The ‘Forgotten Third’ deserve the dignity of a new type of qualification

11 Sep 2019, 0:01


In spite of decades of curriculum and qualifications reform, a third of 16-year-olds  in England are not awarded a ‘standard pass’ at their English Language GCSE. It’s high time the qualification was scrapped, argues Roy Blatchford, Chair of the Forgotten Third commission, and replaced with one we can all be proud of.

It is a remarkable statistic in the home of the English language, and in one of the world’s top economies, that one third of 16-year-olds, after 12 years of compulsory schooling, fail to achieve what the Department for Education describes as a ‘standard pass’ (grade 4) in GCSE English and maths.

This was the starting point for the independent commission on ‘The Forgotten Third’ which was established by the Association of School and College Leaders, and which delivers its final report today. Its headline recommendation is for the replacement of GCSE English Language with a new type of qualification, a Passport for English, which would be taken at the point of readiness of the student and could be built upon over time between the ages of 15 and 19.

The many hundreds of students, teachers, school leaders, employers and parents who gave evidence to the Commission argued that we cannot continue with a system that – in the poignant words of one 17-year-old – “fails a third of students so that two-thirds can pass.”

There are, dispiritingly, large parts of the reading element of each English language paper which many students are simply not intended to access

This high rate of attrition is a product of the current system of ‘comparable outcomes’ under which the distribution of grades is determined largely by how similar cohorts have performed in the past. It means that, unless we take action, there will continue to be a dividing line with roughly the same proportion falling short of the coveted ‘standard pass’.

The Commission argues that the system must change in the core subjects of English and maths which, in the DfE’s own words, constitute “the passport to future study and employment.”

Then there is the very nature of the current GCSE English Language examination. It is, in all but name, a test in analysis of literature, rather than the everyday skills sought by employers. In the words of one Head of English: “There are, dispiritingly, large parts of the reading element of each English Language paper which many students are simply not intended to access.”

That is why English Language GCSE should be replaced by a Passport in English, certificated by a body of national and international standing. We make a similar recommendation for maths.

The Passport would be a highly respected qualification for a new era which better reflects the full achievements of all students and supports progression to a wide range of pathways. As its name deliberately signals, this qualification would give all students a valued passport to future education and employment.

The Passport would have the merit of being able to be taken by ‘stage not age’, over the 15 – 19 age range

The recommended content of coursework for writing, speaking and listening would be complemented by assessments in reading and comprehension. These would be focused on young people’s abilities to handle language in a variety of everyday contexts, write with accuracy, and express themselves with confidence and articulacy – the very skills employers and parents have said to the Commission time and time again they want to see in school leavers.

It would also make redundant the wasteful GCSE resit industry which currently means that many young people currently have to retake GCSE English and/or maths in post-16 education only to then suffer the further blow of failing to improve their outcomes.

In 1963, John Newsom and his colleagues presented to the government of the time a beautifully crafted report titled Half Our Future. The landmark report painted a picture of 50% of the nation’s 15 year-olds with an unsuitable curriculum leading to poor or no qualifications. The number one recommendation was to raise the school leaving age – which took a decade to implement.

We are hoping for a more urgent response to what we consider is a landmark report in its own right. We need policy-makers to recognise that every young person deserves the dignity of a qualification of which they can be proud.

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  1. Mark Watson

    Have to say I like the principle of having a ‘Passport for English’ qualification, but I’m not sure I would agree with this replacing GCSE English Language (or indeed GCSE English Literature which curiously isn’t discussed above). Couldn’t it be a alternative/complimentary option?

    I also fully accept the problems of having a “forgotten third” but, and maybe I’m stuck in old ways here, a qualification that everyone can get is not really a qualification. If every young person, regardless of capability, receives the same ungraded Passport for English then in the real world if would have no value whatsoever. Added to which, what is there that motivates anyone to work harder when it would have no benefit – the only way this works is if it’s graded, in which case it doesn’t matter if the official position is that everyone’s passed … in the outside world certain grades would be considered positively and certain grades would be considered negatively. And we’re back to the same problem.

    I’m sure there’s a lot more information available, but just from this article I’m unsure what the author is uncomfortable with. Is it that he doesn’t think anybody should fail to pass, or that he thinks a third is too many? Would he accept a Forgotten Sixth, or a Forgotten Tenth?

    • Joanne Crossley

      Do you have an issue with everyone passing their driving test ungraded? A ‘Passport’ qualification could be a marker of having achieved a certain standard of literacy which would be a useful indicator for prospective employers. Like a driving test, it would confirm that the holder had reached a standard. This might be more useful for basic numeracy and literacy than plotting where students sit on a bell curve. Students could then choose to take GCSE English Literature to show their proficiency in the study of Literature, as opposed to their basic literacy skills.

    • Mark Watson

      But this is the point, if everyone (or almost everyone) passes an exam then the act of passing it has no meaning. What matters is the grade, and it doesn’t matter what you call them the “real world” will ascribe its own value to them, and which of them constitute ‘good’ grades.

      It’s the same as sport. Take the 100m at a Sports Day, with a class of 30 kids. If everyone who runs the race gets a medal, then the medal has no meaning and engenders no feeling of pride or achievement. What does matter is who comes 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc. Now the school can go on and on about how “everyone who ran the race is a winner”, but the children will know that’s just talk. They will collectively understand, for example, that coming in the first five is ‘good’. Coming in the bottom five is ‘bad’.

      All the above being said, I think it’s obvious that if the current system results in such a large proportion of children considering themselves failures then there’s something wrong that needs to be changed.

      • When GCSE first began, there was no suggestion that those who passed a the basic levels (G and F) were failures. Their achievement may have been basic but they still passed at that level.
        The ‘real world’ may consider a basic level to be a failure but it needs repeating again and again that achieving Level One qualifications (and that’s what GCSEs 1-3 are) are NOT, I repeat, NOT a failure. It is politicians and sections of the media intent on making political capital about state education ‘failure’ who have perpetuated this myth. In doing so, they have written off the achievements of one-third of our young pupil.

        • Mark Watson

          I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with you. Outside of the closeted worlds of education and politics, the overwhelming majority of the time when reference is made to grades is when applying for jobs, colleges, courses etc.

          Say what you like about a GCSE Grade G not being a ‘failure’, anyone looking at a CV with a Grade G in Maths is going to conclude that the individual in question did not do well in that subject. If they’re after someone who needs a reasonable level of capability in Maths then this CV is not going to pass muster.

          I really don’t think this is some form of Deep State conspiracy to “perpetuate state education failure”.

  2. There’s no need to devise a new qualification. Functional skills tests already exist. GCSE grades 1-3 are recognised as Level One qualifications. Grades 4-9 are Level Two. It should be possible to state on GCSE certificates which GCSEs are Level One passes or Level Two.

    The government should stop talking about a ‘standard pass’ and a ‘strong pass’. This classification is only for judging schools. But in doing so, it damns a third of 16 year olds.

    Better still, move to graduation at 18 via multiple routes. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/lets-move-towards-graduation-at-18/