TWO of the country's most academically successful private schools plan to stop entering pupils early for maths GCSE. Their move comes at an uncomfortable time for the Government, which is pressing state schools to accelerate bright pupils through exams.
An increasing number of students are taking public exams early. Nearly 45,000 pupils took at last one GCSE before the rest of their cohort in 1999, compared to just over 30,000 in 1996.
This summer, about a hundred 11-year-olds sat maths GCSE as part of the Government's gifted and talented programme.
Both David Hargreaves, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and Nick Tate, his predecessor, now headmaster of Winchester, have expressed support for early exam entry. But King Edward's school in Birmingham and St Paul's school in London, boys' schools that regularly appear at the top of the exam league tables, are now rethinking early entry in maths.
Roger Dancey, chief master of King Edward's, said that the school had decided it was better to extend work beyond GCSE, but still take the exam at 16 than to accelerate pupils through the public exam and leave them without a maths course in Year 11.
He backed a proposal from Tony Gardiner, past president of the Mathematical Association (and father of one of his pupils), to introduce a harder maths GCSE that able pupils could sit alongside the stndard one.
Mr Dancey said he was not against pupils taking GCSEs in Year 10 followed by a three-year run-up to A levels. "Even in a highly selective school like this, the idea that all our pupils would be ready at 15 is just not realistic - there's so much material to cover."
Stephen Baldock, high master of St Paul's, said taking GCSEs early was demotivating for many pupils. He said: "We insist on maths being a core subject through to the end of Year 11. But when boys take GCSE early it's difficult to maintain the interest and commitment of those who have no intention of taking it for A-level." He stressed the need to maintain both breadth and depth and not to be constrained by the exam syllabus.
The Government focus on "hot-housing" bright youngsters has been criticised by the Mathematical Association, which claims accelerated learning has long-term disadvantages.
Other subject associations are equally unconvinced of the benefits of pushing pupils through exams early. Daniel Sanford-Smith, Association for Science Education curriculum manager, said early GCSEs could simply mean students dropped science at 15 instead of 16.
"Pupils are not getting the breadth of experience they need if they are rushed through," he said.
Anne Barnes, past chairman of the National Association for the Teaching of English, criticised the assumption that early GCSEs were a good thing. She said: "For English, history and geography, the maturity needed means assessment at 16 is about right."