In 2018, I was honoured to be asked to join an Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) inquiry, which focused on the experience of children and young people, from early years to post 16, who struggle to achieve a full Level 2; that is, five GCSEs at grade 4 or above including English and maths.

Somewhat frustratingly similar recommendations were also made in the 1963 Newsom Report, Half Our Future. While some of the language and concepts may seem dated, many of the ideas regarding research, personal and social development, employability, information, advice and guidance and links with further education still resonate today, 60 years on.

It could be argued the ‘forgotten third’ tag is both inaccurate and insulting to the students themselves and the FE colleges and staff who work hard to enable them to progress. While the FE sector hasn’t traditionally had the attention it should, there is now a lot going on; T-level Transition Programme, review of Level 2 and below qualifications, tuition fund to support pandemic recovery for students who haven’t achieved English and maths and an additional 40 hours a week of funding for full-time students in 16 to 19 education from September 2022.

So, is it time we stopped using the phrase the 'forgotten third’?

Should we stop using the phrase the 'forgotten third’?

Sadly, I think large numbers of young people (and adults) are still ‘forgotten’ – despite the very best efforts of colleges and centres.

 An additional 40 hours a year hardly scratches the surface. Furthermore, the review of post-16 qualifications at level 2 and below asks the wrong questions; it is not the qualifications that are the key issue. It doesn’t address the real barriers to success such as: SEND; lack of transition information from schools; caring responsibilities, well-being etc. Similarly, investment in training to recruit and retain staff working successfully with lower-level students is missing on the issue agenda. FE has always been the home of those students leaving school at 16 with lower grades on entry, SEND and social needs (as well as a wide range of other students of course) which must be recognised in national and local-level policy.

It is the wrap around support to tackle these barriers to success (identified in the 2017 DfE commissioned report Effective Curriculum Practice for 16/17 year-olds) which is lacking. There needs to be a concerted focus on well-being, enrichment, employability, citizenship and pastoral support for the students who face significant hurdles to do their best. Colleges try, but there isn’t the money to do everything.

Perhaps a better term for this cohort is ‘misunderstood’ and definitely ‘under invested in’. When we consider that pre-pandemic nearly 50% of students starting Level 3 technical and vocational courses started at 17, having in most cases taken a Level 2 in their first post 16 year at college this seems a lost opportunity to support students towards the Level 3, 4 and 5 outcomes as set out in the 2016 Skills Plan.


T Levels are aimed at students who prefer a vocational and technical pathway, rather than the academic one offered by A-levels; in this way, they represent a route for this cohort of students to take. I believe the T-level Transition programme could make a difference as colleges have had the opportunity to rethink what will support progression to T Level, but the funded hours are the same.

The investment in T Levels has been and continues to be huge (and rightly so), yet the students who are furthest away from success (however we measure that) are not funded in the same way. The T Level Transition programme will be from this September a 580-hour or 16-hour a week study programme compared to T Levels which are funded for around 20 to 25 hours a week when the industry placement is taken into account.  

Research into what works

Instead of a focus on qualification reform, consideration should be given to enhancing the offer for level 2 and below. Key things to consider are including links with traineeships and apprenticeships, investment in research and staffing, and focusing on English and maths provision. Around 40% of 16-year-olds fail to achieve both English and maths at the grade 4 ‘pass’ in Year 11; crucial skills for progression entry to work and life in general.

Students must continue to study either GCSE or Functional Skills in these subjects until they are 19 or they achieve the grade 4. Pre-pandemic GCSE pass rates for 16 – 18 English were around 30% each year and 20% for maths. Functional Skills pass rates have fallen dramatically since the introduction of the reformed version, particularly in maths.

The question remains: are these the best, most motivating, qualifications that help and ensure students have competent literacy and numeracy skills, for employment and for life? Where is the review and research to make sure we have fit for purpose qualifications to encourage those who have yet to achieve to succeed?

School to college transition planning

Finally, the Level 2 and below qualifications and study programmes taken by the ‘forgotten third’ do not sit in isolation. There needs to be far greater dovetailing of the pre- and post-16 curriculum offer. Planning and funded, extended tasters for post-16 study should be a central part of the pre-16 offer, together with parent/carer discussion from at least the end of Key Stage 3 and comprehensive transition information shared with colleges. All of this would support more successful progression and outcomes.  

I wish I could say ‘yes’, there is no longer a need to talk about the forgotten third but in all honesty, I would have to say ‘no’. Sadly, even after 60 years the conversation has hardly got started. With such a perennial problem, will we ever actually address the challenge?

As part of AQi’s work, we are inviting people from a wide range of viewpoints to engage with us on a wide range of topics. We welcome alternative views to help stimulate discussion and ideas. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent the views of AQi or AQA.