Message to Children’s Commissioner: Level One qualifications aren't 'nothing'.

Janet Downs's picture

You would think the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield would know better.  She is, after all, supposed to be the advocate for children and young people in England.  But she seems ignorant about qualification levels.

Yesterday, Longfield published a report entitled:  Almost one in five children left education at 18 last year without basic qualifications.  It was widely reported in the media with many carrying this comment:

It is shameful that last year almost 100,000 children in England left education at 18 without proper qualifications.’

You’d be forgiven for thinking that 100,000 18-year-olds (18%) had no qualifications at all after fourteen years of education.  But this isn’t true.

Longfield has based her research on the proportion of 18-year-olds who didn’t reach Level Two attainment.  In doing so, she ignores those young people who achieved Level One qualifications: GCSE grades 1-3 (old grades G-D) and their equivalents. 

But Level One qualifications are basic qualifications.  That’s why they’re called Level One.  The government’s website makes it clear: Level One covers ‘essential skills’.

The Department for Education’s media department criticised Longfield’s report.  It didn’t ‘provide the full picture’ because the data included discontinued exams.  The DfE could have gone further:  It could have said the report was flawed because it wrongly claimed Level Two was basic.

Why, then, did the DfE not make this clear?  It’s because the DfE has an arbitrary ‘benchmark’ for accountability purposes.   This is set at Level Two: five GCSEs including Maths and English at grade 5 (a ‘strong pass’) or above. A ‘standard pass’ is set at grade 4 but it’s not standard enough for league table purposes. 

What constitutes 'pass' or 'fail' is muddled further when we look at the DfE's  school performance tables.  These have a section on each school’s record for ‘other measures – additional entry and achievement measures’.  These show the proportion of pupils in England who achieve at least one qualification at age 16.  In 2018, this was 97.70%

This suggests Longield’s claim that 18% at age 18 leave with no qualifications is flawed.

Longfield has made the mistake of comparing ‘benchmark’ with ‘basic’.  According to Longfield, Level One qualifications equal ‘nothing’.  In doing so, she has rubbished the achievement of young people who begin their adult life with Level One qualifications. 

Instead of demanding an ‘independent review into falling level-2 attainment’, it would be better if the Children’s Commissioner argued for graduation at 18 via multiple routes. 

If the Children’s Commissioner doesn’t accept that Level One qualifications are achievements for those young people who have them, then she is failing 100,000 of the young people she says she represents.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 21/09/2019 - 15:44

You are right Janet, but that is only part of the problem. The following is from a letter I have written to the Children's Commissioner.

The 'Thinking Schools' movement is an overdue reaction to the takeover of teaching methods in our schools by the 'knowledge-based' instruction methods pushed by the DfE. You will find that the Exeter and Cambridge academics, along with the other groups linked to in my article also support the following explanation of the 'attainment gap' and how it can be effectively addressed, noting that decades of following the DfE line has made it worse.

The DfE claims that all is well, as this year's GCSE results are alleged to have improved. This is an illusion produced by severe reductions in the pass marks needed for the grade 4/5 boundary which defines Level 2 qualifications. This is as low as 33% in some subjects making a mockery of the general utility of such qualifications.
However our central argument is that the teaching methods being promoted by the DfE through Academy MATs stifle curiosity and inhibit the cognitive development necessary for students to understand harder concepts. In effect, when we need the education system to emphasise the development of cognition as, for example, in the completely different, high performing Finnish education system, our harsh, increasingly punishment-driven schools are making our students dimmer and turning them off progression to academic A Levels. It is not just at the lower grades that our exam system is failing.
So how would the 'Thinking Schools' approach begin to solve the problem? Not through the statistical impossibility of 'flattening out' the bell curve variation between low and high performers. The desired result would instead be the general raising of cognitive ability at all levels, such that Grades 1 -3 in the GCSE grade scale would become meaningful pass grades relevant to quality post-16 progression. The truth is that the GCSE C grade benchmark in school performance tables has always been more about driving competition between schools than really raising standards.
So I beg you to spend the time needed to study these arguments, which are mainstream in our most academically respected institutions.



John Mountford's picture
Tue, 24/09/2019 - 14:04

Roger, both you and Janet are ultimately into the wind if you expect anything to happen that benefits children. Your efforts are barely acknowledged, even by the gang of four responsible (in name only) for this site. There is no way the present establishment will accept responsibility for wrongdoing. This includes ALL our MPs currently. They should all resign and be barred from seeking re-election for five years to allow others who are not tarnished by the utter failure of the political establishment in Parliament to sort out the Brexit issue while allowing the domestic agenda to languish.
The fact that education policy has become so toxic to the needs of children and young people is a national disgrace BUT it ain't going to change any time soon. That said, maybe there are a few who will read your wise words and feel the need to stand up and force the seemingly unaccountable rabble in charge to put the needs of the young and most vulnerable before their own. If a 16 year old Swedish girl can call it to world leaders, we ought all to sit up. It is nothing short of a revolution that will be required to achieve the necessary changes. By the way, Anne Longfield could kick it off by resigning forthwith.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/09/2019 - 10:21

John - I am uncomfortable with talk of revolution.  Even if it's rhetorical, we're living at a time of division where upheaval is bubbling below the surface.  This is made worse by a PM saying his opponents are guilty of surrender and capitulations, who frames his position as supporting 'The people' against Parliament and the Judiciary.

I would also caution against tarring all MPs with the same brush.  They are our representatives, voted in democratically.  If their constituents don't agree with them, they can vote for someone else.   

Sorting out Brexit was always going to be difficult but attempts to point this out during the Referendum campaign were dismissed as Project Fear.  This included the warning that Brexit would be all-consuming and overwhelm the domestic agenda.  Again, this was ignored.

What we need are cool heads, statesman (or woman) like behaviour and less posturing by ambitious politicians or those who crave publicity.  A government of national unity, perhaps.  But at the moment that's impossible.

John Mountford's picture
Thu, 26/09/2019 - 13:59

I have to challenge your perception of how the electoral system actually functions. Presently, it fails miserably to deliver democracy. A government of national unity is not possible in the first past the post system, especially with the current crop of MPs who have not managed collectively, for over three years, to sort out the mess made by Cameron and his cronies. It's no accident that parliament has failed the people. After the referendum, which ever way it went, Brexit should have been sorted long ago. At least by now we would be building a future rather than further damaging our fragile democracy. It is foolish to argue that one person one vote can deliver a fully functioning democracy unless every vote truly counts in a system of proportional representation.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 27/09/2019 - 11:36

I doubt if a gov't of national unity would be possible even under proportional representation.  Imagine trying to unite the three main parties, the SNP, DUP, greens, Plaid, UKIP, Brexit Party, independents...  

You're right that Brexit would have been 'sorted' if remain had one for the simple reason they're would be nothing which needed sorting.  Working towards EU reform, possibly, but not having to sever our connections.. 

It's wrong to say Leave would have been sorted long ago.   Quite apart from the difficult negotiations (including problems surrounding Northern Ireland and Gibralter), there's the stuff going on behind the scenes.  For a flavour, see the NAO on 'Exiting the EU'.   

Brexit won't be finished  we leave.  There'll be years of tglobal rade deal negotiations, one country at a time. The UK will need to negotiate our future relationship with the EU (defence, data regs, cross border policing, intelligence,...).  We'll need to untangle 40 years of UK law from EU law (which bits to keep and which to dump).  That will keep Parliament occupied and reduce the amount of time available for domestic policies.   

And that's without a possible Scottish Referendum which, if they voted to leave the UK, would mean more time having to be spent on that.

John Mountford's picture
Fri, 27/09/2019 - 14:36

Janet, you write, "imagine trying to unite the three main parties, the SNP, DUP, greens, Plaid, UKIP, Brexit Party, independents... " I can actually. I can imagine what a difference it would make to a tired electorate if that were to happen - the end of voting in elections and your vote counting for nothing and the beginning of parties knowing they have to find consensus, bringing hope of a welcome end to the sea-saw policy making we have now. How I would welcome an end to the inevitably huge levels of waste when policies are abandoned for no other reason than 'my party doesn't like this'.

Going forward, we deserve a democracy that works for the good of all where all can feel respected even if their preferred option for change is rejected by the majority.

Janet, you are right that it won't be over if we do leave the EU. However, after forty years of working from the inside, this has hardly reduced the undemocratic behaviours, corruption and nepotism the organisation has been renowned for from its inception. And as for a Scottish Referendum resulting in a vote to leave the UK, we now have the golden precedent of feeling comfortable with overturning the outcome democratic decisions we don't agree with.

The only reason Brexit would not have needed sorting was if the naughty electorate hadn't voted for it in the first place. Personally, I am unhappy with those in power reacting as they have. I could have accepted if the referendum had never happened. I would have accepted if the vote had been to remain. I can understand now why many people did not like the outcome and why our nation is divided on the outcome to date. This is why if we had had a system of proportional representation in 2016 our whole nation would not have been drawn into a civil war within the Conservative Party. And this is why we need a smarter bunch representing us in parliament.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.