Progression from GCSE

Progression from GCSE


After taking GCSEs at age 16, the most common route for students in England is to go on to study A and/or AS levels.

A student's decision to study a GCSE subject further may depend on a variety of factors (see Vidal Rodeiro, 2007), including enjoyment of the subject, ability, and usefulness for career plans. In addition there may be further constraints based on the school or college, such as whether the subject is actually offered, and whether the school restricts entry onto AS/ A level courses based on GCSE attainment.

AS and A levels in England have been reformed in recent years, with assessment now concentrated at the end of the course. The AS level, commonly used as a stepping-stone towards an A level in the same subject, but also as a standalone qualification giving additional breadth of study, has been 'decoupled' from the A level. The reform has been implemented gradually, by subject.

A previous Data Byte has shown the changes in provision of AS level. Here we consider the change in progression: the proportion of students taking a GCSE in a subject who went on to study this subject further.

What does the chart show?

The chart shows, for a number of the most popular subjects taken in Key Stage 4 in England, the percentage of students gaining a given GCSE grade who went on to take an AS level or an A level in the same subject. Progression is generally very low for GCSE grades lower than C, so these are not shown. Different subjects can be viewed using the dropdown menu, grouped by tranche of A/AS level reform. Hovering over the data points shows the percentage figures.

The data comes from the National Pupil Database, managed by the Department for Education. The latest data available is from 2017, so the most recent cohort for which we can calculate progression is the students who took their GCSEs in 2015 and went on to take A levels in 2017. The previous two cohorts are shown for comparison.

For this latest cohort, the only reformed A/AS level subjects available to be taken were those in the first tranche (for first teaching in 2015). For other subjects (such as Geography and Mathematics) students were taking the legacy unitised qualifications, in which AS level was still coupled to the A level.

Note that some subjects which are commonly taken at A level, notably Psychology, are not shown because their uptake is low at GCSE: they are usually studied from scratch for A/AS level.

Why is the chart interesting?

The chart shows that in most subjects students with the best grades at GCSE are more likely to progress to further study of the subject at AS or A level. There are some exceptions: in Business Studies students with an A* were less likely to progress than those with an A or B. The difference in progression rates between grades is particularly great for progression in Mathematics.

For most subjects there has been a general decrease in progression to further study in that subject. This is consistent with our observations that the number of subjects taken at A and AS level has been declining recently (see, for example, our statistics report on A level uptake in 2017).

For the subjects in Tranche 1 of the A/AS level reforms there has been a large decrease in progression to the AS level, particularly from the higher GCSE grades. There is no longer any need for students to take the AS level on the way to an A level, and marks in any AS level assessments do not count towards the final A level grade.

Progression to A level in Tranche 1 subjects has held more steady, and increases are apparent in some subjects such as Computing. One interesting phenomenon is that for Biology and Chemistry there have been small increases in progression among students who achieved GCSE grades B and C (rather than A* and A). A possibility worthy of further investigation is that the decline of AS levels may have locked more students in to A levels in some subjects, now they are less able to drop subjects after the first year of study.

As there have been further decreases in provision and uptake of AS levels, and the first reformed GCSEs (graded from 9 to 1) were awarded in 2017, it will be interesting to see how the situation evolves as data for more cohorts becomes available.

Research Matters 26

Research Matters

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.