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Children’s Commissioner for England research reveals almost one in five children left education at 18 last year without basic qualifications

  • New analysis shows that last year 98,799 children in England – almost one in five (18%) of all children leaving education at 18 – left without reaching Level 2 attainment (five GCSEs A*-C). This is a 24% rise in the number of children leaving education without Level 2 over the last three years.
  • More than one in three children (37%) receiving Free School Meals – 28,225 children – left without any substantive qualifications. Since 2015, the rate of children receiving Free School Meals leaving education without Level 2 attainment has risen at almost 3 times the rate of non-FSM children.
  • Children with Special Education Needs have been the worst affected with almost half (45%) not reaching Level 2 attainment by the time they leave education.
  • Children’s Commissioner’s research shows the attainment gap between children living in the least deprived and most deprived areas of England is widening.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, is today (Friday) publishing research looking at the number of children who leave the education system at 18 without reaching Level 2 attainment (five GCSEs grade A* to C, or equivalent technical qualifications). These are children who will have spent 14 years in compulsory education, often having more than £100,000 of public money spent on their education, and yet are leaving the education system without basic benchmark qualifications. This hampers their chances of finding apprenticeships or good jobs.

The Children’s Commissioner’s analysis reveals that in 2018, 98,799 children in England (18% of all school leavers) left education at 18 without substantive qualifications (reaching Level 2 attainment). This rate is now rising after it fell continuously between 2005 and 2015. The Commissioner’s research shows this rise is being driven by a sharp increase in the proportion of pupils receiving Free School Meals (FSM) failing to achieve these targets. Since 2015, the number of children receiving FSM who have left education without proper qualifications has increased to 28,225 – up from 28% to 37% of all education leavers in England.

The research shows that while children are now in education for longer, more of them are failing to get basic qualifications. This means that hundreds of thousands of young people are leaving education without the necessary qualifications to begin certain apprenticeships or start technical or academic courses. This is despite the compulsory education age in England extending to 18 during this period and children therefore being in education for longer. In 2015, 6.6% of 16-18 year olds were not in education, employment or training. By the end of 2018 this had dropped to 6.3%. This means that children spent more time in education, yet were still more likely to leave without basic qualifications.

The report also finds that:

  • Attainment gaps between Special Educational Needs and non-SEN pupils by age 19 have risen from 26% in 2015 to 33% in 2018, making SEN students the worst affected.
  • The attainment gaps between children living in the least and most deprived areas of England has risen from 13% in 2015 to 17% in 2018.
  • Children receiving Free School Meals who live in London had the best academic outcomes. London stood out for having the lowest attainment gaps between FSM and non-FSM at 11.9 percentage points in 2018. This contrasts with the East Midlands which had a far greater attainment gap of 27.8 percentage points in 2018.
  • In 3 Local Authorities across England – Derby, North Lincolnshire and Swindon – less than half of FSM students are achieving Level 2 by age 19. Nottingham has the worst attainment rates across England with around a third of all children (32%) not being qualified to Level 2 by age 19.

In response to this research, the Children’s Commissioner has today written to the Government, using her powers under Section 2C of the Children’s Act 2004 to formally request that Ministers take action. Specifically, the Commissioner is asking the Department for Education to conduct an independent review into falling Level 2 attainment, to commit to halving the number of children failing to get a Level 2 qualification by the age of 19 within five years, and for the Department to set out a clear action plan for improving opportunities and attainment of children who do not achieve 5 GCSEs or equivalents by 16, including access to apprenticeships and vocational courses.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, commenting on the research, said:

“It is shameful that last year almost 100,000 children in England left education at 18 without proper qualifications. 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.

“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.

“The Government must urgently investigate why the progress that has been made over recent years in closing the attainment gap has stalled and now going backwards, and commit itself to halving over the next five years the number of children failing to gain a Level 2 qualification by the age of 19.”

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