In the fallow weeks of summer, it’s a treasured landmark for newspaper editors. GSCE results day means lots of colourful stories of jubilant teenagers jumping for joy brandishing their impressive hauls of grade 8s and 9s. But what of the 100,000s of the pupils who do not achieve what the government describes as a ‘standard pass’ – grade 4 – in English and Maths at GCSEs? In mid-August, or for that matter any time, no-one wants to talk about education’s forgotten pupils.

Many of course will go on to take vocational and technical options in further education colleges and flourish in different and just as valuable ways. But  many will be shunned by employers and selective sixth-forms. According to the Department for Education, 6.5 percent of 16-18 year olds in 2020 were not in education, employment or training.

Pupils who achieve a grade 3 are required to re-sit their exams as a condition of funding for their continued education (with many ‘failing’ again). Meanwhile pupils who achieve a grade 1 or 2 are required to take functional skills qualifications.

Our research

The research I'm undertaking lays bare the unravelling tragedy for many of these teenagers. Our research utilises the Millennium Cohort Study, a longitudinal study tracking a group of children born in the years 2000-02. The study provides an in-depth look into the family, individual and schooling characteristics of pupils who fail to meet national benchmarks in both Maths and English Language GCSEs.

Why does this matter? One study demonstrated that school students who narrowly fail to achieve a grade C in their GCSE English exam pay a high price with significantly lower prospects in education and employment. International assessments and national surveys meanwhile reveal that around a quarter of school leavers fail to master functional skills in literacy and numeracy required to live fruitful lives. Many of these children will be among those not gaining grade 4s in English Language and Maths GCSEs. Pupils are thus disadvantaged in two ways: penalised by the stigma of not having a grade 4 ‘pass’; but also held back because they lack the basic skills to get on life. In our research we want to ask why − after 12 years of schooling − do so many pupils miss this important benchmark?  

Among the Millennium cohort of pupils, we find that falling below expected standards in literacy and numeracy performance at school entrance at age 5 is highly predictive of failure to gain a standard pass in Maths and English Language GCSEs at age 16. We observe constant gaps in achievement throughout the schooling years - and all this at a time when the New Labour government invested huge amounts into a series of national literacy and numeracy schemes. Just under a fifth, 18 percent, of the cohort failed to secure a grade 4 or above in both English Language and Maths GCSEs.

Targeted interventions

Ambitious targets unveiled in this year’s schools white paper to improve literacy and numeracy are only the latest in a long line of attempts to address a seemingly intractable problem. One implication of our research is that we will need to better engage with parents to improve the home learning environment from pre-school years, and indeed throughout schooling, to stand any chance of meeting these targets.

Our study also raises fundamental questions about our assessment system: is it fit for purpose for all pupils? Assessments at each education stage do not appear to be providing the formative feedback that might alter children’s learning trajectories. Age 5 assessments are intended to identify pupils falling behind and bring them up to speed, but by age 11 the gaps have become so wide as to be insurmountable.

Revisiting the 'pass policy'

There’s also a problem we believe with the damaging incentives created by having a widely accepted threshold for individual GCSE results. There are no ‘fail grades’ awarded by exam boards. However, following the government’s lead in defining GCSE grade 4 as a ‘standard pass’, the grade 4 has become universally accepted as the threshold that matters among pupils, teachers, parents and employers. With limited classroom time, there is an inevitable tendency to focus attention on pupils with a fair chance of progressing in any given year or finally gaining a GCSE ‘pass’.  The pressure on teachers moreover is only set to ratchet up. The Government announced in its white paper that it wants the average GCSE grade in English Language and Maths to rise to 5 by 2030 - up from 4.5 in 2019. Given the school disruption due to the pandemic this looks like a tough ask.

A popular myth is that GCSE examinations are ‘norm-referenced’ with the proportions of pupils who achieve particular grades fixed from year to year; the reality is more complex. England’s exams regulator, Ofqual, undertakes an annual review process which involves assessing whether there is strong enough evidence to alter the proportion of passes in any given year. But as research shows the result is effectively the same. The proportion of pupils not achieving a grade 4 in English Language and Maths in England remained largely unchanged for the decade preceding the Covid pandemic.

What next?

What’s clear is that the current approach is not working for all children. It's time for a rethink. One option would be to explore a dual approach, in which all pupils would be assessed against a basic threshold of key skills required to get on in life, including functional maths and English. Maths and English Language GCSEs could each be split into two separate qualifications: a compulsory test examining basic numeracy and literacy skills, and a separate exam for pupils pursuing more academic study.

This would genuinely help to give something for all pupils and teachers to aim for. It would also help address some of the inherent flaws of the current examinations system, one that harms too many lives by labelling them ‘failures’ at age 16. Heaven knows, news editors might even start turning the spotlight on the achievements of all our pupils.

Born to Fail? Improving the literacy and numeracy skills of education’s Left Behind is a three-year research project being undertaken by Professor Lee Elliot Major, University of Exeter and Dr Sam Parsons, University College London. It is supported by the Monday Charitable Trust.

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.