19 Aug '13

News The wisdom of sitting GCSE exams in the same subject twice is called into question

More schools are entering students for GCSE subjects twice with different exam boards – but how do teachers feel about this?

"It is all about the kids: they are the ones who we do this for. We have to do whatever we can as a school and as individual teachers to give them the best possible chances," says teacher James Smith of the strategies his school is using to improve its results.

This year, for the second year running, "borderline" students – those deemed to be at risk of narrowly missing C grades in English and maths – sat maths papers with both the Edexcel and the OCR boards, one after the other, on the same day.

The practice of "double entering" students for exams used to be rare. But with many schools under pressure to improve their grades, it appears to be on the rise. Figures from the exams watchdog Ofqual show that 15% of candidates sitting maths GCSEs were entered for more than one board last year, while the number of entries for the rival IGCSE English (favoured by independent schools and believed by some to be more challenging than the GCSE) soared from 18,000 to 78,000 this year – which may be a consequence of last year's GCSE English debacle, when thousands of children who took the exam received lower results than expected.

Ofqual, the government and even exam boards themselves have raised concerns that double entering – along with the more established practice of entering students for GCSE exams at the end of year 10 – could represent a testing overload for pupils.

While he concedes that the practice "stems, as always, from government pressure to increase attainment at GCSE, league tables and all the rest of it [other pressures on schools]," Smith says there is nothing wrong with what the school is doing. In the case of maths, the syllabus is similar for both exam boards, so there is very little extra work for the students.

In a school like his, which serves a working-class community, staff must do everything they can to close the achievement gap, Smith says. "You give pupils and parents a choice. What would you rather do: have two cracks at it, or just the one, and see how you get on? I guess most people would rather have a crack at both."

The PiXL (Performance in Excellence) club, a group of schools that work together to boost results and which has been criticised for encouraging double entry to GCSE and IGCSE, supports this view. Its founder, Sir John Rowling, said teachers opting for the IGCSE alongside the GCSE were just using "common sense" after grading problems last year had left many GCSE C grade pupils with Ds. More generally, he added: "I thought teachers were meant to boost pupils' performance. Our system gives pupils the best opportunity to make progress."

But others are doubtful. Jonathan Brown, an adviser on English with a large local authority, says the practice of sitting more than one exam in the subject means too much time is spent just on taking and preparing for GCSEs.

He says: "We are not just talking about the exams themselves, but mocks, too. An English teacher may have a group of year 11s for three hours a week. A big proportion of that is now being given over to the exams themselves, let alone preparing for them … our line as a local authority is that we may need to start speaking out in favour of pupils' need for an education, as well as exam results: this may help the schools raise grades, but is it really helping students in the long run?"

Michael Gordon, a former colleague of Smith's, agrees. He describes how pupils at his former school, part of a large academy chain, were taken out of lessons in other subjects for focused revision weeks in English or maths or both, ahead of early-entry exams in years 10 and 11.

He says: "We lost them for weeks [from his classes]. A week of English, maths and science, towards exam time. They would also do BTec coursework catch-up, with students being dictated to and copying down [what the teacher had written], though told to use their own words."

But spoonfeeding does pupils no favours in the long run, as children who receive excessive coaching for GCSE can struggle to make the jump to A-level, he says.

Rachel Davies, an English teacher, highlights practice which some argue can actually put students at a disadvantage. At her Norfolk school, some pupils are entered for GCSE English language and literature papers a year early (at the end of year 10) to allow them to concentrate on other subjects the following year. But pupils who reach their target are not always given the opportunity to resit later in the course and improve their grade.

Abbie Hargreaves, who teaches English at a Kent high school, adds: "Regardless of how intelligent a child is, they do mature through year 11, so a child who gets a C in year 10 may be capable of improving at least a grade."

Hargreaves believes putting children in for exams early is often more about impressing parents than doing the best for children. "Some schools use it as a selling point. They say they have an 'accelerated learning stream' for their most able students, but what they're really doing is putting children in for exams who aren't ready for them. I think that's really sad."

But while critical of such practices, Gordon says he can see why schools are tempted by double- or early-entry GCSEs. "There is definitely a fine line between what is maybe right and what is wrong. But I don't think this is much of a factor in how people are thinking."

Ofsted, which is very focused on exam result indicators, can be a particular pressure, he says. "I have seen the impact on staff of a school being in [Ofsted] special measures. It's a horrible environment, so I can see why [strategic approaches to boosting results] happens."

Davies adds: "The whole system is exam overload from the minute children enter school."

An Ofsted spokeswoman said: "Since September 2012, Ofsted inspectors have challenged the inappropriate use of early entry in schools and in March 2013 we published guidance for schools and inspectors on the practice.

"Ofsted found that some schools are using early entry as a way of raising overall standards. But others are not focused enough on developing and consolidating pupils' knowledge. For that reason, our inspectors will be critical when they are not convinced that schools are using early entry to allow pupils to achieve their full potential."

The Department for Education is reforming school accountability, with officials believing that proposed changes to GCSEs, including assessment by end-of-course exams only and the use of average point scores in league tables (rather than the measure of five A*-C grades), is likely to mitigate some of these effects.

But there is, as yet, no prospect of double entries for GCSEs and/or IGCSEs being stopped, and pupils will still be able to sit GCSEs early, as long as they take all papers together.

It is a worrying side-effect of an education system that is increasingly driven by exam results, says Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. "Schools are being driven towards focusing on performance indicators rather than what is in the best interests of the learner in the long term."

Names in this article, other than Brian Lightman and Sir John Rowling, have been changed

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