"When GCSE results were published all I could think about was the 123ers: the quarter of the student body awarded the lowest grades."
On GCSE results day back in August, CEO of the Sutton Trust Lee Elliot Major spoke at our Teaching Leaders residential, and has followed up with a reflection on what this year’s results mean for those obtaining grades 1, 2 and 3. The Sutton Trust share our mission to eradicate educational disadvantage, but the view expressed in Lee’s blog are his own.
While the papers showed pictures of photogenic pupils parading their impressive GCSE results this summer, and pundits talked of new tougher tests for teenagers, there was little mention of the pupils getting the lowest GCSE grades 1, 2 and 3.
Forgotten children they may be, but the 123ers are all around us, that's shown by the national exam results data buried away here. Three in ten 16 year olds (30.1%) failed to secure a grade 4 or above in the new English language GCSE, graded 1-9. That equates to around 160,000 pupils across England, or 50 in each secondary school. In maths it's a similar story: just under three in ten (29.3%) pupils fell short of the ‘standard pass’.
It’s unfair for the 123ers. Many will have to retake the same English and maths tests and 70% will fail again. Even those who scraped grade 4s will be stuck in a twilight zone of uncertainty as to whether universities and employers will demand a ‘good pass’ (grade 5) instead.
How did they get forgotten?
School children are caught up in the law of unintended consequences. Education is like a giant balloon. We push down one problem, and another pops up elsewhere.
Yes, we had to halt the inflation of highest GCSE grades that made it difficult to distinguish between increasing numbers of high achievers. Quite rightly, we exposed the scandal of too many pupils leaving school without basic English and maths. And it’s good that we are now measuring schools against the progress of all the children they teach.
Yet England’s new testing regime has some major flaws that pile further disadvantage onto our most disadvantaged pupils. Labelling is the death knell of education aspiration and self-esteem. And repeating tests doesn’t work. We need an exam system that tests academic skills, but also develops and celebrates other talents, vocational, creative or technical.
Focusing solely on comparing students against others in their school year - and not assessing how literate and numerate they are - is unfair - and that’s the view of the Government’s own evidence tsar.
What can be done about it?
The 123ers highlight one of social mobility stickiest problems. Yet there will be little appetite to review a testing and curriculum system that’s just been through unprecedented upheaval.
So what can be done right now for the 123ers? Six years ago we launched the Sutton Trust-EEF Toolkit offering the best bets for improving results of poorer pupils, based on robust research. The advice remains the same to this day: focus relentlessly on improving the interaction between teacher and pupils in the classroom. That means effective feedback, making learning explicit (metacognition) and nurturing independent learners.
The Sutton Trust's What Makes Great Teaching report reached a similar conclusion: whatever else you attempt, always measure your efforts against student progress made – that's the only yardstick of good teaching we have.
If I were school leader I would establish a peer collaborative learning project for teachers tasked with signposting progression pathways for next year's likely 123ers. Remember that many people who flunk their GCSEs go onto be very successful. In the current system, teachers are their only hope.
Dr Lee Elliot Major is chief executive of the Sutton Trust and a co-author of the Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit.
This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.