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The number of pupils leaving school without basic qualifications is on the rise

By Mark Richards,

24 Jan 2020

The government is always at pains to remind people that the number of schools judged to be ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted is on the rise.

It uses this point to claim that it has overseen an improvement in education since 2010. The numbers don’t lie, but it is another statistic that has been grabbing the headlines recently.

Indeed, the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has described the fact that 18% of children now leave school as low achievers as ‘shameful’. Percentage of pupils with five good GCSEs declines The Children’s Commissioner has called for an urgent review because the number of pupils achieving five good GCSEs has been in sharp decline since 2015.

Last year, almost one in five pupils (18%) left school without basic qualifications by the age of 18 and missed the government’s own benchmark of five good GCSEs or equivalent technical qualifications.

Shockingly, this represents a 24% increase in just 3 years. Although much emphasis and praise has been heaped on the progress made by millions of children - and the general raising of standards - these statistics lay bare the fact that there are still various inconsistencies and causes for concern that need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. For example, the percentage of pupils with special educational needs who fail to reach the benchmark of Level 2 attainment by the time they finish their compulsory full-time education is particularly shocking at 45%. Disadvantaged pupils are failing Similarly, a worrying proportion of pupils on FSM (free school meals) - 37% - leave school without basic qualifications. In 2018, 98,799 young people left school without any substantive qualifications.

A whopping 28,225 of those were in free school meals.

It appears that the rate of failure amongst disadvantaged students is on the rise.

It’s also a particular concern that the attainment gap between those living in the most deprived and most affluent areas of the country - which for several years had been closing (if not completely disappearing) – is now quite clearly stalling.

What’s more, this has happened during a period when pupils have been required to stay in education for longer.

By law, children must stay in either education or training until they reach the age of 18 – and they also have to re-take core subjects, English and Maths, if they have failed to reach the ‘good GCSE’ standard of the new Grade 4 or above. It seems that for a significant number of young people, the extra time spent in education is adding little value, certainly in terms of qualifications gained. Of course, we should not belittle or devalue the fact that standards of education have been rising, in general.

However, it simply cannot be acceptable to have an education system where so many young people essentially leave with virtually nothing.

The significance of this failure looks stark when you consider that children have 11 years in compulsory schooling and potentially over £100,000 of public money spent on their education.


1- Are GCSEs no longer fit for purpose?

2- Does setting by ability disadvantage students?

3- 5 Classes to prepare student for real life

4- Cultivating a talent-based approach to classroom teamwork