GCSEs key to greater access

February 28, 2003

Surveys show education is hardening the class divide. Claire Sanders reports

Schools that overcome the class background of their students and improve GCSE results are likely to have a significant impact on the number of young people going on to higher education, according to the latest Youth Cohort Study from the Department for Education and Skills.

"Students with five or more GCSE grades of A* to C from year 11 are not only more likely to go into full-time education at 16, but also to remain in it at 18," says the study, the third in a series that has charted the activities and experiences of a youth cohort at age 16, 17 and now 18. Such studies have been carried out since 1991.

Less than a fifth of those with no GCSEs at grade A* to C in year 11 are in full-time education at 18, whereas almost three-fifths of those gaining five or more at grade A* to C are in full-time education. In this latter group, those obtaining eight or more GCSEs at grade A* to C are more than twice as likely as those gaining five to seven GCSEs at grade A* to C to be in higher education.

But schools will have to overcome class background. Only 22 per cent of 18-year-olds whose parents work in blue-collar jobs are qualified to level 3 (defined as two or more A levels). Some 65 per cent of students with parents in higher professional jobs are qualified to this level. Those whose parents are in higher professional occupations are almost four times as likely to be in higher education as those whose parents are in blue-collar occupations.

A DFES spokesperson said: "The white paper acknowledges that the most important cause of the social-class division in higher-education participation is differential attainment in schools and colleges. That is why the government's reforms of higher education, its 14-19 agenda and its 'Success for All' programme to raise standards of teaching and learning in further education is so vital."

Overall the survey found that 40 per cent of 18-year-olds are in full-time education, of which over half are in higher education. About 30 per cent have a full-time job. The remainder is split between government-supported training (8 per cent), part-time jobs (7 per cent), out of work (7 per cent) or doing something else (8 per cent), such as looking after families or homes.

Young women are more likely than young men to be in full-time education at 18 - 42 per cent compared with 38 per cent of men. They are also more likely to be in a part-time job or looking after their home or family.

Young men are correspondingly more likely than women to be on government-supported training, in a full-time job or out of work.

Three-quarters of 18-year-olds from Indian background are in full-time education, twice the proportion for whites. The former have the highest participation rate in full-time higher education of about a half compared with just over a fifth of those from Pakistani or Bangladeshi families.

Young whites are much more likely than those from ethnic minority groups to be in full-time jobs.

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