High number of GCSEs can harm pupils, Ofsted warns

Bright teenagers should not be pushed to study excessive numbers of GCSE exams or to start A-level courses early, Ofsted inspectors have warned. Students who take 10 or 12 GCSE instead of the usual eight or nine often fail to study their subjects in enough depth, and the massive workload can cause stress, a study of above-average pupils has found.

Bright teenagers should not be pushed to study excessive numbers of GCSE exams or to start A-level courses early, Ofsted inspectors have warned. Students who take 10 or 12 GCSE instead of the usual eight or nine often fail to study their subjects in enough depth, and the massive workload can cause stress, a study of above-average pupils has found.

The Government has introduced schemes to stretch the brightest students including encouraging schools to enter them for exams early. The number of them taking GCSEs early has risen steadily over the past five years from 30,000 to more than 45,000. But some pupils found themselves out of their depth, and lost confidence in their ability in a subject after being pushed to take on too much too soon, inspectors said in their study of bright students aged 14 to 16.

Even the best of them can feel overloaded after being encouraged to take up to 12 GCSEs. Inspectors found little evidence that pupils derived benefit from their extra courses. Students who took on extra ones were not as involved in extra-curricular activities as they wanted to be.

But headteachers said many teenagers enjoy the challenge of extra courses. Frances Astley-Jones scored the best exam results in the country last summer, accumulating an impressive 16 top grades in GCSE and AS exams. But she said she enjoyed all her subjects and had no regrets.

She said she always made time for out-of-school interests such as sport and sailing. "I had to attend after-school classes in German to fit everything in and I put a lot of hard work in at home," she said. "I just try my hardest. You only get one life and you may as well make the most of it." Frances, who hopes to read medicine at Cambridge University, is studying for six A levels, to add to the A grade in AS pure mathematics she won last summer.

Roger Conibear, headteacher at her school, Denbigh School, in Milton Keynes, said Frances had always managed to juggle academic work with a wide range of interests. "She's rather normal," he said. "She loves sport and plays an instrument. She's just extremely bright. She is very friendly but definitely knows what she wants out of life. It's exceptional for someone to get 15 GCSEs. For all of them to be starred is even more exceptional."

Tony Neal, headteacher of De Aston School, in Market Rasen, Lincolnshire and past president of the Secondary Heads Association, said that many students thrived on the challenge of extra exams

"There's no need for anybody to be taking a large number of GCSEs," he said. "But for some bright youngsters it gives them a challenge that they enjoy. But I am sure the inspectors are right and some young people miss out on some extra-curricular activities.

"At my school, nine or 10 GCSEs would be the norm. But we offer some extra subjects 'off timetable', such as dance GCSE after school and Latin at lunchtimes. That isn't about getting people to do 12 or 13 subjects; it's about enabling them to choose from a wide range of courses."

Schools that had experimented with schemes to push the brightest students to take GCSEs a year early and move on to AS-level courses at 16 were "generally uncertain" about the merits of this approach. Some were planning to abandon this approach, saying pupils were becoming overloaded by the demands of AS-level modules on top of their remaining GCSE subjects.

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