Commentators have recently been asking whether young people in England should take fewer GCSEs.[i]

As with so much of qualification policy, there is no ‘right’ answer – just different pros and cons.

The government doesn’t prescribe how many GCSEs young people must take. Instead, the EBacc and Progress 8 school accountability measures set a clear benchmark and target for the minimum number that Year 11 students should enter for: eight.

In practice, some students enter for more and some enter for less.

Analysis of 2021 data found that the average (mean) number of GCSEs that students were entered for was 7.85, compared to 8.09 in 2018.[ii]

There are several arguments usually cited for students to sit fewer GCSEs.

With less material to cover in total, students may find they are able to go deeper into the content they are covering for the GCSEs they are taking. This may result in improved grades and better prepare them for Level 3 study in those subjects.

Entering fewer GCSEs may also release study time for other types of qualification more attuned to a student’s interests or aspirations, such as Higher Project Qualifications, one of the 1000+ Level 2 vocational qualifications the government funds, or other types of certification, such as in sport or music.

Given more free time to socialise and take extracurricular activities, some students may also experience improved wellbeing overall, which has been linked to higher attainment.[iii]

However, there are also disadvantages to students entering for fewer GCSEs.

Doing so means narrower post-16 progression options as students will have fewer subjects they can progress on to for Level 3 study. With this comes the increased risk that students will end up regretting the subject choices they make at the start of Year 10, i.e. they will end up missing the subjects they didn’t pursue.

Taking fewer GCSEs may also disadvantage individual students if they are competing for jobs or education courses against students who have entered for more. Faced with two candidates who have taken nine and six GCSEs respectively, many selection processes may opt for the candidates with more grades to their name.

Indeed, there is a risk here relating to social mobility. Students who are perceived to be less academic by themselves, parents or teachers at the age of 14 may never study a subject at Key Stage 4 that they would enjoy or excel in, because they have entered for fewer subjects. In some cases, there may be a risk that students aren’t entered for more GCSEs just because their centre considers them more likely to fail.

More widely, entering for fewer GCSEs and covering the content of fewer GCSE specifications may simply mean students learn less and acquire fewer skills overall – unless they take other qualifications alongside their GCSEs.

Overall, the guidance provided by the school accountability framework toward a minimum of eight GCSEs inevitably represents a trade-off between these different pros and cons. Eight GCSEs can never be the perfect number for all students because there is such wide variation within cohorts. This is implicitly recognised by the government in the fact that the target for the proportion of all students who enter for the EBacc has never been more than 90%.

Reducing the target number of GCSEs could offer some benefits which policymakers may wish to realise. However, it is unlikely that all students – particularly high attainers or students from schools with better resources – will be entered for fewer subjects, even if the benchmark set down in policy is lowered. In this way, reducing the target of eight subjects might actually serve to widen educational inequalities within GCSE cohorts.

Policymakers must consider these factors if they are reviewing guidelines for GCSE entries. Ensuring GCSEs deliver for students, schools and society will be explored further by AQi over the coming months.

[i] GCSEs and A levels: Stressed students show education metrics must be amended | Tes News

[ii] Ofqual (2021), Analysis of results: A levels and GCSEs, summer 2021 - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

[iii] Gutman, L M and Vorhaus, J, Department for Education (DFE), corp creator. (2012) The impact of pupil behaviour and wellbeing on educational outcomes, https://dera.ioe.ac.uk//16093/