Did uptake of core GCSEs halve under Labour?

4 January 2012

"Taking the soft option: Figures show number of pupils doing GCSEs in traditional subjects fell by half under Labour"

Mail Online, 3 January 2012

"Just 3% of pupils in some areas are getting good GCSE pass in key subjects"

The Guardian, 4 January 2012

Reports this morning from the Mail and the Guardian looked into the uptake and achievement of core GCSEs.

The Mail claimed that the number of pupils taking GCSEs in traditional subjects had halved under the last Labour government, while the Guardian focused on the claim that only three per cent of pupils in some areas achieved good passes in those subjects.

Full Fact found both claims interesting and looked into the figures.


When talking about 'core' GCSEs or 'traditional subjects', both publications are referring to those subjects included in the new English Baccalaureate (EBacc), introduced in 2010.

According to the Department for Education (DfE), the EBacc is not a qualification, but a performance measure used in league tables.

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 Mail article describes the EBacc as requiring only 'a science' which contradicts the DfE description. This appears to be a minor error though not central to the thrust of the article.

Both publications also obtained their data via research conducted by the Conservative Party. The Party itself sourced its figures from Department for Education data and parliamentary questions.

Halved uptake under Labour?

The Mail's claim that uptake of the EBacc subjects fell by half under Labour emanates from a parliamentary question by Charlotte Leslie MP on 18 July last year, in which she asked the Minister, Nick Gibb, to provide uptake figures for 1996/7 and 2009/10.

The answer stated that, in 1996/7, 292,568 pupils out of 586,766 entered EBacc subjects, or 49.9 per cent. The equivalent figure for 2009/10 was 140,551 out of 639,263, or 22 per cent.

Latest DfE figures also show this figure now stands at 22.7 per cent of all pupils entering EBacc subjects.

It is noteworthy that recent figures also include international GCSEs (iGCSEs) which have been recorded in the last few years. DfE statistics suggest however that, in 2010/11, this would only have changed the proportion by 2.1 per cent, indicating this may not be a significant caveat.

That this represents a drop from 49.9 to 22.0 over the course of the previous Government seems to confirm the Mail's claim, although Labour themselves emphasise that this hides other statistics such as the variety of subjects taken and overall performance.

Three percent achievement rate in some areas?

The Guardian's focus on regional statistics can be traced to DfE data on the EBacc by Local Authority and Region. These figures provide the numbers and proportions of students both taking EBacc subjects and and achieving at least Grade Cs in them.

Examining which areas saw the smallest proportion of students achieving the EBacc, the most extreme example is Knowsley in the North West of England, in which only three percent of 1,579 pupils at Key Stage 4 achieved the requirements. This was followed by Sandwell in the West Midlands with 4.7 per cent.

The Mail article however seemed to claim something slightly different:

"In some areas, just three per cent of children were given the chance to study the core academic subjects of English, maths, two sciences, a language or history or geography."

Rather than dealing with achievement, the Mail mentions how many were 'given the chance to study' the EBacc subjects. This appears to be dealing with uptake rather than attainment.

However, the figures for uptake showed that the local authority of Halton in the North West had the lowest, with six percent of 1,462 Key Stage 4 pupils, followed again by Knowsley with 6.8 per cent.

Hence, there is no evidence that any area had as little uptake as three per cent as the Mail suggests, indicating they may have meant to describe the statistics on achievement.


Evidence suggests the headline claims made by both the Mail and the Guardian accurately reflect the available figures.

There were, however, details in the Mail article that may require redefinition, since the distinction between uptake and achievement is significant in the data. While the smallest achievement level of EBaccs was three percent, the smallest uptake was in fact six percent.

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