do about it...

Written by: Professor Roy Blatchford | Published:
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The 2019 Forgotten Third inquiry laid bare the injustice facing those students who are destined to fail their GCSEs in English and maths. Chair of the report group, Professor Roy Blatchford, has now written a book looking at what schools can do to improve the life chances of the forgotten third...

Without a GCSE paper having been taken by a single student, a third of 16-year-olds this summer have been awarded grades 1, 2 and 3 in English and mathematics. It is the same every year and is a withering indictment of our system of “comparable outcomes”.

It remains the case that “the long tail of underachievement” casts a shadow over UK education which we need to address in a fresh and radical fashion.

We do not have to fail a third, for two-thirds to pass. It is not a necessity but a political choice. So system change is needed – and quickly.

What do we do in the meantime – this academic year – to beat against the current, to improve the lifelong learning opportunities of the forgotten third? Here are four key pillars for change which my new book – The Forgotten Third – proposes (2020; see also ASCL, 2019).

Pillar 1: A belief in a 100% success rate

In many schools targets are agreed and communicated to a significant proportion of each cohort of students which project GCSE grades of 3 or below.

The schools that tend to achieve the best progress and attainment outcomes have developed an ethos of high expectations for all and a shared culture of belief in the potential of every student to achieve great outcomes, with the right conditions, support and tuition. Where staff set audacious goals, and chase big dreams, they are more likely to see their vision become a reality.

Some schools refuse to set a target of below a GCSE 4 grade for any pupil, regardless of their current attainment level or previous educational history.

Their staff know that the brain is like a plant, capable of infinite growth given the right conditions. They do not underestimate the challenge – the time, hard work and practice that will be required to get a low attainer to achieve exam success – but they refuse to believe that it is not possible, to miss any opportunity or lose any time in chasing their goal.

Schools must ensure that disadvantaged communities do not become the Forgotten Third

Where every adult in a school has a true growth mindset, believing unwaveringly in the potential of all learners to achieve amazing outcomes, the pace of progress can be striking. The momentum generated by the cultivation of students’ self-belief and self-esteem becomes infectious.

Through well-considered recruitment activities to gather the right people, the development of a common language of aspiration, and a culture of everyone (including operational staff) signing up to play their part, a high-performance environment is created.

Pillar 2: Commitment to supporting pupils with SEND

We have a code of practice that describes four broad areas of SEND. Policy then delegates to each area of the country how to interpret and describe these needs in detail, and pathways of support for children with the different kinds of need. Children do not have a consistent experience if they move from one part of the country to another – and they should.

We must incentivise support for children with the most complex needs. One of the worst kept secrets in education is schools advising parents about the merits of another school being better at meeting the needs of challenging pupils. Schools that stand against this worry that “being good at supporting children with SEND” will mean having every child locally who other schools find challenging.

The current Inspection Data Summary Report (IDSR) that briefs inspectors about a school does not do this job, and inspectors grow weary of school leaders who overplay the comparative difficulties of their cohorts. It is an area that the Department for Education (DfE) could commission important work to identify those schools where practice lives up to a school’s rhetoric.

Staff training to support pupils with SEND must be given equal priority to training for safeguarding. Teachers and support staff cannot walk into a classroom without induction into safeguarding, including Prevent, so neither should they walk into one without a sound understanding of what “dyslexia” or “autism” mean, and the techniques needed to support children with these needs in reaching their potential.

Pillar 3: A positive approach to testing

Many pupils from fortunate backgrounds have lives full of financial, social and cultural capital. And they are often being tested, experiencing the highs and lows of that testing experience in equal measure – whether being tested on the gymnastics beam, in the swimming pool, in social interactions or through games, through risk, through general knowledge tests in the car.

Children who are tested frequently learn the benefits of testing, and learn what to do to maximise their chances of success. They also learn to persevere when they are not successful first time. They develop strategies to overcome challenges. They develop self-confidence and they learn to harness stress.

The things that we remember in the long term are an imprint of our emotional connection with a learning experience, positive or negative. By contrast, life is more challenging for our time-poor and materially poor families on low incomes. They may experience insecure employment, housing, relationships, poor health and more.

Clearly, pupils from the least fortunate backgrounds are tested every day too, often overcoming extraordinary challenges to come to school in the morning. But they do not necessarily experience the positive emotions and joy of overcoming those tests. They are challenges, rather than tests that improve learning. They create stress, rather than reduce it.

Testing has a crucial place in our schools. Disadvantaged pupils need to thrive on testing in the way their more advantaged peers do. And you cannot take a test unless you are present – tackle the attendance gap too!

Pillar 4: An inclusive school ethos

Schools must consider whether their aspiration is communicated as the desire to make everyone middle class; whether they define success in terms only of university entry and thus take a patronising view of all other forms.

For example, why is Kayleigh, who has 10 GCSEs at grade 7 or higher and has chosen to be a hairdresser in her locality, not celebrated as a success story alongside those who aim for university?

There is also the uncomfortable question of whether working class students are surrounded by professionals who do not believe they are good enough to achieve. Faced with this realisation, many schools have developed programmes to challenge teachers’ mindsets and change perceptions.

Most schools provide a stable environment for children, promoting values which are shared by the majority of parents. Where they fall down is in failing to provide a voice for those children who they most need to engage with. How many have school councils dominated by the articulate middle class high-flyers? What message does this send to the rest?

And schools should consider carefully whether the concept of friendship is a positive or limiting factor to achievement in their institution. Social scientists have shown that group belief can be a powerful motivator in performance, yet a review of friendship groupings often shows students gravitating to others in broadly similar situations, economically and socially.

As students get older, all develop a strong awareness that the world is not an equal place but also develop differing responses to this: some groups are eager to get on, but in others the dominant mode of thinking is to get out – it is no surprise which students fall into the latter camp. Given that this poses a key challenge, it is surprising how many schools solidify these groupings within their academic setting and classroom seating arrangements.

A change in values

In March 1943, the young president of the Board of Education, Rab Butler went to Chequers to see Winston Churchill. The meeting with Churchill – leaning back on his pillows in a four-poster bed, nightcap on and with a large cat at his feet – was an unlikely beginning for the most fundamental reform of the English education system. Yet that night the prime minister signed off on what became the 1944 Education Act.

Conceived during the Blitz and the Normandy landings, it is remarkable to think that civil servants and ministers were focused on post-war reconstruction in order to build, as they saw it, the new Jerusalem.

Without wishing to draw unlikely parallels between the Churchill-Butler partnership and the Johnson-Williamson pairing, what might the current secretary of state for education set in motion during the months ahead?

After coronavirus, there will be renewed life and vibrancy, and it will take place in a changed society, with altered values. Will they be a society and a values system that continue to willingly damage the aspirations and life chances of a full third of its 16-year-olds each year? We have to plan otherwise.

  • Roy Blatchford is founder of and a former headteacher and HMI. His new book, The Forgotten Third, examines what needs to be done to tackle “the long tail of underachievement” in education – particularly relevant as schools emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. This article is published with acknowledgements to essayists Tim Coulson, Rachel Macfarlane, Iain Veitch, Marc Rowland.

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