Thousands more pupils on fast track to GCSEs

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Thousands of schoolchildren will be sitting their GCSE exams up to two years ahead of schedule this summer.

Thousands of schoolchildren will be sitting their GCSE exams up to two years ahead of schedule this summer.

Figures obtained by The Independent show a marked rise in the number of pupils being "fast-tracked" through GCSE exams. They reveal a 20 per cent rise last year with the numbers going up to nearly 27,000. They are expected to top the 30,000 mark (1 in 20 pupils taking the exam) this summer.

Most will sit one or two papers, one or two years early with maths and technology the likeliest subjects for fast-tracking. However, one of the secondary schools pioneering fast-tracking is extending the project to take in modern foreign languages.

Fir Vale Comprehensive in Sheffieldhas had a name change under the Government's Fresh Start Initiative, where schools get a new head, new staff and a new name in an effort to bury their disappointing past. The renamed school "inherited" some of the worst exam results in the country but will now see 20 pupils taking GCSE exams two years early.

The school has a large ethnic minority intake (only 77 of its 659 pupils are white British with the largest ethnic minority group being Pakistani) and staff decided that, if pupils could learn English as a second language ­ with a different tongue spoken at home ­ they could also more easily learn a third or fourth language.

This year 20 of Fir Vale's 14-year-olds are sitting a modern languages GCSE. Half of them will be taking French and the rest Urdu. Jenny Westby, head of languages at the school, said: "They are so used to hearing different languages they can pick up a new language very quickly and the fact they are taking a GCSE a full two years ahead really does inspire them in learning other subjects."

Next year the programme will be expanded with 50 pupils taking their GCSE exams at 14. The school has also arranged for pupils to study a range of other languages at GCSE, such as German, Russian, Dutch, Portuguese and Bengali.

Hugh Howe, headteacher of Fir Vale, added: "It's a question of recognising the strength of their knowledge of their mother tongue. If they are making that kind of progress in Urdu and Arabic, why don't we find some way of ... using their ability to enhance their learning of a second, third or possibly fourth language?

"Three years ago many people were questioning the validity of giving the school on this site a fresh start. We adopted a motto 'make dreams a reality' and ... I think we have helped make some of these youngsters' dreams real."

The school has seen its GCSE results overall steadily improve from just 8 per cent getting five top-grade passes in the last summer before it re-opened to 17 per cent last year. This summer's target is 20 per cent. It now has 620 pupils, 250 more than it had when it first opened as a Fresh Start school.

One of the pupils taking French at 14, Natasha Mudiusa, only arrived at the school just over 12 months ago not speaking a word of the language. Natasha, who had learnt the Shona and Ndebele dialects in her native Zimbabwe alongside English, said: "It was quite complicated to learn French at first but I find German quite easy." Last week she sat her French oral exam.

Vikas Din, also aged 14, who is also taking French this summer, added: "The teacher just made it interesting and come alive. It made me more interested in other subjects."

The 20 are sitting their GCSEs at the same time as doing National Curriculum tests for 14-year-olds in English, maths and science.

A spokesman for David Blunkett, who as Secretary of State for Education implemented the drive to increase the number of pupils taking exams early, said he expected those numbers, which have gone up from 19,196 in 1998 to 21,443 in 1999 and to 26,956 last year, to continue to rise.

Some education experts warn against fast-tracking because they believe it can lead to unhappiness if children have to work alongside older pupils. But ministers have pointed out that almost all fast-track pupils remain alongside students of their own age for the majority of their lessons.