Subject choices at GCSE may exacerbate social inequalities

By Nuffield Foundation

Young people from less advantaged homes may limit their options for further education unnecessarily when choosing their GCSE subjects.

A study from the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) funded by the ESRC and the Nuffield Foundation found that pupils from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were less likely than their more privileged peers to choose GCSE subjects that would enable them to go on to university – regardless of whether or not they were academically able.

Researchers from the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies examined information from more than 11,700 young people taking part in Next Steps, who were born in 1989-90 and attended state schools in England. This generation was one of the first to be affected by New Labour’s policy to promote diversity and flexibility in the age 14-19 curriculum.

Pupils whose parents only had GCSE-level education were less likely than those with more educated parents to study three or more ‘facilitating subjects’ from the Russell Group’s Informed Choices guide. They were also less likely to take three or more academically ‘selective’ subjects – that is, those normally taken by high attaining pupils. German and Maths & Statistics were the most ‘selective’ subjects at GCSE.

Young people with less educated parents were more likely to take at least one Applied GCSE, such as Leisure and Tourism or Applied Manufacturing and Engineering.

Interestingly, parents’ education did not appear to influence whether pupils took three or more Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects or the English Baccalaureate (EBacc). Moreover, girls were less likely to take STEM subjects than boys, even when taking into account their prior attainment.

The findings were similar for young people from lower-income homes. Poorer pupils were less likely to take selective, facilitating or EBacc subjects and more likely to take Applied GCSEs than their wealthier peers. Family income was not related to taking STEM subjects.

Young people who attended grammar or single-sex schools were more likely to take a selective curriculum or the EBacc, and less likely to take Applied GCSEs, than their peers at comprehensives.

The researchers suggested that young people from more advantaged families may be getting better support from parents and schools to navigate the overwhelming range of subjects offered at GCSE.

“Diversifying young people’s choice of subjects at GCSE might help keep them in school, but issues arise when that choice is poorly informed. Pupils on the cusp, who have the grades to go on to higher education, could be led to make choices that unnecessarily limit their options” explained Dr Morag Henderson, the study’s lead author.

The CLS briefing paper, ‘Social class, gender and ethnic differences in subjects taken at age 14 by Morag Henderson, Alice Sullivan and Jake Anders’, is available to download in PDF format.

Notes

 1. General Certificates of Secondary Education (GSCEs) are taken in a range of subjects by secondary school pupils in England. Pupils choose their GCSE subjects in Year 9 and normally take their exams in Year 11.

2. Applied GCSEs were introduced in the 2002 Education Act as part of a broader policy to increase the diversity of the 14-19 curriculum.

3. The researchers did not include English and Maths in their analyses, as these were compulsory subjects for all pupils in the study.

4. Prior educational attainment was determined by the pupils’ Key Stage 3 scores, which were obtained by linking to the National Pupil Database.

5. This research was carried out as part of the Social mobility mechanisms and consequences project in CLS’s Cross-Cohort Research Programme.

6. Next Steps (previously known as the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England) has been following the lives of about 16,000 young people born in 1989-90 who attended secondary school in England. The study began in 2004 when the participants were in Year 9 and turning 14 years old. The study has collected a wide range of information across different areas of the participants’ lives, including education, employment, economic circumstances, family life, physical and emotional health, and social participation and attitudes. Next Steps is managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the UCL Institute of Education, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

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