Case study

Exploring the 'Middle' in GCSE attainment

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Author: Roxanne Connelly, Administrative Data Research Centre, Scotland, in collaboration with Vernon Gayle, University of Edinburgh and Susan Murray, University of Stirling

Date: 30 September 2015

Type of case study: Research

About the research

Completed as part of an ESRC funded PhD, ‘Social Stratification and Education: Case Studies Analysing Social Survey Data’ this research focused on how educational qualifications gained at school continue to play an important and central role in young people’s educational and employment outcomes. Recently there has been a growing interest in documenting the lives of ‘ordinary’ young people, known as the ‘marginalised mainstream’ or ‘missing middle’.  In this project, Roxanne Connelly, Vernon Gayle and Susan Murray sought to better document the experiences and social characteristics of young people with ‘middle’ levels of GCSE attainment.

A central aim of the project was to identify if there is a clearly defined middle group of ordinary young people that can be characterised by their educational performance at school and their social characteristics.

Theoretically, the idea of a ‘middle’ group young people gaining moderate or mediocre attainment at GCSE was initially attractive as an area that required further research. It is important that researchers investigate the attainments of all young people and do not unduly focus on only those young people gaining the highest or lowest grades. Whilst a sizeable proportion of young people fail to gain any GCSEs at grades A*-C, this is far short of middle level attainment and does not necessarily represent the educational and social experiences of those with ‘ordinary’ GCSE attainment.

However, the investigation of ‘middle’ GCSE attainment lead the research team to conclude that there are no crisp boundaries that demark a ‘middle’ category of moderate GCSE attainment. There does not appear to be any evidence of clearly defined clusters of GCSE attainment and instead GCSE attainment should be considered on a continuum (e.g. the number of GCSEs) to fully appreciate the variations in educational attainments of young people.

Methodology

The research used data from the British Household Panel Study (Youth Panel) and the Youth Cohort Study of England and Wales.These data cover the period directly after General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) qualifications were introduced. The dataset provides measures of school attainment and suitable individual, household and parental measures.

To define the ‘middle’ group of GCSE attainers the researchers initially theorised that the middle group are neither well qualified nor completely unqualified. This ‘middle’ may have obtained some GCSEs at grades A* to C but they may not have gained the government benchmark of one to four GCSEs at grades A* to C.

The researchers estimated a series of regression models from the generalised linear modelling family based on this definition of the middle. They then provided a more comprehensive exploratory analysis of the ‘middle’.

Findings for policy

The research team detected gender differences in school GCSE performance, with females outperforming males. There are some effects due to differences in parental education levels and household circumstances. There is a large group of young people who fail to gain any GCSEs, their attainment falls far short of benchmark standards, and has negative consequences. There is also a significant relationship between school GCSE attainment and the young person's main economic activity at age twenty. Seventy one percent of pupils with the 'middle' level of GCSE attainment were employed compared with fifty four percent of young people with no school GCSEs, and forty percent of those with the benchmark. Further exploratory work indicated that a larger proportion of those in education at age eighteen with middle levels of school GCSE attainment had moved into employment by age twenty than those with the benchmark level of school GCSE attainment. Taken together these initial results indicate that having moderate, or 'middle', levels of school GCSE attainment has consequences for a young person's economic and educational activity in early adulthood. The research team conclude that sociologists of youth should study 'ordinary' young people and moderate, or unspectacular, levels of school attainment and that there is much to be gained by understanding the educational experiences, characteristics and qualifications of pupils across the full spectrum.

Impact of the research

The researchers engaged with the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, the examination awarding body, who published the findings on their Centre for Education Research and Practice. https://cerp.aqa.org.uk/perspectives/missing-middle

Publications and outputs

To read more about this research:

Gayle, V., Murray, S., Connelly, R. (2014) ‘Young people and school General Certificate of Secondary Education attainment: looking for the ‘missing middle’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 1-21. DOI: 10.1080/01425692.2014.935292

Connelly, R., Murray, S.J., Gayle, V. (2013) ‘Young People and School GCSE Attainment: Exploring the 'Middle', Sociological Research Online, 18(1), 6. DOI: 10.5153/sro.2880

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