One Year GCSE

Briefing Pack

By Claire Smith and Heather Scott, published 5th September 2009


A new development for curriculum change this year (2009) has been that many schools are now changing the pattern of GCSE/Key Stage 4 courses, following the ending of compulsory SATs for English, Maths and Science at the end of Key Stage 3. It is not yet clear how many schools will change the way that they deliver GCSEs as a result of this - or indeed, how many are already offering one-year GCSE courses so that at least some students gain more qualifications in a traditional 2-year Key Stage 4. The HA will continue to monitor the situation, but in the meantime we are aware of various different models that schools are developing to make the most of new flexibilities.

If you are in the position where your school is considering such a move, how can you make it work best for you? While the obvious first reaction to such a proposal is to moan about how much it threatens the place of history within your school, it is really important to recognise that this can be an opportunity to be quite creative with what you offer.

The aim of this briefing pack is to offer ideas for you to do just that - as well as provide you with some ammunition should you decide to argue with SLT's proposals, or should you need to convince your team to go ahead with a new model.

Arguments for

  • A shortened course for KS4 means that students are able to make informed choices about their GCSE/applied study earlier (at the end of year 8) - so they study subjects they like. This leads to better enjoyment and engagement.
  • Choosing two/three subjects per year, just for the year, means that if students don't like GCSE/applied study in a particular subject, they only have to continue with it for the remainder of the year. Again, this means that students should be better engaged with the subjects they have chosen.
  • Timetablers will rejoice at the opportunity to write a new timetable for early June each year - if students are taking subjects earlier in their academic experience, say in Year 9, and only studying each course for one year, there is no luxury of sending them off on study leave in early May!
  • Students can have up to 2/3 choices per academic year - this would lead to 6/9 full GCSE equivalents by the end of Year 11.
  • Students can learn in longer blocks of 2 hours, which develops deeper learning and understanding of the topics being studied - they don't have to be interrupted after 50 minutes to move to a different classroom and can really get engrossed in the topic.
  • This type of curriculum model develops a more personalized experience for the learner - they choose the courses they want in their portfolio, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. In some schools, departments can use the gained time, after a one-year GCSE, to study an early AS, or a related but not ‘normal' GCSE - such as Archaeology, Classical Civilisations, or Ancient History.

Arguments against

  • Maturity of students and their ability to communicate effectively develops at slower rates for some students. Their scripts will be competing against scripts from students aged 16 - and this may be reflected in their overall marks and pass grades.
  • GCSEs are designed to be delivered as a two-year course, and there is a danger that with a one-year course, it is content-ramming rather than skills developing.
  • Students who really like history and take it as a one-year course might not touch a history book again until Year 12 - what will happen to their history skills during those 2 years?
  • Changing the timetable in early June means there is no "gained time" for planning new/changed courses - this is usually the big development time for history teams, where colleagues plan their new A level module or develop a better cross-curricular course. Where will that time come from?
  • The quality of the course experience for students might feel rushed, unless the school has given extra time, say five hours per week for the subject.
  • Many colleges and universities - and indeed, Mick Waters - are now coming out against the idea of students gaining more and more GCSEs. Their argument is for a more limited number of courses followed in depth, with enough time across a traditional 2-year course for real depth and breadth of understanding (and curriculum enrichment) to be achieved, rather than a huge raft of qualifications which mask a superficial understanding.

Making it work for the department and your subject

As ever with educational policies, it's impossible to recommend one model for making something work, as there are as many possible solutions as there are teachers in schools... However, there are a number of things that people have told us that do work. Some of these ideas are below, with some suggestions for more reading as well.

The crucial thing for developing a successful one-year GCSE is the amount of thought and, as ever proper preparation. You need to be clear about what the point is for your students - and your SLT needs to be clear, too. What does the school want to achieve? Students with more qualifications, perhaps sacrificing grades, but gaining interest and breadth? What do parents want? Is there a local imperative for looking at curriculum design in less traditional ways?

Once you have determined the rationale for such a radical change to the school curriculum, you have to make sure that all your students learn the skills and knowledge that you consider to be important for them in their context - and remember that the planning that needs to be done is essential for building up your recruitment to courses at Post-16 too.

1. Coursework options

Make sure you select a specification with limited coursework (supervised assessments) as there may not be much time to refine, re-draft and submit coursework. Would it be better to take a third exam paper?

2. Longer blocks of learning planning

It can be refreshing to link two lessons into one - and it's certainly better to ensure deeper understanding if you don't have to say, "we'll pick this up again in our next lesson a week on Friday, hold that thought about Hitler as an excellent leader". Perhaps more importantly, it may not be possible to physically deliver the content of a two-year course in one year, with minutes ‘shaved off' for movement, settling down etc - so make sure you get the timetabler ‘on-side'!

3. Developing sophisticated historians

You might want to review the opportunity to provide an AS course in year 11 - perhaps not the ‘normal' provision, as this then leads to complications when timetabling Year 12, but perhaps an AS in Ancient History would both engage students, look good to their parents and to SLT. This way, you get to raise the profile of the history team, and keep your numbers up, as well as having really interesting - and more experienced - students to teach when they reach Key Stage Five.

4. Broadening students' educational experience

If you have longer blocks of learning, or more opportunities to see the students in any week as part of their one-year GCSE, you can include guest speakers, visits to local sites of interest or make more use of DVDs/video clips and ICT equipment. Why not visit the local City Learning Centre (CLC) and ask them to help you plan more interactive ICT sections to your lessons?

5. Choice of courses?

There are some GCSE courses that may lend themselves better to a one-year, in-depth study than others - perhaps those that are constructed chronologically around a theme. Don't be afraid of using curriculum change as an opportunity to refresh your own teaching and change the courses you deliver! Having said that, if only some students are being offered the opportunity to do one-year courses, make sure you think through the implications of offering more than one course.