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A period of calm and stability . . . . . . and another change in the rules

Bill WatkinBill Watkin, Operational Director SSAT, writes…

A new change to the rules, introduced on 16 June, means that schools with a condensed KS3, schools with a short and fat curriculum, and schools with an established practice of entering pupils for examinations early, are facing difficult decisions.

What is your school’s position? Please let us know below.



In her termly email to schools on 19 May this year, the Secretary of State committed to ‘a period of calm and stability to let the reforms of the past five years bed down.

In her response earlier this year to the workload challenge, in which some 44,000 teachers had detailed what additional administrative burdens they were experiencing, the Secretary of State promised, among other things, that there would be no more curriculum and assessment changes mid-academic year – unless it is absolutely necessary.

After the recent announcements, on 11 June by Nick Gibb, and on 16 June by Nicky Morgan, about the Ebacc being compulsory for all (except those with as yet undefined special educational needs), most of more than one and a half thousand school leaders expressed, in SSAT’s snap survey, the view that this was not something that would suit their schools and their pupils.

This was not feeling like a period of calm and stability. Not since the English GCSE results in 2012 has such a groundswell of opinion and concern been expressed and with such a high degree of unanimity.

And now we have a new issue that schools are unexpectedly having to address.

The issue is about whether or not legacy GCSEs can be counted in performance tables once the new GCSEs are in place. The difficulty for schools applies to the transition period, during which the new GCSEs are to be phased in.

The issue is about whether or not legacy GCSEs can be counted in performance tables once the new GCSEs are in place

The old, legacy, GCSEs are graded A* – G, while the new, reformed, GCSEs will be based on a new more challenging syllabus, will have a more stretching exam and will be awarded grades from 9 – 1.

This is part of an improvement strategy driven by the view, shared by many in both government and schools, that we must ever strive to raise the bar for all.

In an ‘Update to the types of qualifications to be counted in2017 school performance tables’, published in July 2014, the DfE set out the rules concerning the old version of GCSEs, and whether their grades would count when the new GCSEs are introduced.

In it, the DfE confirmed that legacy English and maths qualifications could not be counted in 2017 performance measures.

However, the DfE said that this only applied to English and maths, not to other subjects:

‘The exclusion of ‘legacy’ GCSEs from performance tables will apply only to English and maths, reflecting the weight placed on these qualifications in the new Progress 8 measure. . . We will continue to count achievements in ‘legacy’ GCSEs in all other subjects. This will allow schools to continue curriculum arrangements that allow students to take exams in some subjects – for example, 1 of the 3 separate sciences – before the end of year 11, having been properly prepared to do so.’
DfE, July 2014

The rules stated that if schools were to enter Year 10 pupils in 2016 for the last ever legacy exams in English and maths – the old, easier exams – those pupils’ results will not be counted when the school reports them the following year, when the pupils reach Y11 in 2017.

The rules made it absolutely clear that this only applied to English and maths, and that other subjects were exempt because the government wanted to allow for early entries, where appropriate.

However, with many schools still in the dark, the rules were changed on 16 June.

The government has now said that this rule does not apply only to English and maths. It now applies to all subjects. This is a hugely significant change for many schools.

The government has now said that this rule does not apply only to English and maths. It now applies to all subjects

The new rule states that if new reformed GCSEs, with their 9-1 grades, exist, then any old GCSE results, with their A*-G grades, taken by Y10 pupils the year before, will not count in the performance measures.

So now, if a Y10 pupil sits legacy History GCSE, for example, in 2017 and scores an A grade, his/her result will count for nothing when it is reported in 2018.

The subjects to which this will apply are as follows. If these subjects are taken in Year 10 2017, they will not count in the 2018 tables:

  • ancient languages
  • art and design
  • biology
  • chemistry
  • citizenship studies
  • computer science
  • dance
  • double science
  • drama
  • food preparation and nutrition
  • geography
  • history
  • modern foreign languages
  • music
  • physical education
  • physics
  • religious studies.

If a Y10 pupil sits legacy History GCSE, for example, in 2017 and scores an A grade, his/her result will count for nothing when it is reported in 2018

So, which schools will this affect?

There are several good reasons for considering entering pupils for their exams early. These include situations where

1. Pupils of high ability need to be stretched;

2. Schools run a short, fat curriculum, in which pupils study a subject for twice the number of lessons each week, but for only one year, rather than two. This allows for concentrated and intense study and for pupils to focus on fewer subject each year. This is a perfectly legitimate approach adopted by some schools;

3. Pupils are in a position to take one or two GCSEs a year early, assuming they are ready, so that they can concentrate on fewer subjects when they reach Y11, thereby getting better results. This is not gaming the system. This is about helping pupils to succeed. The school does not necessarily benefit because of the ‘first entry’ rule. But the pupil should get better results and enjoy better prospects.

Why does the timing of this change in the rules matter?

True to its word, the government has allowed for this change to be introduced with advance notice. But the period of notice is not enough for schools that enter pupils early, for whatever reason.

Schools with a two year KS3 have already completed their KS4 options process. Pupils have made their choices, the timetable has been built, the staffing requirements have been established.

The period of notice is not enough for schools that enter pupils early, for whatever reason

Schools with a short, fat curriculum, in which pupils choose only one or two options, rather than three or four, have also built their timetable and planned for legacy GCSEs to be taken early in 2016.

These schools are now faced with a difficult decision. Quickly unpick the work that has been done? Or continue as planned and pay the penalty when the results are published in 2017.

The decision may feel like a different decision in different schools. Strong confident schools may respond in one way, perhaps persisting with their curriculum design and absorbing the losses, while more fragile schools are less likely to risk having to report a hit in their performance measures.

Is there a solution?

Absolutely. All that is needed is for the government to consider, whenever possible, the position of schools which allow three years for KS4, when making changes to rules concerning curriculum, assessments and accountability.

This rule change needs to be introduced with an additional year’s notice.

As one school leader put it last week:

‘Schools in our position have 2 choices:

1. Do the right thing and let students take the exam in Year 10, and take the hit. This would have serious consequences, in terms of performance tables, Ofsted and local perceptions. DfE advice was you explain to the press and Ofsted why your results are so poor and they will understand.

2. Re-write the curriculum and let down your students and parents, but secure your place in the performance tables. This would mean staff working from draft syllabi for a year, with no published resources available and the risk of changes when confirmed syllabi are published.’

Will this rule change effect your school? Let us know at the top of this blog.


Follow Bill on Twitter: @billwatkin

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Read more blogs by Bill.


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