Breadth of the 16-19 curriculum and employment outcomes

Breadth of the 16-19 curriculum and employment outcomes

This research used data made available via the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Secure Research Service, which is being expanded and improved with ADR UK funding.

Authors: David Robinson and Felix Bunting (Education Policy Institute)

Date: September 2021

Research summary

A research project using secure data has found that young people who study a variety of subjects at ages 16-19 go on to earn £2,500 more in their mid-twenties than those with qualifications from only one subject group. However, the research shows that only one in 100 students now takes qualifications from four or more subject groups, down from almost one in 10 in 2010. As a result of this project, the researchers have recommended that government should undertake a wholesale review of 16-19 funding.

This report was commissioned by The Royal Society to investigate the relationship between young people’s breadth of study at ages 16-19 and their subsequent employment outcomes. It also informed a proposal from the Times Education Commission to introduce an English Baccalaureate.

Data used

This project was one of several pilots chosen by the Department for Education (DfE) to extend the use of the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data to third-party researchers. This project also used the National Pupil Database which was accessed through the ONS Secure Research Service.

The DfE has collaborated with other areas of government to create the LEO de-identified linked administrative dataset. LEO brings together data from:

  • National Pupil Database
  • Individualised Learner Records
  • Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA)
  • Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which includes income, employment and benefit data.

The dataset currently holds information up to 2018/2019, however the researchers used employment data from 2016/17 as it was the most recent data made available as part of the pilot programme.

Compiled by the DfE, the National Pupil Database contains various datasets covering all pupils within schools in England up to the age of 19. It contains pupil-level exam results data by qualification for Key Stages 4 and 5, covering A levels, GCSEs and other vocational or technical qualifications. The pupil datasets contain anonymised demographic and protected characteristics data.

Methods used

To measure how broad a student’s curriculum is, the researchers defined five subject groups:

  • Science, technology and computer science
  • Mathematics
  • Languages
  • Humanities, arts and social sciences
  • Vocational and professional.

Once the groups had been defined the researchers were able to create a breadth score. The research team recorded how many Level 3 qualifications a student had taken and compared them to the five subject groups. The minimum possible score was 1, as students taking at least one Level 3 qualification were included. The maximum possible score was 5, for those taking qualifications from all the subject groups.

To measure young people’s labour market outcomes, the researchers used income and whether individuals were in sustained employment or education.

  • Sustained employment or education – Sustained employment means a student was employed for at least one day in five of six months between October 2016 and March 2017. Sustained education means that they have a valid higher education study record that overlaps the relevant tax year
  • Income – The researchers used annualised income from 2016/17. Only people in sustained employment and with an income greater than zero were included.

The researchers produced several regression models (a type of statistical model that estimates the relationship between one dependent variable and one or more independent variables using a line) to understand the association between curriculum breadth and young peoples’ employment outcomes. The researchers demonstrated the impact of three broad sets of controls, each of which included the following variables:

Personal characteristics and Key Stage 4 results:

  • Free school meal eligibility
  • Special educational needs provision
  • Ethnicity
  • GCSE English and maths attainment.

16-19 results, region and provider type:

  • Total 16-19 point score
  • Total number of 16-19 entries
  • Take-up of specific 16-19 subjects
  • 16-19 institution type
  • region of 16-19 provider.

Higher Education subjects and institution:

  • Undergraduate subject 
  • Higher Education provider group based on selectivity.

Research findings

The researchers found that the proportion of students with qualifications from three or more subject groups has halved since 2010. Only one in 100 students now takes qualifications from four or more subject groups, down from almost one in 10 in 2010. This decline appears to be driven by the fall in the number of qualifications taken following reforms to A and AS levels which were introduced in 2013.

The graph below shows that average curriculum breadth has fallen by 18% since 2010. Most of this fall took place between 2016 and 2019, with a 13% fall over that period. Since 2017 the average student has taken qualifications from fewer than two subject groups. The graph also demonstrates that the average number of qualifications taken fell by 43% between 2016 and 2019, from five to three. This fall is almost entirely due to a drop in the number of AS levels, following the decoupling of A and AS levels and a reduction in funding in recent years. This has resulted in total qualification provision decreasing by 8% or around 71 teaching hours per student.

Average breadth score and number of qualifications

The researchers found that without controlling for other differences, students who studied subjects from more subject groups had higher earnings during their mid-twenties. Of 26-year-olds who had achieved at least a bachelor's degree and were in employment, those who studied 16-19 qualifications from more subject groups had higher earnings on average. Women who had taken qualifications from all five subject groups averaged earnings of £26,000 (£26k, in 2016/17), compared with £19k for those who had taken qualifications from only one subject group. The corresponding figures for men were £28k and £21k. Even students taking qualifications from two subject groups had higher earnings than those taking qualifications from only one. Both women and men with qualifications from two subject groups earned £2.5k more than those with qualifications from only one subject group. While much of the difference in earnings associated with a wider range of subjects can be explained by higher student attainment, when accounting for this, graduates who had taken A levels from two or more subject groups earned around 3-4% more in their early careers than those taking qualifications from only one subject group.

The research team found that in general, greater breadth is also associated with a higher probability of being in employment or education at age 26, though this is not the case for those with the very highest breadth scores. However, once the researchers controlled for personal characteristics and educational attainment, apparent benefits to employability from having studied a broader range of subjects disappears.

Further findings included:

  • students with higher GCSE English and maths grades are likely to study a broader range of subjects at A-level.
  • disadvantaged students and students with special educational needs are less likely to study a broad range of subjects.
  • students from Chinese and Indian heritage study the broadest range of subjects on average, whilst Black Caribbean and Gypsy or Roma students study the narrowest range of subjects on average. These differences appear driven by the lower prior attainment of these groups and persist even when comparing students taking the same number of qualifications.
  • breadth of study for students taking three A levels (or other equivalent qualifications with the same teaching hours), has increased. Since 2017 students from this group have become 50% more likely to take a qualification from a different subject group.
  • when comparing young people of similar backgrounds and educational attainment, some subject breadth is associated with marginally higher earnings by age 26. There is no discernible difference between the earnings of those with qualifications from two subject groups and those with qualifications from more than two areas, once other factors are considered.

Research impact

This research project shows the power of using linked administrative data from multiple government departments. The LEO dataset has enabled analysis that would not have been possible using previously available data. This research found that students who had greater diversity in their A level subjects were likely to see a small boost to their earnings in their mid-twenties – gains which are then expected to be sustained throughout their careers. After controlling for student prior attainment and other factors, the impact of studying a broader range of subjects is shown to have a similar effect on early career salaries to factors such as the university attended by a student or their socio-economic background. However, this research demonstrates the overall decline in curriculum breadth at ages 16-19 which appears to be driven by the fall in the number of qualifications taken following reforms to A and AS levels. These reforms and the reduction in funding have also led to a substantial fall in the amount of teaching time young people receive during this phase.

As a result of this project, the researchers have recommended that government undertake a wholesale review of 16-19 funding to prevent a further narrowing of 16-19 education.

The researchers’ recommendations include:

  • reversing cuts to funding
  • offering more targeted support for disadvantaged students
  • ensure that the funding system no longer discourages the take up of smaller qualifications, such as AS levels.

The research also fed into the Royal Society’s Changing Education project, which recommends a broadening of the post 16 curriculum.

The research was referenced in the Times Education Commission’s final report, as part of the evidence base for its proposal to introduce a British Baccalaureate.

Research outputs

Publications and reports

Blogs, news posts, and videos

Presentations and awards

About the ONS Secure Research Service

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