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'U-turn if you want to. But don't disrupt our learning'

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I hate July. Or to be more precise, I hate the few weeks that lead up to the summer holiday in July. Tempers fray, staff and pupils have had enough and there is always too much to sort out in too little time. In the words of Eddie Cochran: “There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues”.

School leaders could be excused for thinking that the summertime blues have got worse this year. The top-down approach that all parties agreed was a bad idea during the general election seems to have made what I hope is a temporary comeback now that the election is over.

Over the past few weeks, I have been leading a series of regional conferences and so have had a chance to gauge the mood among members of the Association of School and College Leaders. I would say that from a series of ill-judged announcements, it is the one over legacy GCSEs that has caused the most alarm and anger among my colleagues.

Why should it matter so much that an exam taken in Year 10 under the old version of the GCSE no longer counts if the new version is available in Year 11?

To start with, it is the worst sort of U-turn. Leaders quite reasonably believed the government when they said that it was fine to take exams early. My own school has operated this model for the past five years. When pupils complete RE in Year 10, time is freed up in Year 11 to devote to English and mathematics. So a curriculum model that supports the government’s own focus upon core subjects has been needlessly undermined, simply because ministers have changed their mind.

Secondly, it demonstrates a profound lack of trust. The DfE's assumption is that the old GCSEs will be easier, and so schools will use them to game the system. Children’s education and curriculum models, which have been carefully constructed over a series of years, have been wrecked by a misguided view that schools are up to something.

Thirdly, it undermines the government’s own priorities. RE is likely to be hardest hit by the policy U-turn, yet Ofsted has identified RE as key to teaching British values and combating radicalisation. Through ill-grounded suspicion, the DfE is damaging precisely the area of school life that it should be promoting.

The key point emerging from all of this is that students are being needlessly penalised as a result of an unnecessary policy U-turn.

There is an easy solution. We have no problem with the policy being implemented after 2019, when reformed GCSE courses will be available to teach to students in Year 10. However, 2018 should be regarded as a transitional year, where both old and new versions of GCSE specifications count in performance tables. That was the previous position of the government and they should have stuck to it.

I have one more school week to go as ASCL president and, as I finish my term, I can see lots of reasons to be optimistic about the future. However, it is vital that DfE listens to the voice of school leaders over legacy GCSEs. Trust, not top-down, has to be the way forward.

Peter Kent is president of the Association of School and College Leaders, and head of Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby


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