I welcome the government’s call for Ofsted to take a closer look at the impact of early examination taking on students. It is all too often assumed that acceleration of examinations is a positive thing. Many parents see it as a sign that their children are doing well at school and often it is assumed that getting one or two exams ‘out of the way’ early will help students to achieve well in their other subjects. There may be some surface appeal in this and pragmatically one may think that this will have a positive outcome but our experience shows differently and, far more importantly, this approach misses the depth and range perspective on education. The stated aim of our school is to educate, not to act as an examination factory with a focus on the accumulation of a string of qualifications over several years.
There is another fundamental issue with taking GCSEs early and that is, once the examination is taken, it is likely that the study of that subject will stop altogether. After all, surely the advantage of getting one ‘out of the way’ early, is to allow more time for studying for other examinations? If a student is advanced enough in a subject to take it a year early, it is possible that this is a subject they enjoy and have a talent for and that a year’s break from study before they potentially take it up again in the sixth form will be a year wasted, acting as a real barrier to learning. Indeed the student may even slip backwards. This is particularly pertinent with subjects such as mathematics and languages.
One final point to consider when deciding whether students should take GCSEs early is the emotional pressure inevitably placed on them by examinations. Under the current system, every year from Year 11 students will take public examinations. Adding early GCSEs merely extends this particular rite of passage and offers no relief before a student moves into Higher Education. Seemingly endless examination years can have a truly negative effect on the very real joy students can discover in learning.
Given such compelling reasons for not entering students early for GCSEs, why do so many maintained and independent schools do so? I believe one reason why some schools encourage the early taking of GCSEs is to allow students the opportunity to retake examinations the following year if they don’t achieve their desired grade first time around. If the school’s imperative is to do well in the national league tables, then this strategy makes sense but I don’t believe it is necessarily in the students’ best interests.
For all these reasons, I will always advocate depth and range over speed.