Most schools are extending GCSE teaching into key stage 3, with a minority even beginning courses in Year 7, a new study shows.
In the survey by the NEU teaching union, which questioned 750 GCSE teachers, nearly two-thirds of respondents – 63 per cent – reported that their school started GCSE teaching in their subject before Year 10.
Some 61 per cent said their school began GCSE courses in Year 9, while 1 per cent reported that courses began in Year 8, with another 1 per cent starting GCSE teaching as early as Year 7. Just 35 per cent of teachers reported that their school began GCSE teaching in Year 10.
The decision to extend GCSE teaching into lower year groups, effectively “squeezing” the curriculum time devoted to key stage 3, is controversial.
Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary at the NEU, suggested that increased content in reformed GCSEs was behind the trend.
Schools starting GCSE study early
"This means that pupils make their choices in Year 8, when they’ve had fewer than five terms’ experience of learning, particularly in subjects such as design technology, MFL and the separate humanities," she said.
"This both narrows the curriculum and increases pressure on children who are only 12 to make decisions that they are told are vital to their future lives and careers.”
There have been fears that Ofsted could penalise the practice under its new inspection framework.
The watchdog's new inspection handbook says that if a school has shortened key stage 3, “inspectors will look to see that the school has made provision to ensure that pupils still have the opportunity to study a broad range of subjects, commensurate with the national curriculum, in Years 7 to 9”.
And Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman has previously said that: “The GCSE tests are designed to cover two years’ worth of content. It is hard to see how taking longer than two years could expose pupils to more knowledge and not more test preparation.”
But some heads feel that giving pupils more time to absorb GCSE content is beneficial, especially in subjects such as science, where it leaves more time for practicals.
The NEU survey is only the latest evidence of how widespread the practice has become.
Last year a survey by the Association of School and College Leaders found that 56 per cent of their members had entered pupils early for GCSE, while a Department for Education survey suggested the figure could be up to 72 per cent.
Mark Lehain, director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence campaign, argues that starting GCSEs early means that pupils lose out to the breadth of knowledge they are entitled to.
"The best way to help pupils do well at 16 is to ensure they get maximum exposure to a well-sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum throughout primary and key stage 3, not squeeze things out and start GCSE topics sooner," he said.
"This is also the right thing to do in terms of their cultural entitlement. Better quality learning, not simply more time, is the key to everything."
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have specifically designed the national curriculum so that Key Stage 3 is an important part of preparing pupils for GCSEs.
“Schools are free to decide how to teach the curriculum, but it should cover a broad and balanced range of subjects to ensure children are ready for study at Key Stage 4 and beyond.”