Gove warns against sitting GCSEs early
Education Secretary Michael Gove is to discourage what he says is the "damaging trend" of struggling pupils taking GCSEs early.
In 2010 about a quarter of pupils took maths early and a quarter took English early.
Mr Gove says research shows that "for many of these pupils early GCSE entry can be detrimental".
But some teachers say early entries can help increase focus for struggling pupils, as well as the most able.
The number of early entries has risen dramatically over the past few years. In 2007 there were 67,000 early entries to English and maths. By 2010 that had risen to 326,000.
Mr Gove said the practice could be "beneficial where it is undertaken as part of a planned programme of accelerated progression through to A-level and beyond".
He has now asked Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw to look at how the practice can be discouraged.
The education secretary cited research by his department suggesting pupils who take their GCSEs at the end of the course tend to do better than those who take them early.
He cited figures showing that 29% of early entrants got an A*, A or B in maths GCSE compared with 41% of end-of-course entrants.
In English, 30% of early entrants got A*, A or B in English GCSE compared with 45% of applicants who took their exam at the end of the course.
Mr Gove said: "[This] suggests that candidates who enter early perform worse overall than those who do not, even after resits are taken into account.
"It seems likely that candidates are being entered before they are ready, and 'banking' a C grade where their performance at Key Stage 2 would suggest that if they had continued to study the subject and taken the GCSE at the end of Year 11 they could have achieved a top grade.
"This is of particular concern in mathematics, where there is high progression from A*/A grade at GCSE to A-level, but low progression from grades B and C.
"In addition, I believe that this speaks more generally of a narrowed curriculum, focused not on sound subject teaching as a basis for successful progression, but on preparation to pass exams."
'Can't do maths'
However, for those in lower ability groups, it can enable the subject to be taught much more intensively.
And some argue that it gives pupils at risk of drifting out of education more challenge and focus and the chance of getting something on their academic record before they drop out.
The move has been welcomed by AQA chief executive Andrew Hall who said he had raised concerns about the issue on a number of occasions.
He said children as young as 13 were being entered for Maths GCSE and that he was worried "about the students who are entered too early being scared off the subject and joining the pool who believe they 'can't do Maths'."
"At a national level, the trend may have had a negative impact on the take-up of mathematics at A level.
"The Secretary of State is right to call for a review to look at these issues. We must ensure that young people take GCSEs at an appropriate time."
But Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said decisions about entering pupils early for GCSEs should not be influenced by the pressure on schools to improve their standing in the league tables.
"Early entry may not be a bad thing per se. Decisions should however be made on a basis of what is right for individual students.
"There is evidence that some learners do not perform as well as one would expect had they been entered at 16."