In 2012, 97.8% of Year 11 pupils in state-maintained mainstream schools* in England took GCSEs (about 539,000 candidates). 97.1% of these gained 5 GCSEs (or equivalent) graded A*-G. 95.1% passed 5 GCSEs A*-G (or equivalent) including Maths and English.
The lower grade GCSEs (D-G) and their vocational equivalents are Level One qualifications. This level will gain entry to what the Office of National Statistics (ONS) describes as “Elementary Occupations”:
“Occupations classified at this level will usually require a minimum general level of education (i.e. that which is acquired by the end of the period of compulsory education). Some occupations at this level will also have short periods of work-related training in areas such as health and safety, food hygiene, and customer service requirements.”
Yet according to the Government school leavers with less than 5 GCSEs grade C or above are unemployable. Newspaper articles scream about “20%” of 16 year-olds being an illiterate and innumerate "underclass".
But the ONS makes it clear that anyone with a Level One standard of education is eligible for employment at elementary level
. That would not be the case if such people were functionally illiterate.
That’s not to say that achieving higher level qualifications isn’t desirable. FullFact
discovered that future employment growth is mainly in jobs requiring Level Three and Four qualifications (although two sectors – customer service and elementary administration - bucked this trend). Level Two qualifications are essential for progression to A Levels and vocational Level Three. Elementary level jobs tend to be the lowest paid so higher level qualifications can lead to better pay. And at times of high unemployment those with minimal levels of education find it more difficult to get work.
But it is not true that schools have “failed” if all pupils don’t achieve Level Two qualifications. Thousands of employers offering elementary level jobs also provide Level One qualifications. It would be ridiculous to suggest that such employers were likewise “failing” because they were turning out workers with only Level One skills.
It is also ridiculous to suggest that anyone with less than a Level Two qualification is “functionally illiterate”. Politicians and commentators who suggest otherwise are wrong. And to describe such people as an "underclass" is deplorable.
*excludes pupil referral units, hospital schools, state-maintained special schools
Volume One ONS Soc2010 downloadable here
GCSE stats downloadable here