A recent report released by the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has highlighted that approximately 100,000 young people are leaving school without having achieved the basic expected standard of qualifications (that is, they have not attained 5 GCSEs above grade 4/C or equivalent Level 2 qualifications). That equates to nearly 1 in 5 pupils – a 28% rise in the proportion of affected pupils since 2015, prior to which time attainment gaps had been narrowing.

These are young people who have been in compulsory education from the age of 4 or 5 until they turn 19. They have been exposed to hundreds of staff in their 15 years of schooling and likely many, many interventions.

So, what’s next for these young people? Without the expected level of basic qualifications, many avenues will be closed to them. Many jobs, further education, apprenticeships and vocational courses will not consider these young adults as viable candidates. The DfE blames education reforms from 2013/14 for falling attainment, but their official statement makes no plans to address the issue. These reforms disincentivised schools from offering non-GCSE courses as alternatives to a more academic route, which especially penalised disadvantaged and SEN pupils. The lifelong implications of leaving school unqualified can be so profound for individuals and wider society that this needs to be seen as a rallying cry for significant change, not a hiccup that can be ignored.

The report highlights that pupils with SEN are the worst affected. This is closely followed by socially disadvantaged pupils who are in receipt of Free School Meals. That’s two groups of children who are likely to have a known SLCN or are at significantly higher risk of SLCN. It seems logical to wonder what proportion of children who are not gaining basic qualifications can be accounted for by language and communication difficulties.

We know that children and young people with persistent SLCN have a poor prognosis for educational attainment. The latest DfE statistics on attainment of pupils whose primary need is SLCN show that only 20.3% gained passing grades in English and Maths GCSE. We also know that SLCN is a hidden difficulty, and therefore there may be an unknown mass of pupils whose difficulties have gone unidentified or misidentified, or perhaps have not met the threshold of concern in a setting with stretched and diminishing resources.

The Children’s Commissioner closes her report with several calls to action, demanding that the DfE review the education system to address the observed shortcomings. However, she has unfortunately stopped short of specifically drawing attention to the role of early intervention and SEN. It’s not enough to focus solely on intervention in the years directly preceding GCSE exams to improve the attainment of school-leavers. The government’s focus on attributing blame to educational reforms that only affected KS4 misses the point. If we look at what the data is telling us about who these children are, we can see that the risk to their attainment was present long before they started their KS4 courses. So, it makes sense that the response to these findings needs to consider early identification of needs and early intervention to address these. The fact that attainment gaps start in EYFS and persist into KS4 needs to be acknowledged and addressed long before we ask children to participate in exams which can impact on the course of the rest of their lives.

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