Subject choices at GCSE may exacerbate social inequalities

Young people from less advantaged homes may limit their options for further education unnecessarily when choosing their GCSE subjects, according to findings from Next Steps.

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were less likely than their more privileged peers to choose GCSE subjects that would enable them to go on to university – regardless of whether or not they were academically able.

Researchers from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies examined information from more than 11,700 members of Next Steps. 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.

The researchers compared your GCSE subject choices to your socioeconomic background, including information about your parents’ own education.

Study members whose parents 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. These young people 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, your parents’ education did not appear to influence whether you 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 those of you 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.

Those of you 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 those 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.