Last week the Children’s Commissioner published a briefing entitled ‘The children leaving school with nothing’.

However, “nothing” seemed to mean not achieving five or more A*-C GCSEs or equivalent by the age of 19.[1] So this is a very broad definition of “nothing” that includes young people who might have four A*-C GCSEs or equivalent. The briefing covers further education as well as schools, given that the FE sector educates around half of 16-18-year-olds.

So perhaps the briefing should have been called ‘The children leaving school or college without having achieved Level 2’, with Level 2 referring to the National Qualifications Framework and being equivalent to five or more A*-C grades at GCSE.

But are fewer 19-year-olds really achieving this standard?

Are there really fewer 19-year-olds educated to Level 2?

The Children’s Commissioner’s briefing calls for a review into why the percentage of 19-year-olds without Level 2 qualifications has increased since 2015, having fallen consistently year-on-year before that.

We’ve written about why this has happened before. Broadly speaking, there are two things going on.

Firstly, for reasons best known to itself, the Department for Education does not include ‘small’ vocational qualifications[2] in its attainment-by-19 statistics, even though it used to count them in Key Stage 4 statistics. Consequently, Level 2 attainment is under-reported.

Secondly, and most importantly, there have been substantial changes to secondary school accountability from the Wolf review of vocational education and then from the introduction of Progress 8. These have changed the incentives for schools to offer particular qualifications and the value attached to many non-GCSE qualifications.

The 2015 cohort of 19-year-olds would have been assessed at Key Stage 4 in 2012, prior to the KS4 accountability changes.

From those taking KS4 exams from 2014 onwards, school performance tables have been restricted to a subset of approved qualifications and no single qualification is considered to be larger than a GCSE. Previously there had been numerous well-known single qualifications worth as many as four GCSEs.

As Simon Burgess and I showed in our evaluation of the impact of the Wolf review, these later cohorts of pupils tended to enter different portfolios of qualifications. They entered more GCSEs and fewer non-GCSEs. The grades they achieved in GCSEs weren’t much different to those of the 2012 cohort, yet they were less likely to achieve five or more A*-C GCSEs or equivalent. This is because the 2012 cohort were far more likely to enter (and pass) non-GCSE qualifications.

In fact, if we look at the percentage of pupils achieving Level 2 including GCSE English and maths, we see that attainment has largely flatlined (rather than fallen) since 2015 – see the chart below. This in itself is perhaps disappointing given the raising of the participation age and compulsory English and maths retakes post-16.[3]

Do 19-year-olds have fewer options as a result?

The dip in Level 2 attainment would be a concern if it closed doors for young people.

However, if some of the non-GCSE qualifications were of little value, as the Wolf review argued, then perhaps doors won’t have closed after all. Instead, perhaps the attainment-at-19 statistics were over-inflated prior to the changes.

In our evaluation of the Wolf review, we identified a group of pupils who turned 16 in 2014 who might well have entered more of the qualifications that were deemed ineligible by the Wolf review had they turned 16 in 2012.

We found that the post-16 choices of this group were barely any different (albeit at a very broad level) compared to their predecessors.

Similarly, we looked at the long-term outcomes of pupils who entered Level 2 applied science qualifications instead of a science GCSE during Key Stage 4. These were equivalent to four GCSEs at grade C or above.

The group who entered them tended to have much higher Key Stage 4 attainment than a comparison group of similar pupils, but this did not materialize into stronger long-term outcomes.

This is not definitive evidence by any means, but perhaps illustrates that some non-GCSEs were over-valued in the past.

What should young people who haven’t achieved Level 2 be doing 16-18?

The Children’s Commissioner also calls for the DfE to have a clear action plan for improving the opportunities and attainment of pupils who leave school without Level 2 qualifications. This seems worthwhile, particularly if it is extended to include English and maths.

How many of the young people who haven’t achieved Level 2 by 19 could have done so if post-16 education and training had been organised and funded differently?

Unlike at 16, there are no system-level constraints post-16. The policy of comparable outcomes, which tries to ensure comparability of grades from year to year, only applies to 16-year-old GCSE-takers. So the share of 17-19-year-olds achieving GCSE passes could rise, without any impact on results for 16-year-olds. Moreover, there is a wide range of non-GCSE qualifications available post-16.

Most of these young people are educated in the further education sector post-16. However, it has been badly hit by funding constraints over the last ten years.

So those are questions that definitely deserve attention: what should young people study post-16 if they haven’t already achieved Level 2, how should it be organized and how much will it cost?

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1. This is equivalent to grades 9-4 in reformed GCSEs.

2. Less than 325 guided learning hours.

3. The policy will only have affected more recent cohorts of students, it’s worth saying, so it may still be bedding in.