Children are being asked to select their GCSE options in their second term at secondary school, Tes can reveal.
At one school in Shropshire, pupils have to submit their choices in the Easter term of Year 7, so they can start studying their GCSE subjects in Year 8.
A presentation from Thomas Telford School tells parents that GCSE covers ages 12-16 – two years longer than the qualification was originally supposed to be.
Ofsted’s national director for education, Sean Harford, said the approach was “depressing” and might prevent pupils getting a broad and balanced curriculum.
The news follows an investigation by Tes last month, which revealed that in some schools pupils are being drilled with GCSE-style tests from the age of 11 – five years before they are due to take their actual GCSE exams.
Tes has obtained a GCSE options presentation for Thomas Telford School. The slideshow informs parents that "Year 7, 8 and 9 are recognised as the ‘lost years’” and that “Year 10 and 11 are too short to study GCSEs”.
The presentation says that pupils have “advised” the school that “they would have preferred to start options in Year 8”. As a result, pupils at Thomas Telford “will have four rather than three years to study courses”.
It states that Year 7 pupils at the school have to return their preference forms saying what GCSEs they would like to study on 19 March, although 9 June is set as the “final date for any alterations”.
The presentation goes on to say that GCSE covers ages “12-16”.
After Tes brought the case to Ofsted’s attention, Mr Harford tweeted last night: “Depressing example identified of a school making pupils choose GCSE options at the end of Y7.
“Really hard to see how this can provide a [broad and balanced] curriculum or how it can be good for pupils, even when ‘pupil performance’ is being ‘maximised’ as claimed.”
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, suggested that the high-stakes accountability system surrounding exam results might be driving schools to start preparing their pupils for GCSEs at an earlier stage.
He said he could not comment specifically on Thomas Telford, and that “school leaders are the best people to make a decision about their curriculum”.
But he added: “This may well be a sign of the pressure on some schools who feel that accountability is weighing far more heavily than it ought to.
“It must be up to leaders to make the decision in their own context, but nationally we have to do everything we can I think to stop examinations dominating the world.”
Asked whether he would have adopted a similar approach when he was a secondary head, Mr Barton replied: “I think it would be unusual for young people to be making that decision in Year 7.
“Logistically, as a head I would be thinking well ‘they’ve only recently arrived in the school, they won’t have had a lot of experience of the subjects they might be opting for.’”
Sir Kevin Satchwell, the headmaster of Thomas Telford, defended the approach, which he said the school had been running for two years.
“We asked the students if they would prefer to take their options earlier, and by a huge majority they said yes,” he told Tes.
“So we ran a pilot programme and evaluated the student’s responses after one year with overwhelming positive feedback.”
Sir Kevin said that there had been “no narrowing of the curriculum”, because Thomas Telford offered a longer school day which included “additional extensive enrichment programmes” at the end of the day.
“I see no evidence of narrowing and would suggest that the curriculum is wide, broad and balanced,” he added.
Thomas Telford School came to national prominence at the start of the century with a series of impressive GCSE results and some controversial entrepreneurial activity.
The school made a profit of £6.7m in just over two years from 2000, from selling a series of online courses to schools, which critics claimed were mainly about climbing league tables.
The school's most popular course, taken by 700 schools, was for pupils taking a full intermediate general national vocational award in information and communications technology. Passing this course was deemed by the government to be worth the same, for GCSE league table purposes, as getting four GCSEs at A* to C.