Students paying a high price for failing their English GCSE, warns report

Those narrowly missing out on a pass suffer serious consequences, according to DfE-funded research

Jonathan Owen

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Pupils who narrowly fail their English GCSE exams pay a high price, according to a new study by the Centre for Vocational Education Research at the London School of Economics.

Researchers at the centre, which is funded by the Department for Education, tracked the progress of more than 49,000 pupils who took their English GCSE in 2013 and got a grade C or D. They looked at how the group fared over the next three years. Those who narrowly missed out on a pass by up to 10 points were more likely to end up dropping out of education and, therefore, at increased risk of poorer prospects in the long term, according to the report.

It found that narrowly missing a C grade decreased the probability of enrolling in a higher-level qualification by at least nine percentage points by age 19, with a similar effect on the probability of achieving a higher academic or vocational qualification by that age. Students who failed their GCSE were less likely to enter tertiary or higher education by the age of 19.

Failing to pass increased the probability of dropping out of education at age 18 by around four percentage points and being not in education, training or employment by around two percentage points.

The report states: “Failing to achieve a grade C in English has a large associated cost – or put another way, the marginal student would have performed significantly better in the longer term had he/she not been so unlucky at this point."

It adds: “This paper suggests that the marginal student who is unlucky pays a high price. This is consistent with descriptive evidence which suggests that the English educational system does not work well for those who leave compulsory education without good grades."

The costs of failure

Dr Jenifer Ruiz-Valenzuela, co-author of the paper, Entry Through the Narrow Door: The Costs of Just Failing High Stakes Exams, said: “Our analysis does not suggest that having pass/fail thresholds are undesirable. Achievement of a minimum level of literacy and numeracy in the population is an important social and economic objective."

However, she added: “The fact that there are such big consequences from narrowly missing out on a C grade suggests that there is something going wrong within the system. It suggests that young people are not getting the support they need if they fail to make the grade (even narrowly)”.

Dr Ruiz-Valenzuela commented: “Other educational options available to people who cannot immediately enter higher academic or vocational education are failing to help a significant proportion of young people make progress up the educational ladder."

“Our study suggests that the marginal student who is unlucky pays a high price."

Catherine Sezen, senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said: “The CVER report points to the importance of having good English skills.

“Colleges have a vital role to play in providing a high-quality learning experience for post-16 students, enabling them to continue studying English and maths where required in addition to undertaking technical and or academic options which meet their individual starting points and learning needs."

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Students who leave education with a good grasp of English increase their chances of securing a job, which is why we have made it compulsory for students to continue to study English if they don’t pass their GCSE.

“Since 2013, we have invested over £40m to improve the quality of maths and English lessons for 16-19 year olds and all students who do not pass their GCSE English are offered additional support to retake it and help them secure this important qualification.”

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Jonathan Owen

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