After lockdown, it’s time the Forgotten Third became the Remembered Third

The crisis has brought sharper focus on how many children are being failed by our education system

Roy Blatchford

Chair, Forgotten Third Commission and former Headteacher

‘All changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born’

Yeats’s Easter 1916 evokes our times again. The familiar world is overturned. How can we remake it to create a better tomorrow?

Each year in this country about 190,000 sixteen year-olds fail to secure at least a standard pass in English and maths combined. These students are awarded grades 1, 2 and 3 (the unfortunately media-dubbed 123ers), with disadvantaged and vulnerable youngsters disproportionately represented. They are the forgotten third.

And worth recording here that at age 11, as they leave primary school, a similar third of children are told each year by their schools that they have ‘failed to reach the expected standards’ following their SATs.

Historians often say that the one lesson of history is that we don’t learn from our history. 

In 1963, John Newsom and his colleagues presented to the government a beautifully crafted, 300-page report titled Half Our Future. The landmark report painted a picture of success and positive self-esteem for 50 per cent of the nation’s 15 year-olds, the leaving age at the time. 

It went on to identify that the other 50 per cent languished with an unsuitable curriculum resulting in poor or no qualifications. The report’s various recommendations led happily to practical improvements in schools’ curriculum and resources – and crucially to the raising of the school leaving age, albeit a decade later in 1973.

John Newsom’s ‘half our future’ is today’s ‘forgotten third’.

Does it have to be this way?

An independent national commission of enquiry set up by ASCL published its

The Forgotten Third report last year. It 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, the Commission advocates 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, the report recommends increased investment in early years teaching, 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. 

It remains the case that the ‘long tail of under-achievement’ – the forgotten third – casts a shadow over UK education which we need to focus on in a fresh, radical, new-look way.

Ask a group of primary headteachers and they say that reducing class sizes would make a significant difference to attainment for all at 11+. Ask a group of secondary headteachers and they will say that a system of ‘comparable outcomes’, which fails a third of students in order that two-thirds can pass, presents a fundamental flaw in our GCSE examination system.

Dig a little deeper into how the ‘top table’ countries (Japan, Estonia, Finland, Singapore) organize things, and national examinations at 16+ are a feature of the past given the vast majority of young people are in education and training to at least 18+. Not to mention many, many countries trusting teachers to assess their own students, externally verified.

And ask folk in Canada or Finland about the balance between school accountability and school support, and they find the Ofsted model an alien force.

The new Jerusalem

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? 

What landmark decisions could taking a long view of our current circumstances lead to? 

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 national report shows, this is not a necessity but a political choice. A default position. A third of our young people fail by design at 16+. As Secretary of State 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 chaired ‘The Forgotten Third’

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