Testing times: GCSEs just became more flexible

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The Independent Online

The QCA (Qualifications Curriculum Authority) Futures project is freeing up the curriculum to enable pupils to take public examinations when they are ready for them, rather than when they have traditionally taken them. The two-year Key Stage 3 with SATs in Year 8 has led to more flexibility in the courses available to Year 9 pupils. This often means that courses for Year 9 pupils can take two or three years, depending on their aptitude and ability. It is not a question of garnering more and more GCSEs, but rather enabling pupils to find a highly personalised route through the learning pathways to Year 11 and beyond. Pupils need to be emotionally ready for early examinations, so their needs must be taken into account.

Early GCSEs have been around for about eight years. Often, pupils take just one or two subjects early where they have a particular talent and are able to develop it quickly. Starting a GCSE course early is not a goal for everyone or in every subject. In design and technology for instance, parents may find Year 9 pupils undertake a number of practical assignments that closely mirror the structure of the main design project in Year 10. Where a few pupils don't complete the demands of the course in Year 10 they have the option of doing it in Year 11.

In maths, Year 9 are often taught in sets, with all pupils building on their SAT level and covering topics in the run-up to starting higher-level GCSE. Generally, the pupil would need to be in the top groups to be considered for early entry, including AS-level for the most able pupils.

There should be frequent data and tracking checks to help support pupil progress. Parents often find that many schools use Cognitive Abilities Tests (CATs) to give statistical data and this helps support a student's choice of learning pathway, helping to minimise the drop-out rate. Subjects such as drama allow pupils much needed time to experiment and innovate. Pupils who can already speak a language often take it early, so that their workload in Year 11 is lighter. Pupils value the responsibility and independence that early entry gives them.

Pupils have to be supported through regular mentoring reviews with their form teachers, and if they begin to struggle then sometimes it is possible to allow them extra time for the course by returning to the current norm of taking it at 16, or they can have access to a peer mentor from an older year group. This is particularly successful in the early AS-level courses, where pupils have mentors from the sixth form.

Taking some exams early allows a pupil to manage their workload in Year 10 and 11, so that their efforts are targeted each year. A well-balanced programme of enrichment activities that keeps pupils thinking in an original and innovative way is also needed. Parents may also find that having done some subjects early, the choice of some electives bring a breadth and creativity to the final year of GCSEs. It might be a case of topping up ICT skills or taking part in an arts subject performance.

When a pupil reaches 16, parents should find that he or she has been encouraged to take examinations when they are ready for them, without extra pressure, and with any decisions regarding this taken by schools in consultation with parents. Taking their stronger subjects early can leave more time to develop skills and knowledge in their weaker areas.

Adrian Pitts is the assistant headteacher at Tonbridge Grammar School

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