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Does it matter if you don’t get a C (or 4) grade in GCSE mathematics?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 10 March 2022

John Jerrim.

To Year 11s, GCSEs can seem the be-all and end-all of life. Having worked hard throughout secondary school, many young people put themselves under great pressure to do well in these exams.

While many will get the grades they hope for, some will inevitably end up feeling disappointed. This is likely to include those who fail to achieve a C/4 grade in a key subject such as mathematics, given the emphasis placed upon this high-stakes grade threshold within our education system.

But what impact does missing a C/4 grade in GCSE mathematics really have? When young people receive their GCSE results, are they right to feel despondent if they have missed this grade? Or does it not really matter that much, in the grand scheme of things?

This blog – drawing upon evidence from my recently released paper – takes a closer look.

What does the evidence show?

Using data from the Next Steps cohort I track the educational, labour market and socio-emotional outcomes of young people who achieved D and C grades in mathematics through to age 26.

Importantly, I look at comparable C and D grade pupils, meaning they are from similar demographic backgrounds, have similar Key Stage 2 and 3 scores, held similar attitudes towards school throughout Key Stage 4 and – critically – who performed similarly in other GCSE subjects. I thus attempt to isolate the specific impact of missing a C grade in mathematics.

A summary of my key findings is presented in the chart below:

Difference in selected outcomes between comparable children who achieve a grade D versus grade C in GCSE mathematics

Notes: Figures refer to predicted probability of the outcome for C and D grade pupils. Figures taken from Appendix B of Jerrim and Ploubidis 2021. Estimates based upon propensity score matching models controlling for demographic characteristics, Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 scores, performance in GCSE subjects and similar attitudes towards school throughout Key Stage 4.

This illustrates how:

  • Obtaining a C in maths is vital for future educational outcomes. Those who gained a C had a 32% chance of holding a degree by age 26, compared to 22% chance for those with a D.
  • There is some tentative evidence of lasting labour market effects, with those obtaining a D in maths more likely not to be in education, employment and training (NEET) at age 26 than comparable pupils with a grade C (21% versus 10%).
  • Yet there is little evidence that D grade pupils end up being any less satisfied in life, or that they experience any detrimental impact upon their mental health.

The Next Steps cohort took their GCSEs quite a long time ago now (sorry guys!) – back in 2006. However, I have repeated a similar analysis for a younger cohort – who took the new flavour of GCSE mathematics in 2017 – and found consistent results.

What does this mean?

So, in some respects, hitting the key C/4 grade in a subject like mathematics really matters. It opens up the door to certain educational pathways, meaning you are more likely to get a degree, with some evidence that this then feeds through to labour market rewards.

On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to make much difference to young people’s wellbeing, or their happiness in life, as a result.

It is therefore important that parents, teachers, schools and society send an appropriately balanced message to young people.

Yes, GCSEs are important, and those on the C/4 versus D/3 grade boundary in a key subject such as maths should be encouraged to focus and to work hard to make it over the threshold. But, if they don’t manage to get a C, its not the end of the world – and they should keep things in perspective. At the end of the day, they are likely to be just as satisfied and happy in their futures, whatever the results.




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