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The number of children achieving the government’s benchmark five A*-C grade at GCSE level has reduced significantly over the last two years and if this continues we risk losing a generation of talent, says the RSA.

In “Educating the ‘failing’ 40%” the RSA Open Public Services Network says that schools, sixth form and Further Education colleges need to be adequately supported to ambitiously educate those students who don’t achieve the rigid benchmark for success at GCSE level. The call comes following a data analysis of the National Pupil Database on how GCSE performance and institutional arrangements impact on students’ choices and qualifications post 16.

Charlotte Aldritt, Director of Public Services & Communities at the RSA says:
“Under current government benchmarks nearly half of pupils are deemed ‘failures’. Of the ‘failing’ 40 percent, ten percent did not achieve any A*-C grades at GCSE and a further 30 percent failed to pass in  English and Maths, subjects regarded as essential to economic and educational progression.

“While much attention is caught up with the compulsory shift to academy status for all schools, our analysis suggests the issues of attainment and accountability go deeper, and must concern the relationship between local schools, sixth form colleges and Further Education providers in offering high quality education and vocational training for young people aged 16-19.

“The RSA Open Public Services Network has previously argued for greater strategic coordination of subject availability within local authorities; increasingly autonomous institutions need to work together to ensure we are ambitious for all our young people."

Nationally, for students achieving no A*-C grades at GCSE only 30 per cent enter - and 1.2 per cent go on to complete - Level 3. But there is significant variation across England over which students who do less well at Key Stage 4 go on to achieve good qualifications at Key Stage 5.

Variation is seen first in the numbers completing Key Stage 5, and second, in the extent to which those who do complete are entered for Level 3 qualifications. For example, in Rotherham, where 11 per cent of students were in Band 1 (Band 1 is No A*-C passes), although six per cent did complete Key Stage 5, none were entered for three Level 3 qualifications. In Bracknell Forest, there were far fewer students in Band 1, but none of them went on to complete Key Stage 5. In contrast, in Hackney nearly half the students who failed to get English and Maths at GCSE nevertheless went on to complete Key Stage 5.

Some areas are bucking the trend though and have been designated ‘Ambitious educators’ in the report. Portsmouth City Council is a good example of a local authority that has been able to work with private businesses and partners to increase the number of high-achieving students at 16 taking up vocational qualifications at Key Stage 5.

Six Key Takeaways for Policy Makers:                                  

  1. Responsibility should lie with local authorities, not the Department for Education - the Department for Education has to look more carefully at why and how it accounts for the difference in institutional provision. Responsibility has to be placed with local authorities to ensure that there is an appropriate, strategic mix of provision in their areas for post-16 education, taking into account the impact this can have on choices and attainment.
  2. Local job market links - Post-16 area reviews of local education and training provide an opportunity to assess the structure and quality of provision in an area, and the links to local economic opportunities. Area Review teams should look carefully at their educational institutional arrangements and the impact this might be having on curriculum access and attainment at Key Stage 5 and beyond.
  3. More contextualised destinations data required - A breakdown of students aged 16 to 18 years taking Level 2 qualifications or below would also be necessary to complete our analysis in the report, particularly as students are also now required to retake GCSE English and Maths until they achieve a C grade.
  4. Introduce the Friends and Family Test (where service users are asked if they would recommend this school/sixth form college/FE college to a friend or family member) - commonly used in health and social care, this test might be an appropriate starting place for the Department and/or Ofsted to consider in developing a cost-effective equivalent in education.
  5. Student discouragement - The Department for Education, Ofsted and schools must pay closer attention to the risk of students achieving five A*-C grades including Maths and English (band three, KS4) being discouraged from continuing academic study post-16.
  6. Sufficient support at Key Stage 5 - Where students are systemically not completing KS5, despite success at KS4, government, local authorities and schools must consider whether sufficient support is in place for all students to reach their potential at KS5 and/or whether we need to be more ambitious for students in setting the bar for GCSE attainment.


Notes to Editors
1. The RSA Open Public Services Network (OPSN) report takes a new look at post-16 education data at a regional and local authority level. By analysing the National Pupil Database1, the RSA’s OPSN sought to understand how qualification entries and completion vary by institution and local area.

2. The work of OPSN in education is guided by an expert panel: Simon Lebus CEO, Cambridge Assessment (Chair); Amanda Spielman Chair, Ofqual; Charlotte Alldritt Director of Public Services and Communities, RSA, and Director of OPSN; Dave Thomson Head of Data Analysis, Fisher Family Trust; Duncan Baldwin Deputy Policy Director, Association of School and College Leaders; Emma Williams CEO, Parent Teacher Association UK; Joe Hallgarten Director of Creative Learning and Development, RSA; Neil Bachelor Founder, Omnifolio; Paul Charman Managing Director, Fisher Family Trust; Roger Taylor Chair, RSA Open Public Services Network; Simon Gallagher Principal Lecturer, University of Roehampton; Dr Tim Leunig Chief Scientific Adviser and Chief Analyst, Department of Education.

3. For more information contact RSA Interim Head of Media Sarah Horner via or on 020 7451 6893 / 07799 737 970

4. Website:
Twitter: @theRSAorg


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