Choice and Progression in the Transition from Secondary Education: The Experience of GCSE Lower Attainers and the Potential for Change at the City-Region Level.

  • Raffo, Carlo (PI)
  • Lupton, Ruth (Researcher)
  • Thomson, Stephanie (Researcher)
  • Velthuis, Sanne (Researcher)
  • Unwin, Lorna (Researcher)

Project Details


This project aimed to investigate the opportunities and trajectories for 16 to 18-year-olds in England who have not achieved grade C or above in English and Maths at GCSE.

Success in GCSEs at 16 continues to act as the key watershed for further progression in education, training and employment – nearly twenty years on since Pearce and Hillman (1998) highlighted the problem in their study of the nation’s low rates of post-16 participation in education and training. The study focused on three key areas:

- Understanding the characteristics of this group of learners and identifying their different attainment profiles both prior to and after GCSEs
- Identifying how learners with different characteristics and attainment profiles progress in the 16-18 phase
- Investigating how different factors at the local level such as training provision and transport influence their opportunities and success in this phase.

As part of the project, the researchers brought together individual-level data with information on post-16 pathways and options provided in two city-regions in England.

This allowed them to identify how new localised strategies for policy and practice might be designed to enable schools, sixth form colleges, Further Education colleges, and training providers to improve social mobility in post-16 education and training.

The project aimed to provide important early evidence about how recent GCSE reforms and the introduction of Progress 8 may impact this group of learners.

The research on which this report is based was carried out between 2018 and 2020 at the Universities of Manchester and Aberdeen, funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Ada Lovelace Institute. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit

Key findings

In most years, around two-fifths of young people in England miss the benchmark of grade 4 (formerly C) in each of English and maths GCSE.

Our quantitative and qualitative research investigated the characteristics of these so-called lower attainers and their post-16 transitions to find out who they are and what happens to them.

This is the first study to show the heterogeneity of this large section of the GCSE cohort and the variety of their experiences during the post-16 phase. We found that:

- Many of these young people have substantial achievements but they often feel like failures. Their post-16 transitions tend to be more complex and difficult than for higher-achieving peers, with more time and support needed to help them realise their potential.
- Barriers to progression include insufficient information and guidance; the fact that entry requirements are often based on English and maths GCSEs (even when it is not clear why specific grades are needed); and the low availability and poor visibility of apprenticeships.
- Significant minorities of ‘lower attainers’ start their post-16 phase at the same or lower levels of learning than they have already achieved. Some spend three years or more in the post-16 phase. Many achieve Level 2 and Level 3 qualifications between ages 16 and 19, but on the whole ‘lower attainers’ remain a long way behind higher GCSE achievers.
- Post-16 structures, course offers, and entry requirements vary substantially across the country and even within local authority areas, such that people with similar attainment achieve different things depending on where they live. But local areas have very limited capacity and powers to monitor, coordinate or intervene.

Our findings challenge the assumption that it is purely a lack of attainment in English and maths that is holding back ‘lower attainers’, rather than a lack of coordinated and accessible opportunities to develop and progress.

English and maths are important, but policy needs to shift away from the excessive focus on maximising attainment in these subjects and towards supporting all young people to reach their potential.

We set out proposals for an integrated three-year Upper Secondary Education and Training Phase; changes to curriculum and accountability measures in Key Stage 4 (KS4) to provide a broader base for post-16 progression; and stronger local coordination mechanisms and funding.

All of this needs to be supported by better data and intelligence.

The prospects of ‘lower attaining’ young people will not be improved while they remain largely invisible.
Short titleP:HDZ GCSE lower attainers.
Effective start/end date5/03/2031/12/20

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Global inequalities
  • Work and Equalities Institute


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