Why are so many pupils leaving school without basic qualifications?

Report from children's commissioner reveals 28% rise in teens failing to achieve five good GCSE grades

Pupils sit exams
(Image credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The children’s commissioner has called for urgent government action after revealing that the number of teenagers leaving education without basic qualifications has risen to nearly 100,000.

Almost one in five teenagers in England left education without achieving five GCSEs at the equivalent of at least a C grade last year, according to research by Anne Longfield. The children’s rights watchdog says the “shameful” increase to a total of 98,799 children represents a 28% rise since 2015.

The new analysis shows there is a social dimension to the trend. Children in receipt of free school meals are more than twice as likely to leave school aged 19 without any substantive qualification.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

There is also a significant “attainment gap” between pupils with special educational needs (SEN) and their non-SEN peers. That chasm has widened from 26% in 2015 to 33% in 2018.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––For a round-up of the most important stories from around the world - and a concise, refreshing and balanced take on the week’s news agenda - try The Week magazine. Get your first six issues for £6–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

The report comes four years after the government raised the compulsory education and training age to 18.

Many commentators argue that the rise in the number of children leaving without the basic benchmark qualifications is a result of the government’s austerity programme. The Independent says that cuts in school funding have made it harder for children, especially those from underpriviledged backgrounds, to succeed.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow education secretary, blamed the “shocking” trend on the Conservative Party’s “brutal cuts on education and support for families and children”.

That view is shared by Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT. He told The Times: “Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are the victims of a decade of austerity. Successive governments have failed to invest in those who need it the most, and now we see the result.”

Teachers’ unions also say that government reforms to make exams tougher have disproportionately hit pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. “Many of these young people are not helped by new GCSEs which have been made deliberately more rigorous,” said Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders.

Children’s Commissioner Longfield has has written to the Government to demand an independent review into falling attainment. “It is particularly unacceptable that children growing up in the poorest areas of the country and children with special educational needs are most likely to leave school without reaching basic levels of attainment,” she said.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.