‘Why we must resist the lure of starting GCSE courses in KS3’

Starting GCSEs early might seem like a good way to prepare students for the exams – but not if it means depriving them of a well-rounded KS3 curriculum, says one director of English

Caroline Spalding

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Any secondary school English teacher worth their salt will want to ensure their key stage 3 students are well prepared for the rigours of the new GCSEs before they begin Year 10. But for some schools the answer to this has been to embrace a three- or four-year GCSE course with students beginning the ascribed programmes of study in Year 9, or even Year 8.

In English, this will mean that some students are asked to maintain close study of literary texts for periods of time far beyond that which takes place even at university level. Doctoral study might perhaps be the exception, but I’m yet to learn of a PhD dissertation that focuses on as small a range of literary texts as a GCSE course. 

If familiarity truly does breed contempt, then I pity the English teachers trying to incite these students to further revision ahead of their final Year 11 examinations.

Another implication of such an elongated approach to GCSE is the use of examination questions for KS3 assessment. In one school I visited recently, within their first term, Year 7 students were presented with a GCSE English Literature exam question. By term two, they were being asked to respond to GCSE English Language Paper 1 Question 4: a question so fiendish that AQA have just revealed the average Year 11 student only manages to score 8.6 marks out of 20. 

For me, this approach is woefully flawed: not only because if Year 7 students are ready for GCSEs then surely there’s something wrong with the standards being set for 16-year-olds, but also because what I suspect actually happens is intense scaffolding that nullifies the results of the assessment.

So is starting a GCSE course earlier than it was ever intended to be started really the way to ensure success at the end of Year 11? Or does this approach simply serve to further sideline the first years of secondary schooling, making the months spent before GCSE commences very much the ‘wasted years’ of education?

Too much, too soon?

For me, the answer is clear. Planned and taught well, KS3 is the vital bridge between childhood learning and the mature study of the young adult. It’s a time of both physical and emotional growth, when teenagers begin to define their own discrete identities and explore the less rosy aspects of modern life that they may well have been sheltered from in the primary classroom.

KS3 is a time to nurture critical thinking and reflection and move beyond the mechanics of writing, into the nuances of effect. It’s a time for young readers to explore pluralities of meaning and the way in which contexts impact on interpretation. It’s certainly not a time to be moving from one restrictive scheme of learning and assessment to another.

In my mind, it’s time secondary school English teachers embraced the freedoms the DfE has presented us with in Years 7, 8, and 9. We have the power to shape our own curriculum to ensure that all students are indeed well prepared for GCSE. Why on earth are we in such a rush to administer someone else’s vision of what high-quality English education is and can be? We perhaps need to have greater vision and confidence in our convictions.

And if English teachers don’t have the ability, time or will to innovate for themselves then a quick glance at a Twitter timeline will show you creativity in abundance, from Alex Quigley’s (@HuntingEnglish) KS3 curriculum – a whistle-stop chronological tour of literary history – to Lyndsey Caldwell’s (@MsCaldwell1) use of just two units a year to foster depth of analysis.

Don’t be tempted by the lure of the early start. Create a KS3 programme you can be proud of and save the exam board ascribed texts and exam questions for the students who should be studying them.

Caroline Spalding is associate senior leader and director of English at Tupton Hall School in Chesterfield. She tweets at @MrsSpalding

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