'The three-year GCSE works for us - and here's why'

Amid speculation that Ofsted could clamp down on schools that extend key stage 4, one head explains the benefits

One headteacher attempts to justify her school's decision to extend key stage 4, so that pupils are studying for GCSEs for three years instead of two

As the profession winds itself up into a frenzy at the release of a new Ofsted framework, and any event with the word "curriculum" in the title is selling out faster than Aldi at Christmas, I start to wonder if we have lost our sense of perspective.

If I had a new year's resolution for the system, it would be to stop trying to homogenise a system that is, by design, full of beautiful complexity. I recently commented that Twitter felt like a tsunami of "one-size fits all" solutions to education. Specifically, can we stop making dramatic statements about key stage structures and curriculum design?

Before you judge, I applaud the greater rigour and deeper knowledge. There is ambition and aspiration in my staff and students linked directly to their subject, not to outcomes. Broadly, I view the reformed GCSEs and the renewed focus on what we deliver and why as “a good thing”.

However, this is not new; we started this conversation three to four years ago. Whilst others danced to the tune of performance measures chasing the latest “hot qualifications”, many thought long and hard about curriculum design, our students, our community and what we believed to be right. For us, that included a decision to structure a two-year KS3 with a three-year KS4.

Key stage 4 includes all statutory areas, including highly rated PSHE/careers education. Students opt for four other subjects to study to GCSE level or equivalent. The offer is broad and enables progression through to key stage 5 in all areas.

Two of the GCSE option choices run for two years with final exams at the end of Year 10 and the other two choices for three years with final exams at the end of Year 11. All courses have the same value and are allocated the same curriculum time.

More time for GCSEs 'means less stress'

Our curriculum is driven by our vision and values; the underlying motivation has always been linked to breadth, mental health and wellbeing. We frequently review with curriculum leaders in light of changing cohorts.

Students complete their full national curriculum entitlement at KS3 in all subjects taught discretely. Students are challenged and engaged from day 1. There is no behaviour dip or drop of standards.

Breadth and balance have historically been very important to our stakeholders who value the school's specialist performing arts legacy. Funding for this disappeared in 2011 but numbers studying arts-based subjects have remained high: typically, 80 per cent of students take one or two arts-based subjects.

Maintaining pathways to A level is a priority which would be seriously compromised by three options over two years. Equally, the profile of our students and rigorous careers guidance embedded within the options process mean that typically 65 per cent or more students follow an EBacc suite of subjects.

NHS East Sussex studies repeatedly show that the major health concern of young people in this locality is mental health and anxiety. Under current examination specifications, a Year 11 student sitting all their exams in four options and core in the same year would experience up to 30 exams in one summer. 

By structuring KS4 differently, this is alleviated and students stay calm, healthy and balanced whilst maintaining greater options for KS5. Student and parental feedback repeatedly tells us that staggering GCSE entries reduces workload and stress.

Over 90 per cent of Year 11 parents who completed a survey this month confirmed that they preferred four options spread over three years. This is particularly relevant with the removal of coursework and modular exams, which previously helped to balance the pressure.

Achievement and attainment are high; Year 10 outcomes are comparable with Year 11. Importantly for me, students have ownership of their destinations (with 70 per cent going on to our sixth form). They are happy, healthy individuals who, thanks to a rich wider curriculum, are equipped to be responsible future leaders.

However, the critical factor is that, while this is right for us, I absolutely understand why this model might not be right for others. With different priorities, different cohorts and different contexts, we might make different choices.

We will all see the new Ofsted framework through our own lens. I think early signs suggest some nuance and a desire for intelligent, informed conversation. Let’s hope that is the reality.

Therefore, might it be radical to suggest that we focus less on anxious polemic hyperbole about things that have not yet happened. To paraphrase: “School leaders and teachers should not make decisions about the curriculum based on a sense of what Ofsted or the shouty sections of Twitter wants to see."

Let’s break the cycle of homogeneity by sticking to what we do best: knowing and supporting both students and staff alike to make informed, intelligent decisions for our context and, hopefully, a calmer 2019.

Caroline Barlow is head of Heathfield Community College in East Sussex and a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable

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