Ofsted vs MATs row: New research to assess 3-year GCSEs

Study will analyse impact of teaching GCSEs over three years after Ofsted and big academy chains clashed over the issue

Catherine Lough

Do three-year GCSE courses work? Ofsted has clashed with academy chains over the issue

A new study is to analyse the impact of teaching pupils GCSE content over three years – the subject of an ongoing row between Ofsted and multi-academy trusts.

Today the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) launched the new research, being run by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), which aims to find out “whether teaching GCSEs over three years is more effective than teaching them over two”.

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The issue has been a point of contention between the schools inspectorate and some high-profile leaders of multi-academy trusts.

Sir Daniel Moynihan and Martyn Oliver, chief executives of the Harris Federation and Outwood Grange trusts respectively, have criticised Ofsted's crackdown on three-year GCSE courses. They say they help to close the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their middle-class peers, describing how “great teachers in our trusts are helping disadvantaged and working-class children to attend elite universities”.

Do three-year GCSEs work?

In a blog for the inspectorate, Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director for education, stated that the watchdog was not necessarily against three-year GCSE courses, but stressed that schools must offer “their children a broad, rich curriculum”.

The EEF’s research will focus on the impact of extending key stage 4 study – the content assessed at GCSE – over three years instead of two.

“Traditionally the five years of secondary school have been split into a three-year key stage 3 (KS3) and a two-year key stage 4 (KS4),” a statement from the EEF said. “The first three years of secondary school typically involve a broader curriculum and prepare pupils for KS4 study, but don’t focus on content in the GCSE syllabus. The fourth and fifth years then cover a narrower curriculum of subjects (around 8-10) a pupil has chosen to take for GCSE.”

It noted that many schools now teach GCSE syllabuses over three years starting in Year 9, prompting concerns that the curriculum is narrowed too early and “means pupils may be less prepared for study at GCSE-level”.

The research will focus on the impact of three-year GCSEs and the breadth of curriculum on offer in schools. Every eligible secondary school in the country will be invited to take part in a survey on how they organise their key stage 4 curriculum, while hundreds of schools will take part in the study.

Narrowing the curriculum?

Professor Becky Francis, chief executive of the EEF, said: “Sometimes the findings of education research can seem quite distant from the day-to-day concerns of life in schools.

“School leaders and teachers make hundreds of decisions every year, all of which have an impact on their pupils, and it’s important that these studies focus on practical issues for schools – how best to deliver the curriculum in the senior years of schooling. The results will offer useful insights to help schools improve outcomes and better meet the needs of all pupils.”

Simon Rutt, head of statistics at NFER, said: “The length of key stage 4 in secondary schools is a topical issue in education at the moment. However, there is limited evidence about the relative impact on pupil attainment at the end of this period.

“We would actively encourage as many secondary schools as possible to participate in this important project by completing the survey sent to schools today, as we aim to represent the main practices currently taking place in schools across England.”



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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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