This is the second of a pair of blogposts digging into the issue of curriculum narrowing, following last week’s publication of the annual report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools. The first part, on schools entering the majority of their pupils for a single qualification, can be found here.

In this part, I am going to look at the qualifications entered by disadvantaged pupils compared to other pupils.

For the purposes of this post, I am going to treat disadvantaged pupils – those eligible for free school meals at least once in the six years up to and including Year 11 – as a single group. However, we know there are important variations with regard to eligibility duration and ethnic background.

What GCSE subjects do disadvantaged pupils take?

First of all, let’s take a look at those subjects for which non-GCSE qualifications are not eligible for school performance tables.

In total, 94% of disadvantaged pupils enter English language, English literature, maths and two or more sciences, which we’ll refer to as core GCSEs, compared to 98% of other pupils. (We know from other work that disadvantaged pupils are more likely to enter English GCSE early.)

The chart below shows entry rates for disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils into these and other GCSE subjects.

Outside of the core, disadvantaged pupils are a bit less likely than their peers to enter GCSEs in history and religious studies and much less likely to enter geography and, especially, the principal modern foreign languages (French, German and Spanish). Entry rates in other humanities and social sciences (such as psychology, sociology and economics) are similar.

What other GCSE and non-GCSE subjects do disadvantaged pupils take?

Now let’s look at the other subjects, those for which both non-GCSE and GCSE qualifications tend to be available. I’ve grouped subjects together and you can find a list here.

Disadvantaged pupils were slightly more likely than other pupils to enter some subjects such as food preparation and nutrition, health and social care (including childcare), art and media studies.

But to what extent are these figures influenced by prior attainment? Perhaps higher attaining pupils tend to take modern foreign languages (MFL). As disadvantaged pupils tend to be lower attaining, maybe their lower MFL entry rate simply reflects this.

And to what extent could they be influenced by disadvantaged pupils being disproportionately more likely to attend schools that enter particular qualifications, like health and social care?

Let’s take a look.

Entry in MFL and non-GCSEs

In this next part, I’m going to look at the rate of entry of disadvantaged pupils into GCSE French, German or Spanish and the rate of entry into non-GCSE qualifications.

A little over half – 51% – of disadvantaged pupils attending state-funded mainstream schools entered at least one non-GCSE qualification eligible for performance tables purposes in 2018. This compared to 38% of other pupils.

The chart below shows that, even taking account of prior (Key Stage 2) attainment, disadvantaged pupils were more likely to enter non-GCSEs.

The reverse is true for MFL, as the next chart shows. Taking account of prior attainment, disadvantaged pupils were less likely than other pupils with similar prior attainment to enter GCSE MFL.

If we do a like-for-like comparison based purely on prior attainment – that is, look at a group of non-disadvantaged pupils with the same prior attainment as the disadvantaged group – we see that some, but not all, of the difference in entry rates narrows.

How much of the remaining difference is due to disadvantaged pupils being more disproportionately likely to enter non-GCSEs? And disproportionately unlikely to entry MFL GCSEs?

To answer this, we can do a simple matching exercise. We try to match each disadvantaged pupil to a non-disadvantaged pupil of the same gender with the same prior attainment in the same school.[1] We give preference to matches where pupils are from the same ethnic background, or, if no suitable matches can be made, have the same first language (English or other). Not all disadvantaged pupils can be successfully matched – these pupils are excluded from this analysis.

As the chart below shows, this matching process largely eliminates the difference in non-GCSE entry rates but it persists for GCSE MFL.

The upshot

What can we make of this?

The fact that we’ve matched disadvantaged pupils to non-disadvantaged pupils in the same school means we can conclude that disadvantaged pupils seem to be less likely to enter GCSE MFL than their peers in the same school.

But the same isn’t true for entry into non-GCSEs, meaning that the difference in entry rates is explained more by the fact that disadvantaged pupils because they are disproportionately likely to attend schools that enter pupils for non-GCSEs.

So if we want more disadvantaged pupils to enter GCSE MFL (and I’m not arguing in favour of this, by the way) then we would need policy responses that worked in pretty much all schools.

But if we want to reduce the number of non-GCSEs they enter, policy responses targeted at schools that tend to enter more non-GCSEs may be appropriate.

If you haven’t already, now read the other in this pair of posts on narrowing of the curriculum.

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1. This is done with replacement – in other words the same non-disadvantaged pupil can be matched to more than one disadvantaged pupil.