INCREASING numbers of students are taking A-levels and GCSEs early, according to new figures released by the Department for Education and Employment.
Nearly 45,000 pupils took at least one GCSE early last summer, compared to just over 30,000 in 1996. Nearly 6 per cent of GCSE candidates sat the exam before they were 15 in 1999, compared to 3.7 per cent in 1996. But the number of students taking A-levels early has risen much more slowly, up to nearly 8,500 last year compared with more than 7,500 in 1996.
The age of the youngest exam-takers also appears to be dropping. In 1999 an eight-year-old sat a GCSE, while a nine-year-old was the youngest child to sit the exam in 1996, according to DFEE figures.
The record could be broken this summer as several six-year-olds have sat GCSEs in information technology and are now waiting for their results.
An 11-year-old was the youngest pupil to sit an A-evel last summer but the youngest candidate in the past four years was a nine-year-old who sat an A-level in 1997.
The numbers of bright children taking exams early is likely to increase rapidly from 2001 because of a pound;30,000 government pilot to encourage primary pupils to take GCSEs.
Around 500 nine and 10-year-olds will be picked to start the maths GCSE course in September.
They will get extra lessons outside school hours and sit the exam in 2001 - before they leave primary school.
If the pilot scheme is successful it will be widened to all schools. Children who pass the GCSE while at primary school could then be "fast-tracked" into A-level.
In May, Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, who takes over as head of Winchester College in September, told the Independent Schools Council conference that more pupils should take GCSEs early.