Related people: Dr. Jennifer May Hampton

Today sees the release of GCSE results for pupils across the UK. The last-minute changes to the awarding of A level grades last week saw similar changes made to the awarding of GCSE results. Pupils will now receive the centre assessment grade, provided by their school, if it was higher than the calculated grade, produced after the standardisation process applied by the exam board, WJEC. However, it is likely that we will not see the same attention paid to these results as we did to the A levels last week.

Historically, GCSEs – and vocational qualifications – are somewhat overshadowed by A levels. Educational and occupational trajectories are diverse, but GCSEs play a vital role in almost every young person’s educational and occupational careers, yet their relative importance is not reflected in the attention they receive on their respective results days. Few GCSEs are compulsory in Wales, but all pupils must take the core subjects of English, Welsh, Mathematics and Science.

A survey by Careers Wales in 2019 revealed that 88% of Year 11 students intended to continue in full time education after their compulsory secondary school years. Of these, 45% planned to continue on in school (likely taking AS and A levels), whilst 55% intended to continue into a Further Education college. Within FE colleges, the majority of qualifications undertaken are vocational, with a small minority of students sitting GCSEs and A levels, often alongside their vocational training. Data analysis carried out in the WISERD Education Data Lab, has shown that there are ten times the number of GCSEs sat late (i.e. after Year 11) compared to early (i.e. before summer of Year 11), the majority of which were Mathematics (approximately one third), followed by English Language. Patterns of early entry and, particularly, multiple entry to GCSEs reinforce the central importance of these qualifications.

Whilst the expansion of Higher Education has meant that more young people than ever (as a proportion) are applying to university, this still only makes up a third of 18-year-olds in Wales. Almost two-thirds are doing something else, including employment, vocational training or a combination of the two. The proportion of young people reliant on vocational qualifications to continue in their progression in their chosen occupation is a large one, and yet the impact that COVID-19 has had on them getting their results has not been reported on as widely nor in as much detail as those who were awaiting their A level results.

Despite BTECs having a structure which allows them not to be subject to the same controversial standardisation procedures as A levels have been subject to, some students are still awaiting their level 3 BTEC results which were due last Thursday. Although this received some media coverage, it has in no way been to the same extent as was seen in the lead up to, and following, the A level results released on the same day.

There are a raft of qualifications that are crucial to the ongoing entry and progression of our young people into the education and labour markets, yet the vast majority of focus is on the minority of young people taking A levels to progress to university. It is important that we pay attention to all of the various routes and educational trajectories that our young people undertake, to better understand assessment practices and to work to improve assessment and standardisation practices jn the future.

Along with our work on compulsory education, ongoing work in the WISERD Education Data Lab and Administrative Data Research Wales explores participation and progression to post-compulsory education, which necessarily includes consideration of both academic and vocational pathways and qualifications. 

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About the WISERD Education Data Lab:

WISERD Education Data Lab undertakes independent analysis of administrative education data, survey data and data linkage, alongside knowledge exchange and public dissemination of findings to inform national debate on some of the most contemporary and pressing educational issues facing Wales.

WISERD Education Data Lab is funded by Welsh Government, Economic and Social Research Council (award: ES/012435/1) and Cardiff University.

The statistics used in this report have been approved for publication by SAIL. This does not imply Welsh Government’s acceptance of the validity of the methods used to obtain these statistics, or of any analysis of the results. Rather, they have been deemed to be non-disclosive (i.e. individual pupils cannot be identified).

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