Leading article: Children should have the choice

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The Independent Online

Some people are highly intelligent as well as extremely academic; for the very bright GCSEs are not that difficult. So, why not let them take what they want?

Why do some children collect GCSEs like Beanie Babies? Who knows. Maybe they genuinely are interested in 12 subjects. Maybe, as head teachers said in The Independent this week, they need the challenge. Whatever the reason, Ofsted is worried. Its inspectors have warned schools that bright teenagers should not be pushed to study too many GCSEs because it can add to their stress levels. Some children can actually find themselves out of their depth and losing confidence fast as they try to juggle a dozen subjects with a social life and some extra-curricula activities. They are, after all, going to encounter plenty of stress in their sixth-form years taking all those AS and A-levels, so there's no point in introducing more angst at a younger age than is necessary.

Eight or nine GCSEs are enough, according to Ofsted. That number of subjects is a perfectly adequate foundation for the brightest students to move on to A-levels. And it is enough to have a string of eight or nine As and A*s with which to impress university admissions officers. Indeed, Ofsted thinks that there is no clear benefit to teenagers in studying 10 or 12 subjects. Students told the inspectors that they were not as involved in hobbies and out-of-school activities as they wanted to be.

While we agree with the inspectors that squeezing out extra-curricular activities is undesirable, we believe at the same time that many students enjoy the challenge of taking an extra subject or two - whether to follow an interest such as graphics or drama or music, or simply to keep their options open.

The Government has already changed the regulations governing school league tables - by only counting a students' best eight grades towards a school's average GCSE point score - to stop schools trying to improve their ranking by entering teenagers for excessive numbers of exams. So schools have no vested interest in sticking their pupils in for more exams to burnish their academic reputation.

Forcing students into extra courses just to improve the school's standing is obviously misguided. However, being too dogmatic about what is "the norm" for the number of GCSEs to take fails to recognise that every student is different and needs the freedom to study the subjects that appeal to them. Some people are highly intelligent as well as extremely academic. For the very bright GCSEs are not that difficult. So, why not let them take what they want?

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