Bright sixth-formers drop out as ministers focus on low achievers

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Growing numbers of bright sixth-formers are dropping out of A-level courses because a government drive to cut the number of 16-year-olds leaving school has focused careers advice on low-achieving students, new research suggests.

Growing numbers of bright sixth-formers are dropping out of A-level courses because a government drive to cut the number of 16-year-olds leaving school has focused careers advice on low-achieving students, new research suggests.

The policy has succeeded in reducing the number of students "lost to the system" by encouraging more disaffected pupils to stay in education or training, the report by the National Foundation for Educational Research found.

But it has also led to higher numbers of brighter teen-agers choosing the wrong A-level courses and subsequently dropping out, according to the research, commissioned by the Government.

Schools and careers advisers have questioned whether the modest improvements were worth the effort, particularly when many bright pupils have suffered as a result.

"Careers advice has been focused on low achievers at the expense of students 'of average ability or the most able'," Marian Morris, Mark Rickinson and Deborah Davies of the foundation concluded after their three-month study of careers advice in schools.

There has been "a reported increase in drop-outs from post-16 academic courses, said to be partly the result of insufficient preparation in year 11 [students' GCSE year] for those outside the target group, with consequent poor decision making".

The report concluded that under the scheme "a great deal of careers advisers' time [is] spent tracking down young people who were 'hard-to-reach', with levels of success said generally not to be commensurate with the effort involved".

It added: "There was a feeling that success with the target group was often at the expense of other young people. Interviewees were concerned about the long-term cost of not meeting the 'career-learning needs of all young people'."

The policy, introduced in 1998, had led to a polarisation of careers advice in schools, the report found. Careers guidance was good in fewer than one in three schools, it concluded, with more than two- thirds showing "major deficits" in their ability to offer advice.

Leigh Henderson, of the National Advisory Council for Careers and Education Guidance, said careers advisers had always been concerned at the Government's policy. "Able students can be the hardest people to advise because they have more options than the less able," she said.

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