the Dragonfly journal

When Early Can be Too Early: Does early entry favour bright pupils?

By Dr Stephen Coyne - @CoyneDrS

There was a lot of controversy over this year’s GCSE results, particularly about the fall in the percentage of A/A* grades, down by 1.1 percentage points on the previous year. Some of this was attributed to a 39 per cent increase in the number of entries from 15 year-olds. There was significant press speculation that schools were using early entry as a way of securing league table positions.

I have no wish to get involved in any league table dispute because every school has its own reasons for entering pupils for examinations when they do and they probably vary for each child. We do after all teach human beings and they each have their own set of issues. However, there is one important topic here which I think gets lost in all the media hype. How do you stretch extremely able pupils if the demands of GCSE are not sufficient for them?

Having been fortunate enough to have taught a large number of bright pupils in my career I have a view on this and the fact that I was a “victim” of early entry for external examinations, a procedure quite common in grammar schools in the sixties, I have always been very reticent about this approach even though I meet many parents who support it and several of my senior managers have tried to encourage it during my time as a head.

Some parents have a distorted view on the significance of this approach because they do not always have the tools in their armoury to assess the quality of a school. “Early entry = bright pupils” is an equation that has an appeal if you have no yardstick for measuring a school other than performance tables. I have often been asked about this by parents as part of their assessment of what type of school we are. Many parents also recall that it was what something that they did at school – rarely a sound reason for any school policy I find!

As a deputy head, I had to interview a parent because his 12 year old son was bored in mathematics. The boy had already had taken GCSE mathematics, tutored by his father, and achieved a grade F – what an achievement! We did not rate the boy as anything other than average for his admittedly very able class. The scholarly parent regaled me with how he had already started the following year’s mathematics’ syllabus to prevent the boredom. He was most put out when I explained the blindingly obvious – that the boy will be bored if he has already done the work and that he should stop this kind of tuition immediately. I was actually more supportive than I imply, suggesting that some alternative mathematics, not actually on the syllabus, might be more suitable for his precocious child! I recall that we all left the room having achieved a solution to the problem by consensus.

When I was a head teacher, I saw this scenario dealt with very effectively. A pupil arrived in year 7 who had already won prizes for his mathematics and was extremely advanced. In all other areas he was a normal eleven year old. Having been given due warning, an IEP was put in place so that really good differentiation was available for him in lessons. On top of that, the Head of Maths (who, mercifully, recognised a kindred spirit rather than a source of more work) took the boy under his wing and had weekly sessions with him on mathematical matters not on the school syllabus. Social problems did not arise and, although he was by far the best mathematician in the year group, he always had something to challenge and extend him.

What often gets ignored is that there are practical and social difficulties when entering pupils for examinations at an age younger than the norm. I taught a boy in the eighties who was, like me, young for his year group and was accelerated through the system by a year. Having completed A levels very successfully, he then turned around and started a different set of A levels in the Lower Sixth Form. Needless to say, he found his new peer group to be rather immature and naïve and his social interaction with them was difficult as a result.

Good schools have always extended pupils by good teaching and providing many outlets for their ability outside the classroom for years. The importance of extra curricular activities in stretching the most able and enhancing social skills is not to be underestimated. Prodigies are interesting as talking points but they also human beings who need to have a life with friends, like the rest of us. Let us assume that we will keep them in their year groups and use sound pedagogy, including excellent differentiation, to challenge them in the classroom.