GCSE Subject Choices: Class, Gender and Ethnicity

In an English context, most research into subject choice tends to focus on both post-compulsory education and gender for reasons that should be readily apparent:

Firstly, post-16 (A-level) education tends to offer a wider and largely-unrestricted set of choices about which subjects to study, so student choice is much easier for researchers to identify and track.

Secondly, gender is a relatively easy (biological) category to track and doesn’t present the same kinds of classification and measurement problems as categories such as class.

While such as focus is both understandable and helpful, recent research by Henderson et al (2016) provides a useful addition to the literature by looking at the choices made by students at GCSE (post-14) level in terms of categories such as social class, gender, ethnicity, parental education and income.

While it’s probably fair to say the research reveals no great surprises in terms of the relationship between class, ethnicity, gender and subject choice, it does add a further layer to our understanding of general processes involved in subject choices.

Methodologically, the research involved:

  • Identifying patterns of GCSE subjects chosen by a cohort of young people born in 1989/1990.
  • Drawing data from “a longitudinal survey of these students linked to data on their academic attainment”.
  • Respondents selected using a stratified random sample.
  • The main objective of the study was to see whether differences in subject choice, excluding the compulsory subjects of Maths and English, “simply reflect differences in prior attainment or whether they actually operate above and beyond existing inequalities”.

    In other words the researchers wanted to see if GCSE subject choices were based on prior levels of achievement – students taking subjects at GCSE they liked and / or were good at – or if factors such as class, gender and ethnicity played a part in these choices.


    Social Class

    Overall, as might be expected, prior achievement is a significant predictor of subject choice post-14. This is explained by the idea that high achieving students are directed, by both parents and / or schools towards particular subjects. In the case of the latter, for example, pressure is likely to be applied to direct high achievers to EBacc subjects because of their significance for school measurement tables.

    However, the researchers noted “important secondary effects according to parental socio-economic background”. In other words, the higher the parental Socio-Economic Status (SES) the greater the pressure on students to:

  • take a particular non-vocational GCSE route.
  • study a relatively conventional selection of subjects directed towards those designated as “facilitating subjects” by Universities and EBacc subjects by the State.
  • In terms of subject-specific choices, students from higher social class backgrounds are proportionately more-likely to take:

  • modern foreign languages (German, Italian, French and Spanish)
  • music
  • natural sciences (such as Chemistry, Physics and Biology)
  • Students from lower social class backgrounds are more-likely to take applied subjects than their higher SES peers. Social class is, in this respect, “a significant predictor for studying applied GCSEs”.

    In general, students from “routine and intermediate backgrounds take a less selective curriculum than those from higher social class backgrounds”. In this respect, students from advantaged households:

  • take more selective subjects.
  • have higher odds of doing three or more facilitating subjects and EBacc-eligible subjects.
  • lower odds of taking Applied GCSEs..
  • Gender

    While prior levels of achievement are significant in relation to social class and subject choice, the same does not appear to be the case in relation to gender. In this respect, girls are:

  • less-likely to take three or more STEM subjects
  • more-likely to take Applied GCSEs.
  • The research found “no significant gender difference in EBacc or facilitating subjects”.

    In terms of a subject gender gap:

  • Applied Manufacturing and Engineering was overwhelmingly male.
  • Applied Health and Social Care was overwhelmingly female.
  • Subjects that showed a wide gender gap at A-level (Biology, History, Chemistry, Physics) showed no such gap at GCSE, with gender proportions being roughly 50:50.
  • Ethnicity

    The picture in relation to ethnicity and subject choice is much less clear-cut than for either social class or gender and suggests these two identities may be more-significant than ethnicity in this educational context.

    This follows because SES is more-likely to be a predictor of subject choice for all ethnic groups, while the well-researched post-16 relationship between gender and subject choice is likely to translate just as easily to post-16 study.

    While showing many similarities, patterns of ethnic subject choice are “not completely consistent”, however. Ethnic minority students, for example, are “broadly advantaged in terms of facilitating subjects, but there is no such clear pattern for subject selectivity or for Ebacc-eligible subjects”. In the latter case “Black Caribbean and Bangladeshi young people have lower odds of taking the EBacc”, but “there is no particular pattern evident in the subjects favoured by white students”.

    Social Class, Gender and Ethnic Differences in Subjects Taken at Age 14”: Morag Henderson, Alice Sullivan, Jake Anders and Vanessa Moulton (2018)

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