School subject choice at age 14 has minimal bearing on chances of university attendance, study shows

7 February 2018

Pupils taking the ‘EBacc’ curriculum are only slightly more likely than their peers to go to university, according to a new study.

Researchers from the UCL Institute of Education analysed data from Next Steps, a study of 16,000 people born in 1989-90 who attended secondary school in England. They were also able to draw on linked data from the National Pupil Database. The researchers looked at which subjects pupils picked at age 14, and then examined whether they had gone to university by age 19-20.

The study revealed that the pupils’ chances of attending university could be mostly explained by their family background, type of school, and prior academic results.

Children who took the academic ‘EBacc’ set of GCSE subjects – two or more sciences, history or geography, languages, English and maths – were 29 per cent more likely to attend university than those who did not study the full set of ‘EBacc’ subjects. They were also found to have a 14 per cent greater chance of going to an elite university.

In contrast, those who took vocational ‘applied’ GCSE subjects, such as health and social care and home economics, were 20 per cent less likely to attend university, and 10 per cent less likely to go to a high-status university compared to those who didn’t study these subjects.

However, when researchers took into account background factors, the link between pupils’ subject choices and chances of attending university diminished greatly. Those who took the ‘EBacc’ subjects were only 3 per cent more likely to attend university, and were no more likely to go to an elite institution. Pupils who took vocational subjects had only 4 per cent lower odds of attending university, and were just 2 per cent less likely to go to a high-status one.

Dr Jake Anders, the study’s lead author, said: “A major part of the 2010-15 UK government’s education reforms was a focus on the curriculum that pupils study from ages 14-16. Most high profile was introduction of the English Baccalaureate performance measure for schools, incentivising study of “subjects the Russell Group identifies as key to university study”.

“Overall, we find that the seemingly large differences in university progression associated with the subjects that young people study from ages 14 to 16 often seem to be small, at most, once we take into account differences in the kinds of people who study these subjects.

“The results for studying the full set of ‘EBacc’ subjects and for studying any applied subjects do show residual associations with university attendance, suggesting the view that they may have particular importance is not without merit, a finding that concords with other research focusing on subject choice at a later point in individuals’ educational careers. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasise that the differences are still not large, meaning that we should not exaggerate the likely implications of more pupils studying ‘EBacc’ subjects.”

Read the full paper

‘Incentivising specific combinations of subjects – does it make any difference to university access?’ by Jake Anders, Morag Anderson, Vanessa Moulton and Alice Sullivan was published on the National Institute of Economic and Social Research website in February 2018.



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