Implication of subject choice on university entry

The introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) performance measure for schools in England means that schools are incentivised to encourage pupils to study this set of subjects (to count towards the EBacc, a pupil must achieve GCSE grade C or above in a range of subjects including English, maths, history or geography, two sciences, and a language). But are some subjects “better” to study than others for getting to university?

A recent Centre for Longitudinal Studies Working Paper seeks to understand the implications of subject choices at age 14 (when pupils pick their GCSE options), and if these choices then play a part in whether pupils go to university and where they end up studying.

Using data collected from the longitudinal survey, Next Steps, Jake Anders and colleagues looked at the different probabilities of applying to university, entering university, and attending a high-status university for pupils who study the full set of subjects required for EBacc, compared to those who study other combinations of subjects. Using both regression modelling and propensity score matching to test the robustness of the results, they found that pupils who study the full set of EBacc subjects are slightly more likely to apply for and to attend university (a positive effect of 4 and 3 percentage points, respectively). However, the results from the regression model imply that pupils with a full set of EBacc subjects are less likely to get into a high-status university.

The researchers emphasise that the differences are not large, and ultimately it’s far more important to perform well in whatever subject is studied, so the likely implications of more pupils studying EBacc subjects should not be exaggerated.

Source: Incentivising specific combinations of subjects: does it make any difference to university access? (August 2017), CLS working paper 2017/11. Centre for Longitudinal Studies

Does background influence pupils’ subject choice?

A Centre for Longitudinal Studies working paper examined the roles of social class, parental education, income, gender  and ethnicity on pupils’ subject choice at GCSE.

Morag Henderson and colleagues examined information from more than 11,700 young people taking part in Next Steps (formerly the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE)), who were born in 1989-90 and attended state schools in England. They found that pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds were less likely than their peers from higher socio-economic backgrounds to choose GCSE subjects that would enable them to go on to college – regardless of whether or not they were academically able.

Pupils whose parents only had GCSE-level education were also less likely than those with more-educated parents to study three or more “facilitating” subjects from the Russell Group’s Informed Choices guide. They were also less likely to take three or more academically “selective”’ subjects, such as German and maths and statistics, and more likely to choose applied GCSEs, such as leisure and tourism or applied manufacturing and engineering. As the highest level of parental education decreases, the odds of the students studying applied GCSEs increases.

For pupils from lower-income backgrounds, the findings were similar. Poorer pupils were less likely to choose selective and facilitating subjects and more likely to take applied GCSEs than their wealthier peers. Additionally, girls were more likely than boys to study applied GCSEs, as were those with special education needs.

Source:  Social class, gender and ethnic differences in subjects taken at age 14 (2016), Centre for Longitudinal Studies Working paper 2016/6

Out-of-school clubs linked with better outcomes

A new working paper from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies investigates whether taking part in out-of-school activities during primary school is linked with end-of-primary-school achievement and social, emotional, and behavioural outcomes for all children, and specifically for children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The analysis is based on the UK’s Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), a national longitudinal study of more than 11,000 children born in the year 2000. This was linked with administrative data on the children’s attainment scores at ages 6-7 and 10-11. In addition to looking at achievement (total point score, English, and maths) at ages 10-11, researchers also investigated social, emotional, and behavioural outcomes using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) total difficulties and prosocial skills scores.

Results showed that sports clubs and “other” (unspecified) club participation was positively associated with achievement outcomes at age 11, when controlling for prior achievement. Participating in organised sports or physical activity was also positively linked to social, emotional, and behavioural outcomes. Among disadvantaged children, after school clubs emerged as the only organised activity linked to child outcomes; participation was linked to both higher achievement  and prosocial skills at ages 10-11.

Source: Out of School Activities During Primary School and KS2 Attainment (2016) Centre for Longitudinal Studies

Reading for pleasure increases cognitive progress

A new working paper from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies sets out to examine socio-economic inequalities in cognitive test scores at age 16. In particular, the authors were interested in whether reading for pleasure was linked to cognitive progress.

The study found that children who read for pleasure at the ages of 10 and 16 made more progress in maths, vocabulary, and spelling between the ages of 10 and 16 than those who rarely read, even after controlling for parental social background and parents’ own reading behaviour. The largest gains were for vocabulary. From a policy perspective, the authors say this strongly supports the need to support and encourage children’s reading in their leisure time.

The research also showed that parents’ education was far more important for children’s performance in cognitive tests than parents’ economic resources. The home reading culture, including reading to the child, reading books and newspapers, and having problems with reading, was also significantly linked to children’s test scores. This had a relatively strong role in mediating the influence of parents’ education, and a smaller role in mediating parents’ material resources.

The study used data on a sample of around 6,000 young people being followed as part of the 1970 British Cohort Study and the scores from maths, vocabulary, and spelling tests taken when they were aged 16.

Source: Social Inequalities in Cognitive Scores at Age 16: The Role of Reading (2013), Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

Summer born children – it’s their age that counts

Some studies have shown that children who are born at the end of the academic year (summer born children) tend to have lower educational attainment than children born at the start of the academic year. The differences might be because of the precise age when they take a test, because they started school at an earlier age, because they have had less schooling, or because they are the youngest in the class. A new report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies finds that it is the age at which children take the test that is the most important factor.

The authors suggest that UK national test scores could be adjusted to allow for this variation. However, this would not help to resolve other problems that summer born children may face, for example, they are more likely to engage in risky behaviour, such as underage smoking. Reassuringly, the authors point out that, in adulthood, many of the differences disappear, and summer born individuals are just as healthy, happy, and earn as much as their older peers.

On the same subject, a recent Centre for Longitudinal Studies working paper uses data from the Millennium Cohort Study to examine whether summer born pupils are differently represented in ability groups in early primary school. Across all types of ability grouping (within-year, within-class), the author found a pronounced and consistent tendency for relatively older pupils in a school year to be placed in the highest stream, set, or group.

Sources: When You Are Born Matters: Evidence for England (2013), Institute for Fiscal Studies, and In-school Ability Grouping and the Month of Birth Effect: Preliminary Evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study (2013), Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

Are ambitious children more resilient?

Can career aspirations at age seven provide valuable insights into children’s emotional state and their ability to overcome difficult family circumstances? A Centre for Longitudinal Studies working paper examines the role of young children’s career aspirations in the association between family poverty and emotional and behavioural problems.

Using data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, researchers tested a path model linking family poverty and maternal qualification to children’s emotional and behavioural problems via their career aspirations. The findings suggest that career aspirations are related to maternal qualifications but not family poverty or behavioural problems.

Family poverty is significantly associated with behavioural problems, but is moderated by career aspirations. More ambitious children from poor backgrounds are less likely to have behaviour problems than equally disadvantaged seven-year-olds who have lower career aspirations.

Source: Do primary school children’s career aspirations matter? The relationship between family poverty, career aspirations, and emotional and behavioral problems (2012), Centre for Longitudinal Studies