UCL News


Half of pupils who get low GCSE grades already judged to be behind at age five

2 September 2022

Assessments of children as early as age three and five are powerful predictors of who will go on to fail to secure good GCSE results in English and maths, finds a new study involving UCL researchers.

A schoolboy solves his homework at a desk

Published as a working paper, the research found just under a half (48 per cent) of teenagers who fail to make the grade were identified as falling behind at age five. 

Researchers say the education system is currently failing a ‘forgotten fifth’ of pupils, who after 12 years of schooling leave without the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed to get on in life. 

The findings raise fundamental questions about the ways schools identify pupils falling behind in the classroom, and the strategies put in place to enable pupils to develop their early reading, writing and number skills. 

The three-year research project seeks to understand why successive Governments have failed to address an issue that has plagued England’s education system for several decades. Failure to get a grade 4 in both English language and maths GCSE is a strong indicator teenagers lack the basic levels of literacy and numeracy needed to function and prosper in life after school. 

The researchers are the first to use data from the nationally representative longitudinal UK Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) to investigate the educational trajectories of the one in five (18 per cent) of teenagers in England who did not achieve a grade 4 in both English language and maths. The study tracks the development and background characteristics of 11,532 pupils born between September 2000 and January 2002 who went on to take their GCSEs in 2016 and 2017.
The findings reveal that one in four (27 per cent) children assessed as being below expected levels at age five fail to achieve a grade 4 pass or above in their English language and maths GCSE at age 16. This compares with one in 10 (11 per cent) children assessed as above expected levels at age five. Importantly these results identify the specific impact of earlier test results by taking into consideration a wide range of family environment and individual characteristics of pupils that could also impact on academic results.

At age five the children undertook the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) profile assessments intended to diagnose pupil needs, including expected standards in the EYFS Communication, Literacy and Language (CLL) and Maths Development (MD) scales. Just over a fifth of pupils – 22 per cent - were judged to have not reached the expected level in the CLL and MD scales. Looking at teenagers who did not achieve a grade 4 in both English language and maths 11 years later, just under half – 48 per cent - had not reached expected levels in CLL and MD scales when they started school at age five.

After controlling for a plethora of other family and individual characteristics, 38 per cent of children assessed as delayed in the Bracken school readiness assessment at age three are predicted to be below the expected EYFS CLL and MD levels at age five. This compares to 14 per cent who were ‘school ready’ at age three.

Children assessed as underperforming were twice as likely to be born to a teenage mother and be living with a single parent, and three times more likely to be living in a workless household. Their parents are three times more likely to have no or poor education qualifications (equivalent to low GCSE grades) and were less likely to have attained a degree or higher qualifications. Their home is more likely to be rented, overcrowded or damp and situated in poorer areas.
Young children who were not school ready at age three were less likely to be female and to be the first-born child, to have never been breastfed, and they were twice as likely to have had a low birthweight. Under achievers at age five meanwhile were twice as likely to be younger summer born children in their school year.

Co-author Professor Lee Elliot Major (University of Exeter) said: “The forgotten fifth of pupils leaving school lacking basic English and maths skills is one of education’s biggest scandals. Our research lays bare the unravelling tragedy for the 100,000 teenagers who each year leave schools without basic skills.

“Government attempts to address this challenge will fail without high quality support for children during the pre-school years and greater efforts to identify, diagnose and most importantly respond to children falling behind at early stages of schooling. We should also consider introducing a basic threshold qualification for functional literacy and numeracy skills that all school leavers would be expected to pass.”

Co-author Dr Sam Parsons (UCL Social Research Institute) said: “What is striking about our analysis is that the association between earlier assessments and later outcomes is barely attenuated by the wide range of family background and individual characteristics. We can identify clear risk factors that are highly predictive of exam results at later ages.”

Improving literacy and numeracy is a central priority for the current Government; earlier this year it announced that it wants the average GCSE grade in English Language and Maths to rise to 5 by 2030 - up from 4.5 in 2019. 

The working paper, ‘The forgotten fifth: examining the early education trajectories of teenagers who fall below the expected standards in GCSE English language and maths examinations at age 16’ was presented by the research team at the British Educational Research Association’s annual conference next week (September 6 - 8). It was funded by a grant from the Monday Charitable Trust.




Media Contact 
Evie Calder

Tel: +44 20 7679 8557
E: e.calder [at] ucl.ac.uk