A recent report by the children’s commissioner for England has revealed that the number of children who are leaving school without basic qualifications at the age of 18 has increased by almost a quarter in the past three years. Last year, almost one in five children (18%) left school without the government benchmark of five good GCSEs or the equivalent technical qualifications, indicating a 24% surge since 2015. The study also found that children with special educational needs are particularly affected, with almost half (45%) failing to meet level 2 attainment by the time they finish compulsory education. Pupils on free school meals (FSM) are also struggling, with more than one in three (37%) leaving school “without any substantive qualifications”.
Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield has spoken out against the new figures and called on the government to take urgent action: “While we should celebrate the progress that is being made in raising standards for millions of children, it should never be an acceptable part of the education system for thousands of children to leave with next to nothing.” Longfield is particularly concerned that progress in closing the attainment gap between children living in the least and most deprived areas of England has stalled and is now in reverse, at a time when pupils have to stay in education longer than ever before.
England’s Children must stay in education or training until they are 18, but the evidence laid out in the report suggests that pupils are gaining little in terms of qualifications during their extra school years. Last year, 98,799 children in England left school without basic qualifications, of which 28,225 were on FSM. Increasing rates of failure to reach attainment targets among the most disadvantaged are causing the increase, according to Longfield. These children will have spent 15 years in compulsory education, often with over £100,000 of public money invested in their education, and yet leave the education system without basic benchmark qualifications, making multiple options closed to them. Many will not be able to begin an apprenticeship, begin technical courses or enter some workplaces because they cannot meet the basic entry requirements.
In light of these findings, the commissioners have written to the government requesting independent review and the commitment of halving, over the next five years, the number of children failing to gain a level 2 qualification by the age of 19. However, the Department for Education later challenged the commissioner’s findings, stating that this report does not provide the full picture, comparing to figures that include qualifications which have since been removed from performance tables because they did not serve students well. A spokesperson stated that the proportion of 19-year-olds with vital English and maths GCSEs has actually risen from 50.9% in 2010 to 68.1% in 2018, adding that the government is working towards improving the rigour, quality, and standard of qualifications across the board.