After COVID-19, we must finally remember the forgotten third

24 Apr 2020, 10:20

The pandemic has forced us to reinvent how we award grades but far more fundamental questions about our exam system need to be answered, writes Roy Blatchford

There was a time Before Coronavirus (BC), though it already seems months ago.

We are all armchair critics and soothsayers now. None of us can be right or wrong because nobody has the answer, but there is no doubting the gravity of the situation.

Some pundits are arguing that the cure is worse than the problem, and while some countries have a clear policy that schools will remain closed until September, others have opted simply to keep them open.

Here, the summer term begins in this strange ‘new normal’. Schools have more or less physically shut down, apart from the vital care provided for vulnerable and keyworkers’ children. Teachers are steeped in providing virtual classrooms while parents speak on talk shows of a mixed picture of engagement with online learning (PE guru Joe Wicks apart).

One headteacher in the north east reports that “the boys have gone underground, or stayed under their duvets, while Year 11 girls are polishing their history essays”.

That’s because they fail by design.

And as so often, for all the talk of vulnerable and invisible children, school meals, digital exclusion and the perils of replacing our exam grading system, we are not hearing from the forgotten third. Year in, year out, tens of thousands of disadvantaged and dislocated students do not achieve a GCSE grade 4 in English and maths, and regardless of how grades are awarded this year, this will be the case again.

That’s because they fail by design.

Last year, I chaired the independent national commission on The Forgotten Third for the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). The report sets out in stark terms the fundamental injustice of our accreditation system and recommends major reforms to GCSEs, in particular to how English Language and mathematics should be examined.

To take the example of English, we advocate the inclusion of 50% oral and written coursework, alongside 25% online testing, with 25% for a final examination. How might such an arrangement have been of value this summer, or for any future year whether terminal examinations are interrupted or not.

Further, we recommend a new approach to examining language and maths at the end of the primary years, and a radical rethink of current accountability systems in the best interest of all students.

So what about life After Coronavirus (AC)?

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, night-cap 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?

Right now, leaders across our social, political and health systems are rightly focused on preserving precious life at this moment of national emergency. But what landmark decisions could taking a long view of our current circumstances lead to?

Children continue to paint NHS rainbows across the nation, but they are also watching our leaders learn lessons. Courageous leaders will want to paint a picture of a better tomorrow for them.

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?

As our report shows, this is not a necessity but a political choice. A default position. As Williamson and his ministers begin to give thought to what a ‘levelled up’ change could look like, it’s time those young people took centre stage as the (finally) remembered third.


Roy Blatchford’s latest book is ‘The Three Minute Leader’

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  1. Janet Downs

    Reformed GCSEs were designed to ‘fail’ a third of 16 year-olds. This is not just shocking but a betrayal of Keith Joseph’s whereby pupils would be rewarded for their achievement. Each pupil would be assessed against a range of criteria from basic (grade G) to exceptional (grade A). The only fail grade was a U.
    Unfortunately, politicians and much of the media began to talk of ‘good’ grades, judged as being C or above. This implied anything less than a C was ‘bad’. This perception has been built in to the reformed GCSEs.
    We must not forget the third of 16 year-olds viewed as failing. Move towards graduation at 18 via multiple routes ranging from basic functional skills to Level 3 exams and incorporating activities such as sport, creative subjects and programmes such as Duke of Edinburgh Award.