Studying subjects in the English Baccalaureate increases the likelihood that a student will stay on at school and sit A-levels, regardless of their ability, according to new research.
Students who pursue the full range of EBacc subjects – maths, English, science, history or geography, and a language – between the ages of 14 and 16 have “a greater probability of progression to all post-16 educational outcomes”, while taking applied GCSEs has “the opposite effect,” according to researchers Vanessa Moulton, Morag Henderson, Jake Anders and Alice Sullivan.
Speaking to Schools Week, Sullivan explained that even when controlling for student ability by taking into account previous key stage scores, EBacc subjects make pupils more likely to stay on in education.
“The results show that controlling for both prior attainment, and a range of socio-economic and other factors, pupils who had taken EBacc subjects at GCSE were seven percentage points more likely to stay on at school,” Sullivan said.
Pupils taking EBacc subjects at GCSE are also more likely to take A-levels, and to study “facilitating” subjects – those the Russell Group universities say are more helpful for getting onto a degree course.
This was still true even if students did not achieve top grades in the EBacc, she said.
The findings were however challenged by Loic Menzies, researcher at the think-tank LKMco, who warned of the risk of “circular thinking” on some of the findings.
“It is certainly no surprise that pupils who chose to study so-called ‘academic’ subjects at GCSE also go on to the ‘academic’ study of such subjects at A-level,” he said.
“There is always a risk that such findings are seized on by government to make over-inflated claims about policies.”
A spokesperson for the Edge Foundation also questioned whether the research had fully taken into account the value of alternative routes in education.
“This research is predicated on the assumption that the only measure of success for young people post-16 is whether they study A-levels and go to university,” she said.
“Students taking the EBacc suite of subjects – almost identical to the curriculum created in the 1900s – may be more likely to take A-levels, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be equipped with the skills our 21st century digital economy demands.
“As automation and artificial intelligence become more widespread in the workplace, it will be the skills of working class girls taking subjects such as health and social care which will be in demand and of premium value.”
The research used data from Next Steps, a study of 16,000 people born in England in 1989-90, and from the National Pupil Database. The cohort it looked at took their GCSEs in 2006.
Another paper in the series, also published today, highlighted the influence schools have on the GCSE subjects that pupils take.
The research found the biggest influence on whether or not pupils chose to study “academically demanding” subjects at GCSE was the average attainment at their school, rather than their own past performance.
According to the study, a bright pupil in an academically selective school is more likely to take an academic route than an equally bright pupil in a less selective school.
Anders, the lead author on this study, said: “These results highlight that we should be sceptical of considering young people’s subjects of study purely in terms of ‘choice’.
“They are, at most, constrained choices, potentially both for individuals and for schools.”
Responding to the findings, Menzies said it was “worrying to see that school composition continues to have a profound impact on which subjects pupils chose”.
“We need to ensure that all pupils can make a broad range of choices, regardless of their context,” he told Schools Week.