Education & Family

Why are pupils taking GCSEs early?

Pupils at Washwood Heath Technology College
Image caption At Birmingham's Washwood Heath Technology College, scores of pupils sit GCSEs early

There has been a huge rise in the number of youngsters taking GCSE exams early. But why?

According to this year's figures, more than one in 10 pupils sat their GCSE maths at age 15 or under - a 37% increase on the previous year.

And just under one tenth of pupils sat English early - a rise of 50% on 2009.

The dramatic increases follow the scrapping of the national tests, known as Sats, that England's pupils used to take at age 14.

Without these tests, schools can be more flexible on what they teach in the early years of secondary school. This in turn leads to more flexibility with GCSE timing.

'Stretching pupils'

And with increasing pressure on schools to increase their GCSE maths and English scores, there are clear benefits to focusing on those subjects early on.

Able pupils can get one or two exams out of the way early on, enabling them to focus on a wider range of GCSE subjects overall.

"Some schools are working hard to stretch their most able students and make sure that they have the opportunity to gain as many qualifications as possible," says the Association of School and College Leaders head John Dunford.

He also said it was a sign that Sats may have effectively slowed students' development down: "They were an artificial stopping place that's now been removed."

Bringing the GCSEs forward even seems to be having a knock-on effect on A-levels, with some students starting their AS-levels when they would be sitting the majority of their GCSE exams, he said.

But it is not just the bright pupils that are getting maths and even English GCSEs out of the way early.

Some schools are pushing students into these exams early as a matter of policy.

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.

Head of education policy at the NUT, John Bangs, says children with behavioural difficulties, for example, often benefit from the structure and goal that exams provide.

Stage not age

But he warns schools against taking a "blanket approach".

"I am concerned that this puts a lot of pressure on kids. What young people really want at this stage is a much more practical curriculum with lots going on," he adds.

There are obvious attractions for a school's profile to have large numbers of pupils sitting exams ahead of time.

"If they've got a whole bunch of kids sitting their exams early then it looks really good for their Ofsted report," he says.

One school in a deprived, inner city area of Birmingham has taken the whole early entry theme to the extreme.

Image caption 13-year-old Mehweessh Abid got a B grade GCSE

At Washwood Heath Technology College in Stechford, billed as the city's first "vertical learning" school, pupils are taught by stage rather than age.

Here, there are 252 14-year-olds in Year 9 - traditionally the year before GCSE courses start - who already have at least one GCSE. And 64 pupils already have five GCSEs or more under their belt.

All pupils take their GCSE maths early and they are all given the opportunity of taking other subjects ahead of time too.

Too easy?

There is no differentiation between bright pupils and those who are not so bright, says head teacher Beverley Mabey.

By giving pupils the choice of what they study when, they have more control of their learning, she argues.

"It's all about giving the children the flexibility and freedom of choice to engage in examinations.

"That gives them the confidence and the chance of success earlier on and it's about giving them an increased sense of self-esteem."

And in terms of boosting results, the policy seems to have worked with the percentage of GCSEs graded A* to C rising from 82% to 93% this year.

But if pupils are regularly passing GCSEs at the age of 14, surely that means exams are getting easier?

Not so, according to the NUT's John Bangs. He argues it is about having the best ever teachers and pupils who, in a digital age, are adept at handling huge amounts of information.

But education expert Professor Alan Smithers says: "If young people are doing very well at 14 or 15, it could be that the GCSE exam hasn't caught up with the improvement in performance."

It is not clear whether this is because children are working harder, being taught better or exams are getting easier, he says.

"What is clear is that GCSEs are looking a bit past their sell-by date."

The question is whether to beef them up and make them harder, or change the age at which most pupils take them, he says.

And with the school leaving age set to rise to 18, he says "there may be a case for moving them forward to 14".

Then, he says, the GCSE could become the pathway to the next step a pupil takes in their education - rather than the certificate recording achievement at the end of compulsory education that it is now.

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