The forgotten third...

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

A ‘forgotten third’ of students fall short of achieving a Grade 4 in GCSE English and maths because of our system of comparable outcomes. This has to change, says Geoff Barton

It is likely, probably inevitable, that we will soon be engulfed by another General Election.

We have yet to see what the political parties will promise on education. It is a fair bet that the issue of funding will feature highly, and we are in a better place on this crucial matter than we have been for some time.

The current government’s commitment to an increased level of spending will not kick in until next year and, without being churlish, it is still short of what is needed (SecEd, 2019). But it is a step in the right direction.

Likewise, it is good news that the government has proposed an increase in starting salaries to £30,000. It will help make teaching more competitive and will aid recruitment at a time of an on-going recruitment crisis.

But there are a lot of unknowns. We do not know how other salary levels will be affected, how this will aid retention, or how much of the new funding will be spent on these higher salaries. These are important questions and there is fine detail to be discussed, but the direction is more positive than it has been for some years.

What we do not have, however, is a real sense of a vision for the future – big, bold thinking about how we give all our students the start they need and equip them for life in a world of great technological and social change.

Over the past few years it has felt like we have been looking backwards. The preoccupation with the EBacc and making GCSEs and A levels harder and more akin to old-style O and A levels has smacked of policy driven by nostalgia.

We thus find ourselves at the end of an unprecedented period of reform with an exam system which is harsh on students who struggle most with academic work, an accountability system which penalises schools in the most challenging circumstances, and a workforce which is exhausted, drained and demoralised.

A reasonable starting point for a brighter future is the work of a commission established by the Association of School and College Leaders to look at how we can improve the prospects of what we have termed the “forgotten third”. This is the proportion of 16-year-olds who each year fall short of achieving at least a Grade 4 in GCSE English and maths, and whose opportunities for progression in education and work are therefore constrained.

The fact that such a large number of young people fall into this category each year is not an accident but a product of the mechanism of “comparable outcomes” which determines the distribution of grades largely on the basis of what similar cohorts have achieved in the past.

The forgotten third is therefore baked into the system.

The commission has proposed that GCSE English language should be replaced with a new type of qualification, a Passport in English, which would be taken at the point of readiness of the student, and which could be improved upon over time, between the ages of 15 and 19.

It has also made a series of recommendations about how to improve the learning of English, and it has suggested that a Passport in Maths could also be launched.

This proposal has the potential to liberate thousands of young people from finishing their 12 years at primary and secondary school with a sense of failure. Instead of a system which tells them what they cannot do, we could have a system which tells them what they can do. It would mean every young person would have the dignity of a qualification of which they could be proud.

The Passport would require detailed work to develop a specification and it would need to be implemented carefully with appropriate materials and support for teachers.

But we believe it begins to set the tone for a brighter, more optimistic education system which better serves our students and which is the first step in shaping a vision for the future.

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

Further information

  • Funding pledge: We’re not out of the woods yet, SecEd, September 2019:
  • To download The Forgotten Third report and for further information (ASCL, September 2019), visit


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