The dispossessed in our system

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders

Tinkering with the exam system misses the mark and does nothing to help the underbelly of underachievers that is our national scandal, says Geoff Barton

There. Another exam season is behind us. Now we can prepare for the next one. Such, it seems, is the new rhythm of the school year, the educational conveyor belt of exams, inspections and performance tables.

But what, I wonder, must it feel like to be a child at the centre of our current model of schooling? What, in particular, does it feel like if you were a year 11 student who gained a grade 3 in the new GCSEs?

It’s worth thinking about this student and reflecting on how it must feel after 11 years of compulsory education to get a grade which isn’t deemed a pass.

Even if you’d got a grade 4, you might still be feeling uneasy, with all the national talk that employers might in the future deem it insufficient.

I think about students like this in our system a lot, and as an English teacher for 32 years these were the young people who most troubled me – those on an apparently inevitable trajectory to gain grades at the lower end, those too easily left on the margins.

I got to know students like this, both in the school I led, and in those who invited me to run literacy booster sessions in the run-up to the final exams. There, in bleak sports halls it was just me, around 100 disgruntled year 11 students, and a lone teacher doing their marking at the back of the room.

The idea was that as a parachuted-in visitor, I might motivate these “key marginal” students. In those long four-hour sessions, I’d get to see the barriers that stood between the students and their pass. And usually it wasn’t just their English skills. It was other issues – low self-esteem, erratic concentration, a burgeoning sense that success didn’t belong to people like them.

And these are the students who this year will have got their grade 3 or grade D or lower. They will have watched the celebrating high-achieving students and shuffled off home, a sense of disappointment unspoken but palpable. These, let us remind ourselves, are students who will have been as excited as any way back on their first day. They’ll have smiled through early lessons and dutifully done their best.

As a generalisation, they are less likely to have books at home, or mealtime conversations, or a place to work. By late primary, their habits of reading will have tailed off and for too many the transition to secondary will have seen them lost in the gear-change.

Many will, from their first secondary year, be consigned to lower sets, with frequent implicit reminders that they belong there. Thus they become the disappointed, the disaffected, the disappeared.

And that’s why the summer’s ra-ra about a new GCSE grading system so wildly misses the mark. For all the talk of stretching our students to make them competitive with their international counterparts, the reality is that it’s not the students at the top end who most need our attention. They need good, challenging teaching and high expectations, of course. But no-one needs this more than the students at the other end.

My frustration as a teacher of all those years and a head for 15 was how tough I found it to help those students to enjoy the privileges I took for granted – the power of words and stories to open-up new imaginative worlds, the power of language to give me a voice and a stake in society.

That underbelly of underachievers is the real national scandal of our education system, and it’s where tinkering with an exam system is merely a distraction. Instead we need a national mission starting from the earliest years to narrow the linguistic, cultural and aspirational chasm between the word rich and the word poor.

This is unfashionable, gritty stuff – needing our most resilient, committed teachers, and ensuring that the kinds of expectations we give to our own children at home are fulsomely shared with the children who deserve more. I’m not a teacher any more, but I’m determined to help school and college leaders to fight on behalf of the dispossessed in our system. They have never needed us more.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Visit


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin