A good education v league table places

Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies
Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies

Teaching GCSEs over three years might seem like a good idea, but it’s yet another way of putting league table places ahead of a rounded education.

HM Government in its infinite wisdom, with the help of the unbiased examination boards and un-self-interested publishers, never seems to leave education structures alone for long enough for any of us teachers to get familiar with what we’re trying to do. But at least we’ve all got the hang of how long it takes to do a GCSE, haven’t we? They’re designed, by and large, for 14-year-olds to start in Year 10 and after two years of study take the examination at the end of Year 11, just like the O-level and CSEs they replaced decades ago, and which themselves lasted for decades. Aren’t they?

Well, not any more, in at least a quarter of state secondary schools. Instead, in pursuit of the dreaded league table results in which schools’ performance on EBacc or Progress 8, or whatever monitoring-what-not of educational-measurables might be the latest wheeze, many schools are starting GCSE courses in Year 9 and spending three years on them rather than two.

I first came across this phenomenon about 15 years ago on a visit to a well-known independent school. It wasn’t actually stated anywhere, but it gradually dawned on me that I was seeing GCSE topics in the Year 9 classes I watched, and on checking with teachers they didn’t hesitate to explain what they were doing. They were having to compete with more selective schools in both the state and independent sectors, where the better ‘rankings’ achieved by these more selective schools had been causing enquiries to drop for their school. They needed to get their pupils better GCSE grades and by starting this teaching early they could find a way to compete. Yes, it meant that GCSE choices had to be made earlier and it narrowed the curriculum sooner, but parents and students, themselves concerned about the competitive pressures to get the best results, were supportive of the move.

That was just one independent school, and if there were any more adopting this approach back then I didn’t know of them. I certainly assumed that the requirements of Key Stage 3 in the national curriculum would mean that it never occurred in state schools.

The Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, says that she has some sympathy with the growing number of schools adopting this process, given the increased content in the new GCSEs, especially in some subjects, such as maths. Although schools may worry that they would not fit the content into two years, she urged schools to think about what children would lose by this approach and that although schools that start GCSEs a year early will not be marked down during an Ofsted inspection “for the time being”, it will be flagged up, she said.

It is the narrowing of the Key Stage 3 educational experience that is Ofsted’s concern. Key Stage 3 has the widest range of subjects that children will ever study, including food technology, computing, music, art, Spanish, French, Latin, all three sciences, history, geography and religion, plus maths and English. It is designed to give children time to develop and see what they enjoy. If the school starts GCSEs a year early in pursuit of better grades, children have to drop subjects so they can focus on a smaller number. Starting GCSE courses a year early in practice means that pupils might drop important subjects such as history, geography and French at the age of 13, ‘whittling away’ the broad curriculum specifically designed for younger pupils.

I’m not certain in my own mind if this is anything to worry about in itself. Of more concern to me is that it is yet one more example of the perverse consequences of publishing results and league tables, where decisions are not based on what constitutes a good education but how best to win in the exam results league.

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