Headteachers critical of new rules on exam entries

New rules to prevent schools from “gaming” the exam system to improve their league table ranking will force secondary schools across England to quickly redraw plans for their pupils’ GCSE entries, according to headteachers.

Citing concern at the rising number of pupils taking the same exam papers a year or more earlier than normal – which Michael Gove branded as cheating by schools – the Department for Education has announced that pupils resitting the same GCSE paper will only have the grade of their first attempt counted in calculating school league tables.
Secondary schools across England will have to hurriedly alter their plans for GCSE entries after the abrupt change in policy was outlined by Gove in an interview with the Sunday Times.

Gove said: “The school is in effect gaming the system by not thinking what is in the best interests of the student but using the student as a means of gathering points so the school itself can look better, and that is, in a word, cheating.”

The education department said in its announcement: “The change will mean schools will only enter students for an exam when they are confident the student has the best opportunity to succeed.”

For schools preparing to enter pupils in GCSE exams in November, Gove’s announcement may mean an about-turn that will see many schools withdraw pupils who have not previously taken GCSEs, and re-enter them again for summer exams when they may be better prepared.

The change will not apply to pupils who have previously completed GCSE exams, whose best grades will continue to count towards a school’s pass rate.

According to the DfE, only the first GCSE grade awarded would count towards league table rankings for schools. But by entering pupils in different series of exams – such as those administered by different examination boards – the previous policy of a pupil’s best grade in the same subject would be used. In that scenario, a pupil sitting GCSE English could take papers with different boards such as AQA or OCR in a series, and have multiple attempts to gain a pass mark that counts in school league tables.

“They’re going to create a crazy cluster entry at the end of year 11 with different boards if they aren’t careful,” said one headteacher, who did not want to be named.

A DfE spokesman said the policy was aimed at stopping schools entering pupils a year or more early for GCSEs, in the hope of getting a pass mark.

Gove said on Sunday: “The evidence shows that candidates who enter early perform worse overall than those who do not, even after resits are taken into account. It seems likely that candidates are being entered before they are ready, and ‘banking’ a C grade.”

School leaders said there were legitimate reasons for entering pupils early, and that this could cause schools to hold back bright students whom they would otherwise have entered a year early. “Most schools that use early entry are acting in the best interests of students. Many use early entry and then move students on to higher level papers or higher level qualifications,” a school leader from Yorkshire said.

Brian Lightman, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the change would pile “pressure and stress” on to students. He said: “We have repeatedly warned about the damaging effects of piecemeal changes to the qualifications system. It is grossly unfair to make changes like this when courses are already under way. This is adding pressure and stress to students in the most important year of their education. Whatever the rights and wrongs of early entry, students, teachers, parents and employers just do not know where they are in the context of constant tinkering with examinations.”

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