Investigation: Will Ofsted end three-year GCSEs?

Heads fear impact of inspectorate's 'ambiguous' plan to focus on schools that narrow the key stage 3 curriculum

A heads union has voiced fears that Ofsted inspections could mean schools stop three year GCSEs

A headteachers’ union fears that Ofsted’s new inspections will mean that schools will feel compelled to stop running three-year GCSEs.

The Association of School and College Leaders is concerned about how inspectors on the ground will interpret Ofsted’s “ambiguous” plans to focus on whether secondary schools are narrowing their key stage 3 curriculum.

An inspection expert has told Tes that if schools are made to "jump through extra hoops" to justify why they are running three-year GCSE courses then Ofsted will effectively be forcing schools to make a change.


Quick read: Inspection changes 'step in the right direction'

Heads: Fears that three-year GCSE will be penalised

Spielman: My hopes for the new inspection framework 


The concerns centre on a section of the watchdog’s new inspection handbook that says that where schools run longer GCSE courses inspectors will look to see if pupils still study a broad range of subjects in a shortened KS3.

Stephen Rollett, ASCL’s curriculum and inspection specialist, told Tes that Ofsted’s plan was ambiguous.

“This part of the framework will come down to how it is interpreted by inspectors, and our concern is that it should not in practice end up effectively being a route to prescription about the length of key stage 3," he said. 

“If inspectors go into schools with a genuinely open mind then all well and good. But if schools are having to jump through hoops under the gaze of a sceptical inspector it will add up to compulsion in all but name.”

ASCL says around half of its members lead schools that run three-year GCSE courses.

And a survey from the Department for Education published last year suggests around three-quarters of schools run key stage 4 across three years.

Ofsted has voiced concerns that extending GCSEs narrows the curriculum at key stage 3.

In 2017, the watchdog found that schools shortening KS3 meant “some pupils never study history, geography or a language after the age of 12 or 13”.

However, an investigation by Tes published today reveals that many schools believe a three-year GCSE allows them to offer a better curriculum to their pupils.

Carl Smith, the principal of Casterton College, in Rutland, says its approach gives pupils “ownership of their learning”.

He said: “By the end of Year 8 the vast majority are not only ready but very keen to place some emphasis on the parts of the optional curriculum that they enjoy most.”

Mr Smith fears that schools will switch to two-year GCSEs because of the focus of Ofsted’s inspections.

“I think some schools that are concerned about their inspection outcome will decide that if they continue with a three-year GCSE they will just risk leaving themselves open and they will change because of what they think Ofsted wants to see,” he said.

Ofsted's new inspection framework, to come into effect in September, has an increased focus on curriculum. Inspectors will look at the intent, implementation and impact of a school's curriculum as part of a new "quality of education" grade which will replace "teaching and learning" and "pupil outcomes" as inspection judgements. 

ASCL has welcomed the focus on curriculum and the creation of the new quality of education as a step in the right direction.

An Ofsted spokesperson said: “We do not have a preferred curriculum and it is for each school to decide how best to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum to their pupils. Our inspectors will consider the extent schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge they need to succeed.”

To read the full investigation into the future of GCSEs see the 24 May edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you