Northern Ireland

High costs of just missing out on a grade C in GCSE English

Missing a grade C increases the probability of dropping out of education at age 18
Missing a grade C increases the probability of dropping out of education at age 18

PUPILS who narrowly fail to achieve a grade C in their GCSE English exam pay a high price, according to new research.

A study from the Centre for Vocational Education Research explored what happened to young people who took the exam in 2013.

Entry Through the Narrow Door: The Costs of Just Failing High Stakes Exams, was led by Stephen Machin, Sandra McNally and Jenifer Ruiz-Valenzuela.

It used data to show that pupils of the same ability had significantly different educational trajectories depending on whether or not they just passed or failed.

The analysis showed that:

:: Narrowly missing the C grade in English language decreases the probability of enrolling in a higher-level qualification by at least 9 percentage points by age 19

:: There is a similarly large effect on the probability of achieving a higher academic or vocational qualification by 19

:: Those who narrowly miss the C grade are also less likely to enter further or higher education

:: Missing a grade C increases the probability of dropping out of education at 18 by about 4 percentage points

:: Those entering employment without a grade C in English are unlikely to be in jobs with good progression possibilities

The data that the researchers analysed followed the cohort that took the GCSE exam in 2013 over the next three years. Comparing pupils on the threshold of success and failure enabled analysis of whether just passing or just failing had consequences for them in relation to their probability of early dropout from education and employment, and their probability of accessing higher-level courses.

The study also presented evidence on the mechanisms through which failing to obtain a grade C in English leads to poor outcomes. These involved a narrowing of opportunities that arose within the educational system on the choice of post-16 institution and course the year after failing to get a C grade in GCSE English - students ended up in institutions with less well performing peers.

Dr Ruiz-Valenzuela said the analysis did not suggest that having pass/fail thresholds was undesirable.

"Achievement of a minimum level of literacy and numeracy in the population is an important social and economic objective," she said.

"But the fact that there are such big consequences from narrowly missing out on a C grade suggests that there is something going wrong within the system. It suggests that young people are not getting the support they need if they fail to make the grade, even narrowly.

"In a well-functioning education system, there would be ladders for the marginal student - or at least alternative educational options with good prospects. Our study suggests that the marginal student who is unlucky pays a high price."