By the numbers choice of course among 14-16s

Why do students choose the courses they do? A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has looked at what kind of factors influence teenagers when they make their decisions.

The researchers point out that while society accepts young children should have little choice over their education, as they get older more input is allowed. But without knowing how students make decisions it is difficult to know what should be trusted to them, and when.

The Department for Education-funded study, Subject and Course Choices at Ages 14 and 16 Amongst Young People in England, used insights from behavioural economics to consider whether the way choices are presented, or "framed", can "nudge" students towards particular subjects.

Some influences on student choices are well known. For example, pupils' decisions are often dictated by whether they see themselves going on to university or would prefer a more vocational route.

Social background also plays a part, with middle-class pupils more likely to take history, geography and modern foreign languages. Similarly, gender plays a role, becoming more obvious post-16 when some subjects, such as health and social care, are taken almost exclusively by women, while places on physics courses, for example, are filled almost entirely by men.

The researchers quoted evidence that pupils were most likely to choose a GCSE subject because they liked it and knew they could do well in it. There is also evidence that some pupils may put too much weight on immediate benefits such as whether their friends are choosing the same options.

Teenagers also tend to overestimate how well their lives will turn out - they may be optimistic, for example, about their chances of becoming a professional footballer. But there is also evidence that students overestimate the likelihood that they will go on to higher education, with the gap between expectation and reality largest for those from the poorest backgrounds.

Pupils unable to choose their preferred key stage 4 subjects

Unable to choose a preferred subject: 19%

Of which:

The school did not offer the course: 33%

I could not do it with other courses I am taking: 16%

There was a timetable clash with another subject: 14%

It was fullover-subscribed: 13%

Other: 24%


Lowest socio-economic background

Expect to go at age 14 - 50%

Reality at age 18-19 - 12%

Highest socio-economic background

Age 14 - 78%

Age 18-19 - 52%.

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