Are exams devouring the secondary curriculum?

24th August 2018 at 00:00
Will Hazell asks whether the hothousing of ever-younger students for their GCSEs is denying children a broad-based education and potentially harming their mental health in the process

There were familiar scenes of jubilation and dejection yesterday as teenagers across the country received their GCSE results.

Many of those results were for “new” GCSEs – courses that are tougher, cover more content and allow greater differentiation between candidates via a 9-1 grade system.

The toll these reformed exams have taken on students is already well known. Over the summer, there were reports of teenagers having panic attacks during their revision and bursting into tears after leaving the exam hall.

But what is less well-documented is the pressure that is seeping from GCSEs into the lower secondary years.


\Tes has found that exam boards are producing GCSE-style test papers for children as young as 11, so schools can begin drilling pupils for exams five years before they are due to sit them – a trend Ofsted’s chief inspector describes as “deeply worrying”. In one case, the growing exams culture has even meant an end to practical PE lessons from Year 9.

So with pupils also being tracked throughout key stage 3 using GCSE-style 9-1 grades – and being made to choose their GCSE options as early as Year 8 – are exams starting to swallow up the whole of secondary school and young people’s entire teenage years?

Keeping track

At least three of the major school exam boards are now marketing GCSE-style tests for KS3 students to schools looking to test children as young as 11.

For example, AQA produces a sourcebased English language paper for Year 7 pupils that is designed to be taken over one hour 45 minutes.

The paper comes with a 21-page mark scheme, which covers a total of six different assessment objectives.

They are not alone. Eduqas, part of the WJEC exam board, produces English language assessments for pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9. Pupils in Year 7 can sit a 40-mark, one hour 45 minute test on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which comes with a six-page mark scheme so teachers can put their pupils in one of five different bands across two different assessment objectives. Eduqas explicitly states on its website that “these resources have been designed to reflect the style of the GCSE in English Language (9-1)”.

Pearson, the education company that runs the Edexcel board, provides “Pearson Progression Services” – a service designed to help teachers assess progress from KS3 through to KS4 in a number of different subjects.

This includes end-of-term tests for high-, middle- and low-attaining students throughout KS3.

The rise of these tests has alarmed Ofsted. Amanda Spielman, its chief inspector, tells Tes: “It’s deeply worrying to see secondary schools being encouraged to teach children narrowly to tests right from age 11.

“This is cutting down children’s exposure to a full, rich curriculum and reinforces the idea that targets, predictions and data points are more important than the substance of education.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, agrees there’s “something dispiriting at the thought that for a child in Year 7 it has become a long five-year runway to their GCSEs in Year 11”.

The marketing of these GCSE-style tests for KS3 comes despite outspoken condemnation about the spread of GCSE courses into Year 9, from the heads of two of the exam boards involved.

So why are their organisations producing the tests? One reason seems to be demand. Victoria Flynn is an English adviser and inspector who works in the children’s services department of Hampshire County Council. She has seen a big increase, in her county and beyond, of schools using GCSE-style papers at KS3.

Flynn attributes this trend to the “total void” of information on how pupils should be tracked through KS3 following the government’s decision to abolish national curriculum levels in September 2014. “We had the removal of levels and I just don’t think schools were ready,” she says.

“All leaders want a sense of where the kids are, but how to translate that into meaningful information in a big organisation like a secondary school is where it becomes hugely problematic.”

In the absence of guidance, she says schools fell back on the only thing they knew. “A lot of schools went to a 9-1 system from Year 7 because I guess they didn’t know what else to use. The only criteria or any sense of standard that they had was GCSE.”

With teachers using a 9-1 system to track progress, Flynn suggests the exam boards spotted an opportunity to market GCSE-style tests for younger students.

“They have produced KS3 exam papers. What that gives the teacher then is a way of filling in that tracking document, because it gives you a number.”

The pernicious side-effect of this, she argues, is that it ends up skewing the curriculum.

“Obviously, if you’re being asked to use a GCSE paper in KS3 every half term, and you’ve got to show your kids are making progress, what you do is you teach to that. Then you get GCSE from Year 7.”

Chris Daye, a maths teacher who works in Solihull, has observed the same trend.

She recently left a school which she says graded each child based on the GCSE numbers and in effect ran a five-year GCSE course.

“If they’re using the GCSE grading, then Years 7, 8 and 9 are faced with GCSE questions. It’s narrowing their view of what maths is all about.”

She thinks the government’s rushed implementation of its curriculum and exam reforms has resulted in schools basically reinventing the discredited levels. “It’s actually just like the old levels, all that has happened is we’ve changed the numbers,” she says. “That wasn’t the idea behind having no levels.

“I don’t think as a profession we were given enough time to embed a new KS3 curriculum before the new GCSE. It all comes down to how rapidly everything was changed.”

But it’s not just the absence of guidance at KS3 which is fuelling this testing culture. Teachers and school leaders point the finger at the high-stakes nature of our accountability system which revolves around GCSEs at secondary level.

Barton says the “high-stakes nature of testing” in Year 11 “inevitably” pushes some schools to bring forward their GCSE teaching “to make sure that pupils are as well prepared as possible in order that the school does as well as possible”.

Emma Mort is a modern foreign languages teacher and the NEU teaching union NUT-section divisional secretary for Warwickshire. Speaking at the union’s annual conference in April, she caused headlines when she recounted how pupils were being made to study Macbeth in English for five consecutive years “because that is what is going to come up in their GCSE exams”.

“It’s just this big kind of game we’re all playing, because when the stakes are so high, then you play the game,” she tells Tes.

Mort has witnessed first hand this hothousing of KS3 pupils to prepare them for their GCSEs. She says that one department at her school sets students in Years 8 and 9 a test based on a GCSE paper.

“They give them a test – and I feel ashamed to say this is going on – they give the pupils the mark scheme and they mark it in class,” she says. “Then the pupils go away and learn the mark scheme, and they redo the test.”

The results are then held up to show how much the pupils have progressed. “Well they haven’t,” Mort says, bluntly. “They’ve just learned some answers to a test.”

Stress test

This is not the only example of schools getting pupils “GCSE ready right from the outset” that Mort has seen. She says at one school in Warwickshire, from Year 9 the majority of PE lessons now take place in the classroom to reflect the increased weighting given to exam assessment in the reformed PE GCSE.

“They don’t do practical PE anymore, it’s just in the classroom learning about PE because the GCSE is knowledge based,” she says. “It’s ridiculously depressing.”

Perhaps the most worrying side-effect of the ballooning of KS4 is the pressure being placed on pupils from an early age. Flynn says that when Year 7 pupils are given GCSE-style tests, they “are asked to do things they have not been taught to do”.

“They do badly, they find it hard, it’s just no good to anyone and hugely detrimental.”


She says she’s spoken to teachers who are “really upset” at having to put their students through this ordeal.

“Of course, it does put pressure on the children,” agrees Daye. Pupils and their parents want to see progression through the grades. “If they don’t do that, they get upset. I have seen some girls really crying over their results because they haven’t got that next step.”

The risk is that pupils can end up burning out by the time they get to their actual GCSE years.

“The more pressure you put on KS3, the more reluctant they’re going to be in Year 10 to learn,” Daye says. “They lose that enthusiasm for learning if we’re hothousing them in Year 7 and Year 8.”

Daye fears that we could be setting up a generation of young people with mental health problems. “They’re not ready to take that sort of pressure, they’re not old enough to take that pressure,” she says. “We’re building a group that are going to have serious mental health issues, especially when it comes to GCSE time.”

However, the exam boards that produce these KS3 materials insist there is a legitimate need for them, and that they do not contribute to pupil stress.

“A lot of teachers have asked us for help in bridging the gap from KS3 to KS4, so we produced these resources to help remove as much stress as possible from the step up to GCSE,” says Dale Bassett, AQA’s head of curriculum strategy.

Bassett argues that modelling these tests on the GCSE can actually alleviate stress. “The new GCSE is more demanding and students have to demonstrate more complex skills than in the past – so it’s natural that schools want to help young people develop these skills as early as possible.

“Our resources aren’t actual exams, they’re to help students become familiar with the look and feel of GCSE papers and the skills they’ll need to answer questions – all while they’re studying the normal KS3 curriculum.”

Board to tears?

A spokesperson for Eduqas says the board launched its KS3 resources last year “following requests from English teachers”, to introduce students to concepts at KS3 “which will enable them to progress to the GCSE”.

They add: “Assessment is a natural part of teaching and learning, which informs the next stages of learning.”

Pearson also denies its KS3 assessment materials add to stress. “Assessment is an important part of learning and the pressure associated with it stems from the consequence, not the assessment itself,” a spokeswoman says.

“The focus of these KS3 assessments is not on intensive high-pressure testing, but appropriate low-stakes approaches designed to sit alongside textbooks and other resources to support effective teaching and learning.”

Some teachers agree with the boards. Ramender Crompton, head of English at Dixons City Academy in Bradford – which uses the AQA resources – tells Tes: “The tests and resources are a great way to gradually introduce the idea of exams to our pupils and we’ve seen them become confident and comfortable with the language and style of GCSEs.

“As a result, they are unafraid of taking exams, and can even enjoy the experience. So for us the tests are the opposite of creating stress – they actually reduce it.”

However, Flynn questions how much the boards really know about KS3, and thinks some teachers are too quick to place their trust in them. When she challenged one teacher about their use of the tests, they responded by saying: “But the exam board have produced them – why would they produce them if they weren’t appropriate?”

“There’s this kind of trust in the exam boards as organisations,” Flynn continues. “I just don’t think the boards are aware of how detrimental this can be, because they’re KS4 exam people aren’t they? That’s what they know.”

So are 9-1 grades at KS3 and exams from Year 7 something we will just have to learn to live with?

It doesn’t have to be this way, Flynn believes. Her council has produced alternative “age-related” expectations that she thinks are much more appropriate at KS3.

And Mort points out that many private schools don’t use these sorts of tracking systems either. “I don’t think private schools are putting their kids through this – they’re teaching them.” As a “strong advocate for the state school system”, she says the difference in approach “breaks my heart”.

“For me, the whole problem is that our education system is based on numbers,” she adds. “You can’t possibly make progress unless it can be tracked on a spreadsheet.”


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