Students in deprived neighbourhoods being denied access to ‘tough subjects’ - RSA

Students in deprived neighbourhoods being denied access to ‘tough subjects’

Press release 4 Comments

  • Education
  • Higher education
  • Skills
  • Public services

Schools in deprived neighbourhoods are denying young people access to subjects deemed ‘more difficult’ in a bid to minimise poor exam results and improve their position in the school league tables, according to the latest analysis from the RSA think tank.

The data, published today by the Open Public Services Network at the RSA, showed that access to subjects such as triple science and language GCSEs vary enormously, with young people in poor neighbourhoods either denied access or strongly encouraged not to take up certain subjects. The OPSN’s data revealed, for example:

  • In North East Lincolnshire 50% of the 10 schools in the LEA did not offer triple science GCSE. More than a third of schools do not enter any pupils for triple science in Knowsley (43%), Slough (36%), Kingston upon Hull (38%) and Newcastle (36%).
  • In contrast, in Sussex and Cumbria – local authorities with over 30 schools – every school offers GCSE in three sciences.
  • Children in Knowsley are half as likely to be enrolled for a science GCSE as children in Buckinghamshire.
  • Children in Kensington are four times more likely to be enrolled for a language GCSE than children in Middlesbrough where, on average, only one child in every four takes a language GCSE.
  • You are most likely to be entered for an art GCSE in the Isles of Scilly and least likely in Kingston upon Hull, where it is five times less likely.

In a report set to be published next week, the RSA will warn of ‘subject deserts’ within certain local authorities, with pupils not given the option of finding a school which offers the subjects they want to study.

The report will argue that with a growing number of schools converting to academy status (and enjoying greater autonomy and freedom to choose their own curriculum), that Local Authorities are unlikely to tackle the problem.

The OPSN will also lay out concerns about the Department of Education’s ‘accountability regime’ – in which schools are rated on the number of points they achieve in exams. The report will argue that the system can incentivise schools to offer more limited opportunities to children in an effort to maximise the school’s rating.


Chair of the OPSN, Roger Taylor said:

“These data clearly show that children’s educational opportunities are defined by where they live. They show that in some parts of Britain, opportunities are restricted because all the schools within a neighbourhood have decided not to offer more challenging subjects.  We can see that the curriculum taught to children in poorer parts of Britain is significantly different to that taught in wealthier areas. This would be of little concern if these differences reflected the needs and choices of pupils and families. Our worry is that instead they reflect decisions made by schools and are based on calculations as to how schools can appear better on league tables by encouraging children to avoid taking on more challenging subjects. The evidence suggests that in areas where most children are expected to do less well in exams, the educational opportunities for all children are being restricted.”


RSA Director of Public Services, Charlotte Alldritt, said:

“Denying young people access to subjects such as triple science sends out a terrible message. It says that if you’re young and poor, we expect you to fail. Rather than dumbing down our curriculum to achieve better grades, school leaders should be aiming to improve the standard of their teaching so that all children have the chance of going onto the academic or training courses they want and getting the best jobs available. This is about building our skills base so that we increase productivity, encourage investment and let our communities thrive.”

The RSA’s report will argue that we need a clearer understanding of how well our education and skills systems are preparing young people to become happy, resilient and productive citizens. To enable a deeper insight into these issues, the OPSN and the RSA are calling for the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to expedite secure linkage of National Pupil Database, FE college data, school destinations and HMRC data.


Notes to editors


  1. For more information contact [email protected] or call 020 7451 6893 or 07799 737 970
  2. The Open Public Services Network (OPSN) is a programme based at the Royal Society of Arts. It provides independent assessment of information designed to monitor and assess the performance of government and public services.
  3. OPSN aims to improve the debate surrounding the quality and value of information available to the public about education, health and other key services. It develops new and better ways to measure impact and value for money in ways that make sense to and engage the public.
  4. We are committed to supporting the delivery of the most efficient, effective and highest quality public services that we can afford. OPSN will advocate and showcase better use of information and technologies, especially online communication tools, to improve public understanding and use of public services. For more information, please visit the OPSN page.
  5. The data for this report was analysed by FFT a non-profit company established in 2001 with links to the Fischer Family Trust. They are solely focussed on providing accurate and insightful information to schools which enables pupils achieve their full potential and schools to improve. They have been processing the National Pupil Database for the DFE since 2004 and providing analyses to all schools and LAs in England and Wales for over for 10 years.
  6. The data analysed for this report are for the three years to 2013 and predate the reform of the accountability regime following the review of vocational qualifications by Alison Wolf. These reforms mean that many of the qualifications that were regarded as less demanding no longer count towards the school’s performance. We will be returning to this question later this year to assess the impact of these changes on the levels of enrolment in GCSEs in 2014.
  7. OPSN is committed to transparency and makes all its data available under a creative commons licence to allow researchers to make secondary use of our analysis, draw their conclusions and continue the debate. The data can be accessed as a download in this article.

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • The subject of " deprived " or " disadvantage" in all issues surrounding education and the social, cultural and emotional impact it can have on young peoples lives and life chances , needs to be more policy holistic and realistic.

    The key issue lies in the fact that it is student " disaffection" that now needs to be addressed. Learning is no longer just in the classroom. It is twenty-four seven learning experience that is as local as it is global. In most instances learning now takes place in the immediacy of the thumbs of most young people who now have their on line and accessible teacher " Mr Google!". 

    We must now seriously address the " emotional disconnect " that is dumbing down the software between their ears and find more exciting and innovative ways to engage, motivate and inspire traditional learning needs with the more appealing and powerful digital appeal that strikes a balance in the classroom and beyond the school gate.

  • The ability of schools a/ government to build unbalanced characters not fit for life is astounding. Can you get a GCSE in attempting the impossible or accepting failure and trying again or an A level in taking risks? Imagine a 14 year being told we will teach you to a C grade only and they then repeat the same work up to that ceiling until the exams. That is training for a s**t life I fear.

    On the idea of subjects being tough or easy
    I am sure some scientists didn't find science 'tough' at school. They may have found the arts subjects tough. but are encouraged by the system to dismiss this as the subjects fault. Who invented these subjects anyway?- as there are 10 of them it does look like an invention by Victorian schedulers to fill a 5 day week.

  • The failures arising out of applying numerical judgement to complex arras of human and professional activity should be of no surprise to anyone with an understanding of statistical analysis and its limitations. I am surprised that the RSA should announce this as a new and dynamic insight. Can I suggest that fellows would find it more informative to read the concise and angry condemnation of this aspect of political practice by Professor Henry Mintzberg of McGill University about a decade ago. Mintzberg is the greatest living expert on business strategy and his argument was around vacuous (and inappropriate) use of numerical appraisal rather than trusting professional expertise

  • I can't understand why in the age of MOOC's this is still a concern.  Most schools have access to the internet and use computers.