Key points

  • All of the statistics below include all vocational equivalents (e.g. GNVQs).  The precise group of pupils included varies from graph to graph (and, in some cases, from year to year) but, in broad terms, is those taking GCSEs for the year in question (i.e. those deemed to be at the end of Key Stage 4).  Whether independent schools and pupil referral units are included also varies from graph to graph.
  • Looking at the trends for various thresholds:
    • At the lowest threshold (no qualifications): 1% (6,000) of pupils in England obtained no qualifications in 2009/10.  This proportion is much lower than either five years previously (3%) or a decade previously (6%).  However, the comparability of these statistics over time is actually very unclear, given that: the scope of what counts as a qualification has been widened; the range of possible qualifications has increased; and some pupils without any qualifications are no longer included in the statistics.
    • At the middle threshold (less than 5 GCSEs of any grade): 7% (47,000) of pupils in England obtained fewer than 5 GCSEs in 2009/10.  This proportion has fallen in each year since 2004/05, when it was 10%.  By contrast, the proportion had remained broadly unchanged between the late 1990s and the early 2000s.  Note that some changes in definition in the mid 2000s mean that the time series before and after that this are not strictly comparable.
    • At the highest threshold (less than 5 GCSEs at grade C or above): 25% of pupils did not achieve the higher threshold of 5+ GCSEs at grade C or above in 2009/10.  This proportion has fallen in each year of the last decade and the 25% now compares with 50% a decade ago.
  • The proportion with few GCSEs is similar in all of the English regions.
  • 15% of boys eligible for free school meals do not obtain 5 or more GCSEs.  This compares with 10% for girls eligible for free school meals and 5% for boys not in eligible for free school meals.
  • 16% of White British pupils eligible for free school meals do not obtain 5 or more GCSEs.  This is a much higher proportion than that for any other ethnic group.
  • Combining gender and ethnic group, 19% of White British boys eligible for free school meals do not obtain 5 or more GCSEs.  This is a much higher proportion than that for any other combination of gender, ethnic group and eligibility for free school meals.
  • See the equivalent analyses for ScotlandWales and Northern Ireland.

Graph 4: By free school meal eligibility and ethnicity

Why this indicator was originally chosen

In a competitive job market, academic and vocational qualifications are increasingly important.  Those without qualifications are at a higher risk of being unemployed and having low incomes. 1  More generally, success in acquiring formal qualifications bolsters children’s self-esteem, and enhances development of self-identity.

This indicator reflects the importance of children acquiring formal qualifications.  This is by no means the same statistic as that in common recent usage, namely the number failing to obtain at least 5 GCSEs at grade C or above.  In the context of a report about poverty and exclusion, using a statistic which covers around half of all children seems inappropriate.  Furthermore, at least implicitly, it places no direct value on obtaining a slightly lower set of grades, for example, 4 GCSEs at Grade C.

Definitions and data sources

The first graph shows the proportion of pupils failing to obtain five or more GCSEs (or vocational equivalent) at grade C or above in England.  The data is split between those who obtain no GCSE grades at all (either because they do not enter for exams or achieve no passes), those who do obtain some GCSEs but less than five, and those who obtain 5 or more GCSEs but less than 5 at grade C or above.

Note that the data pre- and post- 2004/05 is not strictly comparable:

  • The precise group of pupils included in the statistics changed in 2004/05 from “pupils aged 15 at 31 August in the calendar year prior to sitting the exams” to “pupils at the end of Key Stage 4” and no data on the old basis is now available.  This had the effect of reducing the proportions not achieving each of the three thresholds  (by around half a percentage point in each case) by effectively excluding some pupils who obtained no qualifications.
  • The scope of what was counted as an ‘equivalent’ in England was widened in 2003/04.  In principle, this again had the effect of reducing the proportions not achieving each of the three thresholds, but, in practice, the impact is only thought to have been material for the lower two thresholds (but not the highest threshold).
  • The ‘no GCSEs’ threshold was changed in 2004/05 to ‘no qualifications’ and appears to now include “entry level qualifications which do not contribute towards GCSE grade G thresholds”.  This had the effect of reducing the proportions not achieving the lowest of the three thresholds (no qualifications) but not the other two thresholds.

In terms of monitoring trends over time, these changes in definition are extremely unfortunate (and also make comparisons between England and the rest of the United Kingdom very dubious).  However, discussions with the relevant government department (the Department for Education) have made it clear that no completely consistent time series exists.

The second graph shows the absolute number of students who obtain either no GCSE grades at all or who do obtain some GCSEs but less than five.  The same caveats apply to the time series as for the first graph.  Note that the trends are somewhat different from the first graph because of the changing total numbers of pupils.

The data source for the first two graphs is the Department for Education (DfE) statistical releases entitled GCSE and equivalent results in England.  The data relates to England only.  It covers all schools, including independent schools and pupil referral units.  Note that this is a different coverage than that for the third to fifth graphs, which exclude independent schools and pupil referral units.  These differences in scope make a material difference to the results.  For example, in 2009/10, the proportion of children who did not obtain five or more GCSEs (or vocational equivalent) was 7.2% if independent schools and pupil referral units are included (as in the first two graphs) but only 5.3% if these schools are excluded (as in the third to fifth graphs).  The reason for the differences in coverage are the data that DfE happens to collect and to make available.

The third and fourth graphs show, for the latest year, how the proportion of students without five or more GCSEs (or vocational equivalent) varies by pupil characteristics.  In the third graph, the data is shown separately by gender and whether or not the pupil is eligible for free school meals.  In the fourth graph, the data is shown separately by ethnicity and whether or not the pupil is eligible for free school meals.  Since entitlement to free school meals is essentially restricted to families in receipt of out-of-work benefits, this should be thought of as a proxy for worklessness rather than low income.

The data source for the third and fourth graphs is the English National Pupil Database.  As with the first two graphs, the data relates to pupils in England at the end of Key Stage 4.  However, unlike the first two graphs, it covers maintained schools only – and excludes both independent schools and pupil referral units – as data on free school meals is only collected for maintained schools.

The fifth graph shows how, in the latest year, how the proportion of students without five or more GCSEs (or vocational equivalent) varies by English region.

The data source for the fifth graph is the DfE statistical releases entitled GCSE and equivalent results in England.  The data is for maintained schools only, and excludes both independent schools and pupil referral units.  It comprises those pupils at the end of key Stage 4.

Overall adequacy of the indicator: medium.  While the data itself is sound enough, the choice of the particular level of exam success is a matter of judgement.

External links

Relevant 2007 Public Service Agreements

Overall aim:  Raise the educational achievement of all children and young people

Lead department

Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Official national targets

Increase the proportion of young children achieving a total points score of at least 78 across all 13 Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) scales – with at least 6 in each of the communications, language and literacy and language (CLL) and personal, social and emotional development (PSED) scales – by an additional 4 percentage points from 2008 results, by 2011.

Increase the proportion achieving level 4 in both English and maths at Key Stage 2 to 78% by 2011.

Increase the proportion achieving level 5 in both English and maths at Key Stage 3 to 74% by 2011.

Increase the proportion achieving 5A*-C GCSEs (and equivalent), including GCSEs in both English and maths, at Key Stage 4 to 53% by 2011.

Increase the proportion of young people achieving Level 2 at age 19 to 82% by 2011.

Increase the proportion of young people achieving Level 3 at age 19 to 54% by 2011.

Previous 2004 targets

Improve children’s communication, social and emotional development so that, by 2008, 50% of children reach a good level of development at the end of the Foundation Stage and reduce inequalities between the level of development achieved by children in the 20% most disadvantaged areas and the rest of England.

Raise standards in English and maths so that:

  • by 2006, 85% of 11 year olds achieve level 4 or above and (not with this level of performance sustained to 2008; and
  • by 2008, the number of schools in which fewer than 65% of pupils achieve level 4 or above reduced by 40%.Raise standards in English, maths, ICT and science in secondary education so that:
  • by 2007 85% of 14 year olds achieve level 5 or above in English, maths and ICT ( 80% in science) nationally with this level of performance sustained to 2008; and
  • by 2008, in all schools at least 50% of pupils achieve level 5 or above in each of English, maths and science.

By 2008, 60% of those aged 16 to achieve the equivalent of 5 GCSEs at grades A* to C; and in all schools at least 20% of pupils to achieve this standard by 2004, rising to 25% by 2006 and 30% by 2008.

Increase the proportion of 19 year olds who achieve at least Level 2 by 3 percentage points between 2004 to 2006, and a further 2 percentage points between 2006 and 2008, and increase the proportion of young people who achieve level 3.

Overall aim:  Narrow the gap in educational achievement between children from low income and disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers

Lead department

Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Official national targets

Improve the average (mean) score of the lowest 20% of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) results, so that the gap between that average score and the median score is reduced by an additional 3 percentage points from 2008 results, by 2011.

Increase the proportion of pupils progressing by 2 levels in English and maths at each of Key Stages 2, 3 and 4 by 2011:

  • KS2: English 9 percentage points, maths 11 percentage points.
  • KS3: English 16 percentage points, maths 12 percentage points.
  • KS4: English 15 percentage points, maths 13 percentage points.

Increase the proportion of children in care at Key Stage 2 achieving level 4 in English to 60% by 2011, and level 4 in mathematics to 55% by 2011.

Increase the proportion of children in care achieving 5A*-C GCSEs (and equivalent) at Key Stage 4 to 20% by 2011.

Other indicators of progress

Achievement gap between pupils eligible for Free School Meals and their peers at Key Stages 2 and 4.

Proportion of young people from low-income backgrounds progressing to higher education.

The numbers

Graphs 1 and 2

Year Percentages Thousands
No GCSE passes or equivalent At least 1 but less than 5 GCSEs or equivalent 5+ GCSEs or equivalent but less than 5 at Grade C or above No GCSE passes or equivalent At least 1 but less than 5 GCSEs or equivalent
Those aged 15 at the start of the school year
1995/96 7.8% 6.1% 41.6% 46K 36K
1996/97 7.7% 5.9% 41.3% 45K 35K
1997/98 6.6% 5.9% 41.2% 38K 34K
1998/99 6.0% 5.5% 40.6% 35K 32K
1999/00 5.6% 5.5% 39.7% 33K 32K
2000/01 5.5% 5.6% 38.9% 33K 34K
2001/02 5.4% 5.7% 37.3% 33K 35K
2002/03 5.2% 6.0% 35.9% 32K 37K
2003/04 4.1% 7.1% 35.1% 26K 46K
At the end of key stage 4
2004/05 3.0% 7.1% 33.1% 19K 45K
2005/06 2.7% 7.2% 31.1% 18K 47K
2006/072.0% 7.1% 29.5% 13K 47K
2007/081.4% 7.0% 26.3% 9K 46K
2008/091.1% 6.6% 22.3% 7K 42K
2009/101.0% 6.3% 17.4% 6K 40K

Graph 3

Group In receipt of free school meals Not in receipt of free school meals
Boys 15% 5%
Girls 10% 3%

Graph 4

Ethnic group In receipt of free school meals Not in receipt of free school meals
Bangladeshi 4% 4%
Black African 6% 3%
Black Caribbean 8% 5%
Indian 3% 2%
Pakistani 7% 4%
White British 16% 4%
White other 12% 7%

Graph 5

Region

(maintained schools only)

No GCSE passes or equivalent At least 1 but less than 5 GCSEs or equivalent
East 1.1% 4.4%
East Midlands 1.0% 4.4%
London 1.0% 3.7%
North East 1.0% 4.5%
North West 1.0% 4.5%
South East 1.0% 3.9%
South West 1.0% 4.0%
West Midlands 1.0% 4.1%
Yorkshire and The Humber 1.2% 4.5%
1. Machines, S in Exclusion, employment and opportunity, Case Paper No 4, Atkinson. A and Hills J, (eds), 1998, page 61.