Exclusive: Teacher 'unhappiness' as exams tighten their grip on the curriculum

YouGov poll reveals teachers' and parents' damning views on the narrowed curriculum in schools today

John Roberts

School leaders welcome Ofsted's plan to focus on curriculum

The majority of both teachers and parents believe that the pressure on schools to deliver good exam results is increasingly leading to a narrowing of the curriculum.

A new poll also shows that four out of five teachers find that delivering an exam-centred curriculum makes their job less enjoyable.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that government obsession with exam rigour was “turning secondary school education into a long grind towards GCSEs”.

These new findings come amid controversy about the number of schools that run three-year GCSE courses and concerns among some school leaders about whether Ofsted will penalise schools that cut back on key stage 3.

The YouGov poll shows that three-quarters of teachers and three-fifths of parents believe schools have offered a more restricted curriculum over the past three years than previously.  

There was little doubt among respondents about what was to blame, with 92 per cent of the teachers and 76 per cent of the parents citing the pressure placed on schools to deliver good exam results.

Of all teachers questioned, 90 per cent think too many schools are pressuring teachers to concentrate on an exam-driven syllabus to the exclusion of the wider curriculum.

Most teachers working in primary (89 per cent), secondary (73 per cent), and all through schools (82 per cent) said that a focus on exam and test results added to a feeling of unhappiness about their job.

School leaders have blamed the accountability system for putting too much pressure on them to deliver results.

Stephen Tierney, chairman of the Headteachers’ Roundtable group, said: “In England the accountability system wags everything else.”

Mr Tierney, who is also chief executive of the Blessed Edward Bamber Multi Academy Trust, added: “The issue isn’t SATs or GCSEs per se; the greatest issue is what happens as a consequence of the exams with respect to Ofsted and a lesser extent the performance tables.”

The poll of more than 900 teacher and 1,000 parents of children under 18 also shows that:

  • Seven in 10 teachers (71 per cent) are concerned that teaching a more restricted curriculum has a negative impact on classroom behaviour.
  • Two-thirds of teachers (65 per cent) said parents ought to be worried about children being moved onto a so-called "GCSE flight path" too early, with almost as many parents (61 per cent) agreeing. 
  • Eighty-seven per cent of teachers and 76 per cent of parents believe teaching pupils a more rounded curriculum from a younger age would better prepare children for later academic success.
  • Ninety-one per cent of teachers and 78 per cent of parents believe teaching pupils a more rounded curriculum from a younger age would better prepare children for life after school.
  • Almost eight in 10 (78 per cent) think a restricted curriculum does not address children who develop at a later stage than their peers.
  • Similar proportions say it is bad for pupils who have minor learning difficulties (71 per cent), those who have switched off from school because of earlier experiences of exams (72 per cent), those with behavioural problems (61 per cent), or children with latent but not obvious potential (55 per cent).

The research, carried out by YouGov, also showed that more female (86 per cent) than male (73 per cent) teachers believe that a focus on exam results and grades adds to feelings of professional frustration.

The findings, published in a new report – Dangerous diet: how exam rations endanger a broad and balanced curriculum – from GL Assessment, also suggest that there would be widespread support amongst teachers if their senior leadership team were to make the curriculum in their school about more than final exam results.

The poll shows 56 per cent of teachers said that they would support such a move, while 32 per cent saying that they would oppose it.

Three-quarters of headteachers questioned also agreed they would be supportive of a move to make their school less fixated on exam data.

Next week Ofsted is set to launch a consultation on a new inspection framework which will give greater weight to the school curriculum and what is taught rather than just exam results.

Its plans have been described as a shot across the bows for schools that are gaming the system.

Ofsted has also previously warned that some schools are narrowing the curriculum in order to give more time for exam preparation.

ASCL has told Tes that around 50 per cent of its members currently run three-year GCSEs.

ASCL’s accountability and inspection specialist Stephen Rollett said there were concerns among some headteachers about how this approach would be judged by Ofsted under its new framework.

Greg Watson, chief executive of GL Assessment, has warned against starting pupils on GCSE content too early.

He said: “Is there anything more demoralising for a child than to face a test they cannot hope to pass? Yet that is exactly what starting a child on a GCSE flightpath at Year 7 involves. 

"Assessment for children at the start of their secondary school education shouldn’t be focused on measuring GCSE subject knowledge but on skills like their reading comprehension, numeracy and problem-solving. It should be used to build up the foundations of learning – not to knock down their confidence or present them with a challenge most are not yet ready to meet.”

The Department for Education has been approached for comment.

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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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