After Ms Dedman, Tyla and Engen had spoken (admirably plainly and passionately) I addressed the assembled families in the hall. Reporting on the Lead Inspector’s thousand-yard stare I asked parents to tell me what they thought. Half a dozen sought me out, all of who approved of what we did and liked the early choice. They talked about motivation and freedom and taking on adult responsibility. Their children nodded sagely – but they don’t know anything else.
Some parents rested their weary elbows on the canteen pundit benches and probed gently. Why did we introduce a three-year key stage four, then? Well, it was before my time, but in an era when it was not only common practice in schools, but admired good practice. It gave children the chance to study for (sometimes modular) GCSEs in a flexible way, perhaps resitting where necessary, or even passing something in year 10 and doing new courses in year 11. It helped maximise results.
Most of those conditions have gone now. GCSEs have much more content, the modules are gone, and the chance of assimilating enough content and knowledge before the end of year 11 is frankly unlikely. Schools don’t do so many GCSEs and it’s not possible to hoist up results that way in any case anymore. Not that that was ever a justification.
Tallis has found itself in an interesting position. When I arrived in 2013, the first year of year 8 options, many staff begged me to return to options in year 9. I prefer to take a long view and had no experience of a three year key stage four, so I didn’t act precipitously. By the time we got to a second year, and certainly by the time the revised specifications for GCSE appeared, Tallis teachers had grown fond of the new division and much preferred it. Three years at key stage four gives you time to take the higher levels of content more slowly. It means that year 9 can be a foundation year, where children are spared exam questions and can really immerse themselves in the subject and what it means.
However, the visitors didn’t quite experience it like that. They were left with the impression that too many children are doing exam practice for too long. We shouldn’t be doing that. Fair point.
There’s another matter too. Three years is a long time to study one thing. It’s as long as a degree, but with much less lounging about. A thirteen-year-old is a different beast to a sixteen-year-old and there’s a risk of them forgetting by year 11 everything that they knew in year 9 (as well as their name, address, PE kit, timetable, friends, enemies and sandwiches). The year 9 introduction year works really well if it’s a foundation year, but the exam prep really should be left to year 11.
Why don’t we just stop it and go back to three-year key stage three? Well, three years is as long as a degree and they’re too young for all that coffee. Year 9 in a subject you can’t wait to drop is a long year, at just the wrong developmental age, when you find it really hard to concentrate on anything except yourself and are just getting into your stride as Outraged of Greenwich. Perhaps we should do something else with year 9 altogether?
So we’ve got a working group together and we’re thinking of both obvious and creative solutions. Everything is on the table and we’ll decide what to do by October, ready for next year. We’ll invite parents’ views too: watch this space.
But the really nice thing about options evening, like any parents’ evening is seeing our inmates with their elders, the way they talk to one another, lean on each other, tut and roll their eyes at each other, gasp in blank incomprehension at each other then leave arm-in-arm. Love takes so many forms, some of which are also confusion and worry. We need families to have patience, and keep talking , and make their good choices together, no matter how old they are.
I’m glad to be part of the same human family as New Zealand. When their PM’s ready, would she like to come and sort us out?