Each year thousands of disadvantaged pupils miss out on taking a modern language or humanities subject at GCSE, limiting their access to the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) curriculum and their A level and university choices. This is according to a new research brief from the Sutton Trust that analyses the impact of major curriculum reforms for GCSE students. It identifies 15,000 disadvantaged pupils who should be expected to take either history or geography but don’t. The figure is also significant for modern languages, at 11,000.

Changing the Subject, by Dr Rebecca Allen and Dave Thomson of Education Datalab, looks at the introduction of the EBacc and the new headline measures of Attainment 8 and Progress 8, and how these government policies are affecting the educational choices and results of pupils aged 16 and 18. The EBacc is a performance measure for schools, awarded when student gets a grade C or above at GCSE across five core academic subjects. Attainment 8 measures a student’s achievement across 8 GCSE subjects while Progress 8 measures how a student progresses through secondary school.

The curriculum changes, particularly the introduction of the EBacc, have led many schools to make major changes to their curriculum in favour of more academic subjects at the expense of some arts and vocational subjects. The researchers identified 300 schools that implemented major curriculum change in response to the government policy, achieving a rise in the proportion of pupils entering the EBacc from 8% in 2010 to 48% in 2013. They compared this group with similar schools that had not changed their curriculum as quickly.

The researchers found that it was disadvantaged pupils – those eligible for pupil premium funding – who benefitted most at these ‘curriculum change schools’, essentially because students who were had average or in some cases, below average, test scores at age 11 were the most likely to take on EBacc subjects. As a result, the pupil premium subject gap closed a little more in the schools that changed their curriculum than in the schools who had not done so quickly, including a six percentage point narrowing of the EBacc gap.

The research brief also found that while the proportion of students taking triple science – physics, biology and chemistry – at GCSE has risen from 17% in 2010 to 25% in 2013, continuing a trend started under the previous government, disadvantaged pupils were much less likely to study it than their better-off peers (30% vs 13%). Taking prior attainment into account, they identified 5,500 disadvantaged pupils who might be expected to take triple science GCSEs each year but who were not doing so. The EBacc only requires students to take double science.

A survey of headteachers in the curriculum change schools found that delivering the EBacc to the government target of 90% of pupils is beyond the reach of many schools given specialist teacher shortages. Moreover, these heads believe that it is not appropriate for all. The survey also found very low take up of languages among students with below average results when they finished primary schools.

The report warns that setting the EBacc as the ‘gold standard’ secondary school curriculum risks deprioritising the educational experiences of those students for whom it isn’t appropriate. To ensure that all students leave school with the right skills to progress on to further study and work, the Sutton Trust and the researchers are recommending that:

  • All pupils should have fair access to sit EBacc subjects, particularly those eligible for the pupil premium.
  • The Government should reconsider its intention that 90% of pupils should be entered for EBacc subjects.
  • The Government should consider what type of Key Stage 4 curriculum is appropriate for those not entering the EBacc and do more to facilitate a Technical Baccalaureate option.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today:

“It is good to see that schools are offering EBacc subjects to more of their students successfully. It is important that all students have the opportunity to study the full range of academic subjects, particularly those who are both highly able and disadvantaged. At the same time, it is vital that the introduction of the EBacc is not at the expense of arts and vocational subjects.”

Dr Becky Allen, Director of Education Datalab and the report’s lead author, added:

“In schools that have led the way in re-orientating their curriculum towards EBacc subjects, students seem to have benefitted. They are now more likely to achieve a good GCSE in maths and English and less likely to drop out at age 16, refuting claims that the more academic curriculum would distract focus from these core subjects. The challenge now is to consider what sort of Key Stage 4 curriculum is appropriate for students who are not entering the EBacc.”


  1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 170 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  2. The research by Dr Rebecca Allen and Dave Thompson of Education Datablab assesses how curriculum changes are starting to affect the educational choices and successes of pupils at the ages of 16 and 18. They do this by following a cohort of pupils who took their GCSEs in 2012 / 13 and A-levels or other Key Stage qualifications in 2014 / 15, comparing their outcomes to a cohort passing through the education system three years earlier. This research brief looks at the 300 schools that implemented major curriculum change over the three year period 2009 / 10 to 2012 / 13.
  3. The English Baccalaureate was introduced in 2010 by Michael Gove when he was Education Secretary. To achieve the standard students must take English, Maths, two science subjects, either history or geography (humanities), and a modern language.  Changes to how schools are measured this year will give more weight to these subjects as students and their schools will be judged in part on their performance and progress in the EBacc and three other subjects.
  4. The research brief complements the Missing Talent research brief in 2015 which showed that 35% of disadvantaged boys and 24% disadvantaged girls who scored in the top 10% in the national tests at age 11 were outside the top 25% by the age of 16. They were also less likely to take subjects – including triple science – likely to facilitate access to leading universities.

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