Changes recommended after record early entry for GCSEs in Wales

Monday 16 Oct 2017

Qualifications Wales has published its research into the growing practice of schools entering pupils for their GCSE exams early, and has recommended changes to ensure that the interests of pupils are put first.

There were more than 43,000 Year 10 entries for GCSE English Language, GCSE Welsh Language or the two GCSE Maths exams during the summer, a full 12 months before the end of what are designed to be two-year courses and representing 18 per cent of all entries.

The regulator estimates that schools spent more than £3.3 million during the 2016-17 academic year on early entry.

“Our research over the last 10 months drew on the views and experiences of teachers from schools across Wales,” said Chief Executive Philip Blaker. “We heard a wide range of opinions, both in favour and against the use of early entry.

“Most of those we spoke to indicated that the pressure placed on schools through accountability and performance measures was an important factor contributing to the growth of the practice.

“Welsh Government asked for our view on the growing use of early entry. We concluded that although early entry can be in the best interests of individual students in some cases, the continued large-scale use of the practice poses risks to students.” 

Qualifications Wales has identified two actions that would remove some of the pressure that’s contributing to the overuse of early entry.

  • The Welsh Government should consider making changes to how school performance measures are calculated so that only the first grade awarded to a student counts towards a school’s performance measures. The current policy allows schools to count the best grade achieved by a pupil from multiple sittings.
  • Qualifications Wales lifts the current restriction on English Language and Welsh Language GCSEs that only allows students who are resitting to be entered for exams in November. 

The regulator believes this approach would have the following advantages.

  • It will allow early entry to continue, but will ensure that the decision to do so is in the best interests of the pupil;
  • It ensures consistency of practice across schools, resulting in a more level playing field and reduces pressure on teachers to spend time, money and energy on their approaches to early entry;
  • It limits the time spent in preparing for, and undertaking, repeated high-stakes qualifications, allowing more time for teaching and learning. 

“For us, the best interests of students are paramount,” said Mr Blaker. “We believe these changes will lift some of the pressures on schools to enter large numbers of students early while allowing them to use early entry for those who will benefit from it most.”

“We are not advocating a total ban on early entry because for some students it can sometimes be the right decision. For example, where an individual student has mastered their course and is ready to move on to a more challenging qualification. It may also be the right choice for students at risk of leaving school before reaching the end of Year 11.

“This is a complex matter and is one which divides opinions,” he said. “Some schools will welcome our view, while others will strongly oppose it.

“We believe that widespread use of early entry poses a significant risk to learners and to the wider qualifications system that are not readily justified by the benefits claimed for it.

“We therefore believe action is needed to lift some of the pressures on schools to enter large numbers of students early, and to free them up to make decisions that are squarely in the interests of their students.

“The actions that we have identified will allow schools to use early entry as a tool for those who will benefit from it most, without having to balance other competing pressures, such as how other schools are using it,” said Mr Blaker.

The report and the views of Qualifications Wales will now be sent to the Welsh Government for consideration.

The full research report and documents can be downloaded from the Qualifications Wales website.