There were some concerns raised in the press recently regarding schools entering students for GCSE exams early, i.e. at the end of Year 10, rather than at the end of Year 11. As a Headteacher I can see both sides of the argument, but it’s a fence I’ve certainly jumped off most years. Every year I’ve entered students early for exams because I’ve felt it was the right thing to do for the students in question, however perhaps this is a good time to re-evaluate my position.
Why do schools enter students early for exams?
Before exploring the different reasons, it’s worth noting that students can be re-entered for exams multiple times. For example, a Year 10 student can be entered for a maths GCSE in June of Year 10, November of Year 11 and June of Year 11. It’s an expensive thing to do as there are exam fees each time, however many schools feel it is worth it.
The reasons schools give for entering students can vary. For example:
- There are more opportunities to pass or improve results. Sitting the exam multiple times, does run the risk of the student becoming demoralised if they don’t gain their target grade, however the students sit mock exams and practice papers several times over the course of Key Stage 4 and schools cope with any perceived failure, by ensuring that the students understand they are on a learning journey: “You may not have done as well as you’d have hoped to this time, however the exam was an opportunity to identify areas you found difficult. We now have time to improve upon these before the next exam”.
- It is good practice for the students who not only sit the exams in exam conditions (well organised mock exams can do this), but the paper is marked by external markers the grade set measured against the performance of all other students nationally. No matter how many mock exams a student sits, there is nothing like the real thing for practice. The exam provides feedback in a national context, allowing both the student and school to gauge how they are performing against others nationally and to clearly identify the areas where they need to improve.
- If students pass it frees up time for students to focus more time on their other subjects the following year, or possibly even new subjects. In Wales, we have a ‘tightly packed’ curriculum offer. The difference between Key Stage 4 in Wales and in England is that in addition to the curriculum England offers, in Wales, students also sit Welsh language and the Skills Challenge (part of the Welsh Baccalaureate). Granted the Skills Challenge can be completed as part of a cross curriculum package, but this still takes time away from those subjects. The upshot of this is that any opportunity to free up more time for subjects will increase the students’ chances of passing other subjects. For example, some students will be targeted to get a C grade in maths and English. In these cases, if we can get a student through the maths exam in June or November to achieve a C grade or better, then following discussion with the parent and students, we can give more time to the English exam (which doesn’t have the same early entry opportunities) before the June exam in Year 11. In short, I’d rather the student gains a C grade in both English and maths, rather than a B grade in maths and a D grade in English.
- Some students ‘switch-off’ in Year 11. Personal circumstances can change very quickly and so it is better to enter the student early rather than run the risk of ‘losing’ them in Year 11. Every year we identify students who we know are still on board, but have signs of beginning to either buckle under the pressure or who have circumstances in their lives out of school which are beginning to draw them away from their studies. In these circumstances, any opportunity to sit an exam is advantageous to the pupil, especially if they have a chance of passing.
All of the above are student centred reasons for sitting exams early. Those against early entry argue that it is not always in the best interest of the student and that some schools are “gaming” the exam system. The main arguments against early entry are:
- Some students are not yet ready to sit an exam in Year 10. They may not do as well as they’d hoped and become demoralised and possibly give up.
- If a student gains a C grade in Yr 10, the school may not then enter the student again in order to gain a higher grade, instead go on to focus on other exams.
- The end of Year 11 is the time we have traditionally examined students. Shouldn’t all students be measured at this time in order to create a level playing field within which to measure student and school attainment?
Whichever side of the fence you fall on what is without question is that we ensure whatever is done, is done in the best interests of the students first and foremost. Most schools do this and if legislation was brought in to prevent schools from entering some or even all students early, then it would leave us in danger of not meeting the needs of all our students.
What we perhaps need are some guidelines/protocols to follow in order to ensure consistency amongst schools. Based on questions such as:
- Does the school ensure students and parents are clear about the target your child has and whether or not they are on track to achieve this? You should have a predicted grade which tells you what your child will attain if they continue to work as they are at present. This will help you when you and your child discuss with the school next steps with regards to exams.
- Will the child have the opportunity to sit the exam again if all parties (parents, student and school), believe they would gain a higher grade? If one of the parties believes this is the case, then the child should sit the exam again.
- Is there a clear educational rationale for a student not being given the opportunity to sit the exam again? Again discussion, discussion, discussion between all parties concerned.
- How will the school support a student who doesn’t do as well as expected following an early entry?
As a parent, if you are worried about your child being entered early, discuss it with your school and ask some of the questions above. This is a far bigger topic than time here allows, and needs further debate, however for the meantime, I’m still sitting on the same side of the fence.