Fewer young adults in Dorset are reaching 19 with a good pass in their GCSEs or equivalent qualifications.

The Association of School and College Leaders says disadvantaged students are hardest hit by the Government shifting its focus to GCSEs and A-levels over vocational qualifications.

Department for Education data reveals that 3,506 19-year-olds in Dorset had achieved a level 2 qualification by the end of the 2018-19 academic year – down from 3,584 in the previous year.

It means 84% of young people in the area had level 2 qualifications in 2018-19 – down from 86% in 2017-18, but above the national average of 82%.

Level 2 qualifications are five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C, or 9-4, or the equivalents such as apprenticeships, NVQs and diplomas.

Across England, level 2 attainment dropped for the fourth consecutive year in 2018-19, from a high of 86% in 2014-15.

The gap between those living in the most and least deprived areas of the country also widened to 18% last year – the largest in eight years.

The figures include 19-year-olds who were in mainstream state schools in year 11.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "The fall in attainment is caused by the Government’s decision to downgrade the importance of some vocational qualifications and AS-levels, and to place a greater focus on GCSEs and A-levels.

“This is a great shame as vocational qualifications and AS-levels serve many students very well, particularly those who face the greatest challenges and often come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Unsurprisingly, this process has therefore resulted in a widening of the attainment gap between the most and least deprived."

Mr Barton added that more needs to be done to support young people, including setting out qualifications "which suit different learners".

The same DfE figures show 57% of the 2018-19 cohort in Dorset achieved a level 3 qualification – two or more A-levels or the equivalents, such as a higher education diplomas or advanced apprenticeships.

That put the area in line with the national average for level 3 attainment, which fell to a six year low of 57% last year.

However, a DfE spokesman said the national figures represented an increase compared to 2009-10.

He added: “We have made good progress raising the standard of education and training on offer for young people.

“We are taking bold steps to further boost the quality of vocational and technical education to ensure those qualifications give students the skills they need for further study or to get a job.

"New, world class T-levels, to be launched in September, will help more young people acquire the skills they need to fulfil their potential.”