Do only one in six pupils take a core academic subject?

Published: 20th Aug 2012

"The number of pupils taking a core academic subject — such as maths, a science, English, languages, history and geography — halved under Labour to barely one in six."

"Mr Gove has despaired over how few students take core academic subjects for their GCSEs. Just one in six 16-year-olds chose subjects such as English, maths, a science, history, geography and languages"

Daily Mail, 20 August 2012

Ahead of the release of this year's GCSE results on Thursday, several newspapers this morning attacked the rise of so-called 'Mickey Mouse' qualifications and bemoaned the supposedly poor uptake of core academic subjects.

The Mail suggested that only one in six pupils took a core academic subject but is the situation actually this dire?


Regular Full Fact readers will know this isn't the first time the Mail has reported on the uptake of core academic subjects. In January this year the outlet claimed that the uptake of traditional GCSE subjects halved under Labour.

This was based on a parliamentary answer confirming that in 1996/7, 292,568 15 year-old pupils entered the English Baccalaureate (49.9 per cent of all 15 year-old pupils). By 2009/10, the number of pupils at the end of Key Stage 4 reaching this standard stood at 140,551 (22 per cent of pupils at the end of KS4).

The Department for Education (DfE) publishes statistics on GCSE uptake and results, and allow us to confirm the latest figures. For 2010/11, the figures confirm that 627,745 pupils reached the end of Key Stage 4. 

Of these, 23.7 per cent were entered for qualifications in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc). Pupils with EBaccs must have taken English, Mathematics, all three sciences, a language and either History or Geography. In all except the sciences, they must achieve at least grade C. In the three sciences, they must attain at least C in two.

The results show that only 17.6 per cent of all pupils met these conditions so we could say that around one in six pupils achieved 'good grades' in all the core subjects at the end of KS4.

Nevertheless, the Mail's claim concerns the number of pupils taking "a core academic subject". This implies that only one in six pupils were entered for at least one of English, Maths, Sciences, History or Geography, and certain Languages.

The above table shows however that this isn't correct. 94.9 per cent of pupils at the end of KS4, for example, entered an English course. This would contradict the Mail's claim that barely one in six pupils now take a core academic subject "such as ... English".

Even the 'core' subject with the lowest uptake - Languages - saw 40.9 per cent of pupils entered for a course.

The Mail would certainly have been closer had they clearly referred to the uptake of all the core academic subjects as measured by the EBacc, but even then would have underestimated the total.


As Full Fact confirmed in January, it's correct that the uptake of core GCSEs halved under Labour although the party itself argues this ignores the increased variety of subjects and performance levels.

However it isn't correct to state that the number of pupils taking a core subject is now barely one in six - that 95 per cent of all pupils at the end of Key Stage 4 were entered for English shows the claim cannot be true.

Had the Mail referred to the uptake of all core academic subjects they would have been closer to the mark, as 24 per cent of all pupils entered all Ebacc subjects and 18 per cent achieved the EBacc. However with its current wording the Mail is at the very least ambiguous, and is likely to have left a misleading impression on its readers.

Update (22 August 2012)

After we contacted the Mail about the inaccuracy, they have updated their piece, which now reads:

"The number of pupils taking the core group of academic subjects - maths, a science, English, languages, history and geography — halved under Labour to barely one in six."

This still doesn't quite distinguish between taking the subjects and achieving the Ebacc, but we're happy the publication has responded to the issue so promtly, and we hope to secure a further improvement in due course.


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