The options available to 16-year-olds once they’ve finished their exams have changed over time – but what impact have the changes had?
1. The number in full-time education has more than doubled
Until recently, students could head into work immediately after completing their GCSEs.
However, changes introduced by the previous Labour government mean that since 2015, everyone must take part in some form of training or education until they are 18 – the first change to the school leaving age since 1972.
Despite this, thousands still go straight into employment or avoid education and training, as there is no mechanism for the government to enforce the policy.
Local authorities do, however, have to advertise, advise and fund the opportunities for 16- and 17-year-olds.
In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the school leaving age remains 16.
In Wales, 79% of 16- to 18-year-olds are in education – and about 90% of 16- to 17-year-olds in Northern Ireland.
2. Further education college attendance has decreased
There are a number of options for 16-year-olds who decide to continue full-time education.
First, they can continue at the school where they studied GCSEs.
Most, however, choose to go to sixth-form or further education colleges.
Percentage of students by educational institution
These tend to be larger and offer greater freedom for students.
However, while sixth-form colleges focus more on preparing students for university by teaching A-levels, FE colleges offer more skills-based and technical courses.
3. The increase in top GCSE grades is starting to slow
Before starting further education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, students will sit their GCSEs, normally at 16.
In Scotland, they will sit the broadly comparable National 5s.
Attainment in GCSEs has been improving, which has sparked concerns about grade inflation and easier exams.
And this led, in part, to the rollout of tougher GCSEs by the Conservative-led coalition government.
% of GCSEs receiving top grades
A*-C/9-4 grades awarded
In England, those who fail English or maths the first time around are expected to sit the exam as many times as they need to until they’re 19, alongside their training or education.
The charity Impetus has pointed out this has meant some people sitting these exams up to nine times before they no longer have to do so.
In 2018, the proportion of GCSE entries being marked A*-C ranged from 61.8% in Wales to 81.4% in Northern Ireland.
4. Vocational courses are increasing in popularity
The vast majority will achieve at least five GCSEs by the age of 19.
But just 60% reach the next level of qualification – a vocational course (such as a BTec), academic qualification (most commonly A-levels) or certified advanced apprenticeship.
Estimated number of A-Level or vocational course students
While A-levels remain the most popular choice, vocational qualifications are increasing as individuals move towards more classroom-based learning structures for technical or professional skills.
In Wales, 62.4% of 18- to 24-year-olds have an A-level or equivalent qualification.
5. Vocational courses have widened university access
Vocational qualifications focus on industry-specific skills.
They tend to emphasise projects or coursework-based assessments rather than exams (as is the case with A-levels) and are done in conjunction with industry bodies.
The most popular vocational courses are BTecs, for which uptake has tripled since 2006.
- BTec Nationals: Who are the students who didn’t just do A-levels?
- BTec results: CBI Wales urges more vocational focus
Although many are designed to lead to skilled jobs without the need for university education, they are increasingly being recognised – and accepted – as a route into university.
Btec is used more for university entries in the north and Midlands
% of acceptances by region and qualification, England
Research by the Social Market Foundation suggests they have broadened access to university particularly among those from white working-class backgrounds.
The reasons for their uptake with certain demographics vary.
Some research indicates a less academic route suits those who struggled with GCSEs – but pupils are also attracted by the wider variety of subjects and freedom offered by further education colleges.
In 2011, Prof Alison Wolf’s review of vocational qualifications said many of them “offered little to no labour market value”.
And this, in part, led to the Department for Education removing hundreds of courses from the list of those that count towards college performance tables.
Additionally, it has introduced T-level awards for England, expected to be fully implemented by the end of 2023.
These will have a greater focus on work placements than existing vocational qualifications.
6. The most popular vocational course relates to business
The image of vocational qualifications preparing students solely for hands-on, practical jobs is far from accurate – the most popular range of vocational courses today is business.
These courses can range from learning how to pitch business ideas to assessing a company’s books.
Another popular range of courses is health and social care. Other popular courses prepare students for careers in plumbing, horticulture, hairdressing or sound engineering.
7. Top grades in A-level have increased dramatically
With more than a quarter of a million people sitting A-levels in England, Wales and Northern Ireland each year, this remains by far the most popular post-16 choice.
Until 1987, the proportion of top grades – an A back then – was capped at 10%.
Since then, there has been a gradual increase in the proportion receiving an A or A* (which was introduced in 2010).
Proportion of A-Levels receiving A*-A grades
And, as with GCSEs, this has driven a conversation about whether exams have become easier and was part of the reason for changes by the coalition government.
These included reducing the relevance of AS-levels and a decrease in coursework.
8. Science A-levels are up but English and the arts suffer
Decades of government-backed initiatives to increase uptake of science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects have seen maths pushing English into second place as the most popular A-level subject.
General studies has all but disappeared as universities said they would no longer accept it as a qualification and 2019 is the final year it is being sat.
A-Level STEM subjects have increased
% change in A-Level choices at schools between 1999 and 2018, England
A decline in traditional modern languages has seen a fall in French and German – but more global languages, such as Mandarin, Spanish and Arabic, have slowly become more popular.
9. Apprenticeship starts are stagnant
To encourage apprenticeships, the government established an “apprenticeship levy” in 2017, a tax paid by large businesses to fund their creation.
But the number of apprenticeship starts has remained stagnant.
Number of apprenticeship starts by under 19s
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland manage their own apprenticeship schemes and how they are funded.
The largest three sectors for under-19 apprenticeships are health, business and engineering, which together accounted for more than 61,000 starts in 2018.
Last year, there were 4,400 apprenticeship starts in Wales and 2,500 in Northern Ireland.
10. Education funding has been cut
Total school spending has decreased by 8% since 2010, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
Further education and sixth-form colleges have faced similar cuts but school sixth forms have fared worse.
Spending per head on training and education
Per pupil spend in £, England
Since 2016, funding for further education has been on a per-pupil basis, meaning each child is given a minimum amount of funding, as long as the qualification is deemed suitable by the government.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he will increase the further education and skills budget.
11. Participation in Scotland has also grown
By Jamie McIvor, BBC Scotland education correspondent
Scotland’s education system was always separate from the system south of the border, even before devolution.
In Scotland, students still have the right to leave school at 16. They are not compelled to remain in education or training until they are 18 although the overwhelming majority do.
However, there has been a fundamental shift in the character of the latter years at secondary school since the 1980s.
In the 1980s, almost a third of students left school by age 16.
Students who stayed after this were normally the more academically able – they would usually be studying for Scottish Highers, similar to A-levels in the rest of the UK.
16 and 17-year-olds by participation status
Today, these students have the chance to study for a wide range of qualifications – some of which are practical or vocational rather than academic.
It’s now unusual to leave at 16 without a good reason and most complete some form of further education, including modern apprenticeships.
The number who are not in education, employment or training (Neets) is relatively low.