IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Young people from disadvantaged homes may limit their further education options when choosing GCSEs

14 December 2016

A study from UCL Institute of Education (IOE) 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 to university - regardless of whether or not they were academically able.

Secondary school pupils raising their hands in class. Image: Phil Meech for UCL Institute of Education

Researchers from the 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.

'Social class, gender and ethnic differences in subjects taken at age 14' by Dr Morag Henderson, Dr Alice Sullivan and Dr Jake Anders is the latest CLS working paper.