The Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER) at the London School of Economics tracked a cohort of 575,000 teenagers for four years to find out what progress they made after GCSEs. The researchers’ findings were stark: among the learners who sat GCSEs at the age of 16 in 2009-10, about 10,000 were found to be working towards low-level qualifications for four consecutive years.
The most striking results were among those students who at the age of 17 were primarily pursuing level 2 qualifications (equivalent to A*-C grades at GCSE). In most cases, they were learners who had not achieved well at GCSE the previous year. The authors found that there was “no clear trajectory to high subsequent levels of learning”. Only 44 per cent achieved a level 3 qualification by the age of 20. Among those at level 1 when they were 17, the results were even worse: only 16 per cent achieved a level 3 by the age of 20.
Students are stuck
“Furthermore, many people observed at low levels of qualification continue to study these low-level qualifications for multiple years,” the report states. “Around 10,000 students are observed working towards low levels of qualification for four consecutive years. An important question for the future is whether the way ‘second chances’ are offered in the current system is as good as it could be for learners and whether provision is cost-effective.”
Around a quarter of those on a level 2 course at age 17 were still studying towards a qualification of the same level the next year, while more than one in 12 actually moved down a level. At the age of 18, some 17 per cent had dropped out of education altogether.
These students are more likely than most to come from disadvantaged backgrounds. “What happens to such students should be a key concern for all who are interested in increasing social mobility,” the report says.
Around one in five of all students in the cohort were on an apprenticeship programme at some point between the ages of 18 and 20, with a fifth of those on a level 3 apprenticeship. Compared with the average student in the cohort, those accessing intermediate or level 2 apprenticeships did less well in their GCSEs; those on advanced apprenticeships were slightly higher-achieving – although not as high as those who went on to university.