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Educational attainment gap widens

December 7th 2017

Lucy Williams looks at the GCSE Examination results released yesterday and examines the drop in achievements for those who get Free School Meals.

These days a huge amount depends on how well a young person does at school in year 11. Whether they can go on to study A levels or even do an apprenticeship often depends on getting the golden ticket of 5 A*-C GCSEs. Yet the latest 2016/17 GCSE Examination results show that a huge proportion of our young people are not getting to this level, with those who are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) doing much worse.

GCSE results

The cohort sitting their GCSE exams last year were the first to take the new versions of GCSE Maths and English. The overall proportions of year 11’s achieving 5 A*-C GCSEs including maths and English/Welsh first language have dropped from 60.3% in 2015/16 to 54.6% in 2016/17. There is also a dramatic drop in students achieving any 5 GCSEs A*-C, from 84% to 67%.

Free School Meals

Many more young people who are eligible for FSM are leaving school without the qualifications they need. The proportion of year 11’s that were eligible for FSM who achieved 5 A*-C GCSEs including maths and English/Welsh language dropped by 7 percentage points since 2015/16, and more worryingly have dropped by 30.3 percentage points for any 5 A*-C GCSEs, compared to 5.8 and 15.4 percentage points for those who were not eligible.

The attainment gap between students eligible for FSM and those not eligible for FSM is nothing new in Wales. There have been numerous statements and educational strategies centred around closing this gap and increasing the achievements of students eligible for FSM. However, as the data shows – the gap between those eligible for FSM and those who are not has increased.

Last year the gap between the two was 32.4 percentage points for 5 A*-C GCSEs including maths and English/Welsh language, compared to 31.2 in 2015/16, and 32.3 percentage points for any 5 A*-C GCSEs, compared to 17.4 the year before.

Reasons for the changes

Maybe students had not adjusted well to the changes to GCSE exams last year; early entry into exams might also have played a role. The Welsh Government advises that comparisons to previous years should not be made due to several changes to performance measures data. However, do these changes explain why the drop in achievement between last year and the year before is larger for those eligible for FSM and why the attainment gap is still not shrinking?

Effect it could have on young people

Many opportunities for young people are reliant on them achieving 5 A*-C GCSEs. Taking A-levels and most further education courses and even some apprenticeships require young people to have those crucial GCSEs. So, what about young people who leave school without those qualifications, which this year has increased?

We are working on a project looking at this, asking that exact question. We know that opportunities are limited and that the lack of them can seriously impact a young person’s life. The lack of good opportunities can increase their chances of earning low wages and in turn, increasing their chances of living in poverty.

This project is currently ongoing with findings due out early next Spring. To find out more on the better opportunities for young people project click here.

Lucy Williams is Policy and Research Officer at the Bevan Foundation. 

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