GCSEs in English and maths 'more useful' than 5 passes

Research suggests young people who attain passes in English and maths are less likely to end up Neet than those with five passes in other subjects

Julia Belgutay

Passing your GCSEs in English and maths could be more useful than obtaining five GCSE passes, research has suggested

GCSEs in English and maths should be treated as a priority by policymakers, charity Impetus has urged.

This comes as research by the charity, published today, suggests young people are more likely to gain a degree and less likely to end up not in employment, education or training (Neet) if they have GCSEs in English and maths, than they are if they have five GCSEs in other subjects.

The research compares a group of young people who have achieved at least a C at GCSE in both English and maths by age 16 – but who do not have five or more GCSEs at these grades (the English and maths group), with a group of young people who have achieved at least five C grades at GCSE by age 16 – but who do not have either English or maths, or both (the five passes group).


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'Noticeable difference'

Based on these two control groups the authors of the study said there was a clear difference in outcomes.

“We find that English and maths GCSEs make a noticeable difference to outcomes. By comparing a group of young people who passed these crucial subjects with a similar one that did not, we find that having GCSEs in English and maths is correlated to lower Neet rates, higher access to university, higher access to the most selective universities, [and] higher pass rates among those who start a degree.”

The authors add: “Our evidence suggests that GCSE English and maths is a more useful outcome measure at 16 than five GCSE passes. This is a reminder for policymakers that these subjects should be treated as a priority. This is particularly important for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are less likely to secure these essential qualifications.”

“We need to ensure that young people are getting the support they need to pass their English and maths GCSEs at 16 and, when they miss out, to attain these qualifications by 19. Our research indicates this will give them the best chance to succeed.”

Furthermore, according to the research, the English and maths group was about 16 per cent less likely to be Neet for six months, and 9 per cent less likely to be Neet for 12 months.

They were also 43 per cent more likely to have started a higher education course by summer 2017, and 12 per cent more likely to pass their degree by that time.

However, when comparing the English and maths group to the five GCSEs group, the former was about 30 per cent less likely to have started an apprenticeship.

Impetus highlights that although this finding stands in contrast to earlier findings in this report, previous research had found that better qualified young people were less likely to start an apprenticeship.

“And in that sense, our finding here is consistent – the English and maths group are less likely to access apprenticeships because they are better qualified than the five GCSEs group.”

Disadvantaged issues

The report stresses that the issues highlighted around English and maths particularly affect young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, with just 40 per cent of young people eligible for free school meals achieving a pass in these subjects.

“It is disproportionately young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are affected by the question of how we approach post-16 English and maths. Even when these qualifications have a fixed pass rate overall due to norm referencing, this attainment gap is not inevitable.”

Ben Gadsby, policy and research manager at Impetus, said: “This research reinforces how important those qualifications are for life chances. Now more than ever, we need a new plan to support the sector and ensure no young person is left behind.”

Catherine Sezen, senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said: “English and maths are crucial skills for life, work and progression to higher levels of study. Over 90 per cent of students who continue to work towards GCSEs or functional skills post-16 do so in the college sector where the focus is on building both confidence and skills in these key subjects.”

Thousands of young people sit their English and maths GCSE exams in colleges every year – many resit the qualification as a result of the condition of funding that means candidates who do not manage to achieve at least a grade 4 in GCSE English or maths when they leave school are required to resit the qualifications.

Those with a grade 2 or below have to continue to study the subjects at college, but can take either a GCSE or an approved stepping-stone qualification.

In January, it was revealed that the percentage of students who achieved a grade 4 in their GCSE resits had dropped, compared with last year, and at one exam board, less than a quarter of students resitting maths achieved that grade. 

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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