The forgotten third: why are we still failing disadvantaged students?

Author: Kate Lee, Senior Editor
Published: 22/09/2020

A third of children in our schools are seen as ‘failing’ but in truth, it’s our institutions that are failing them. In this impassioned cri de coeur, Roy Blatchford brings together the voices of leading teachers, politicians and academics to make a compelling case for a more equitable education system. In The forgotten third, Blatchford and co argue that post-Coronavirus, there is a political choice to remember the bottom third or lowest attaining students in our schools: ‘If we want social justice in education we need to accept what it will actually take for every child to have the chance to grow and thrive, no matter what their start in life'.    

Blatchford led an independent Commission of Inquiry into the 'forgotten third', a term he coined, and his report and key recommendations were published by ASCL in 2018. This collection of short essays provides a context for the current, increasingly urgent situation following Covid-related school closures, along with a brief but helpful summary of the systemic failings of successive governments since Churchill and Butler’s attempts at reform in the 1940s and 1950s.   

The force of opinion and collective sense of outrage at the institutionalised inequality in the UK's education system is, in turn, both moving and rousing. Each chapter offers an expert’s often inspirational and eminently readable take on the problem, with a range of practical solutions, many of which will have broad appeal to senior leaders in schools across the country. 

For Rachel Macfarlane, Director of Education Services at Herts for Learning, there’s a moral imperative to remove the label of ‘failure’ from our education system. She believes that every adult in a school can communicate a belief in a 100% success rate - a ‘true growth mindset’. 

David Laws, the former Schools minister, is similarly perplexed by why we seem to ‘lock in failure’ for the bottom third of students within our qualifications and curriculum design, and makes a strong case for reviewing the content of GCSE English and Maths, when a third of students ‘don’t even leave school with the basic levels of literacy and numeracy’.   

There are comprehensive suggestions for levelling up, focusing on SEND and Pupil Premium students, as well as compelling ideas for improving students’ wellbeing, oracy and vocabulary development and tackling the underachievement of boys. Many of the authors argue for more fundamental reforms to the 14-19 curriculum. 

There are also countless stories that celebrate the importance of meaningful relationships with students and investment in pastoral care, and warn of the dangers of labelling students. Underpinning the proposals for policy change, funding equity and greater investment in teachers, is a call for moral leadership from headteachers. We all accept the importance of closing the attainment gap: this book is a call to action.

Read ASCL's report and key recommendations in The Forgotten Third, based on Roy Blatchford's independent Commission of Inquiry.  

This is a review of The forgotten third: Do a third have to fail for two thirds to pass?, edited by Roy Blatchford (John Catt, 2020).   

Kate Lee, Senior Editor

Kate Lee is a former Head of English and Performing Arts, with a background working in inner-city colleges, and a special interest in literacy.