NUT and King’s College London research into Key Stage 4

14 November 2016

A new King’s College London report, commissioned by the NUT, uncovers serious problems with the EBacc, the Government's attempt to steer all schools towards a narrow range of subjects.

This new report A curriculum for all? The effects of recent Key Stage 4 curriculum, assessment and accountability reforms on English secondary education drew on the insights and experiences of 1,800 teachers plus in-depth case studies using a range of schools.

The report shows the impact of Government policy on the experiences of pupils and teachers in Key Stage 4. Findings show teachers have serious concerns that the EBacc is dramatically narrowing the curriculum; that the excessive pressure of exams is taking its toll on young people’s well-being and mental health; and that teachers lack confidence in ‘Progress 8’, the Government’s latest attempt to measure students’ progress and hold schools accountable for it.

Key findings include:

  • 84% of teachers worry that the reforms entrench an exam culture which undermines students’ mental health and wellbeing.
  • 74 % identify that the EBacc has narrowed the Key Stage 4 curriculum offer in their schools.
  • 77% believe the new GCSE curriculum will be less suitable for low attaining students and is criticised by respondents for being uninspiring and anachronistic.
  • 93% identify that Key Stage 2 SATs results do not provide a reliable basis for tracking students across the whole range of secondary subjects, which is what Progress 8 does.
  • A huge majority, 92% of teachers, report that their workload has increased as a result of data collection for Progress 8.
  • 72% of respondents feel that meeting the demands of Progress 8 takes time away from teaching young people.

Life in the data cage is impacting on students and teachers alike. Teachers are worried that they cannot devote sufficient time to students’ real learning. 89% said their workload relating to data analysis has risen.

Overall, the report underlines that the curriculum is becoming narrower and less inclusive and that the experience of students is increasingly shaped by the data-driven demands of accountability. Creativity and independence of thought was being sacrificed across the curriculum.

“SEND and low attaining students”, commented one teacher, “are struggling severely with the new English GCSEs – staff feel as though they are setting them up to fail.”

High attainers also face problems. The demands of accountability have led some schools to counsel good students away from arts subjects and towards those which are valued in EBacc terms. It’s “harder to get higher ability musicians to consider GCSE as an option,” noted one reply.

Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union, said:

“The Government should take this report seriously. It uncovers significant problems with the EBacc and shows the profession does not support the attempt to steer all schools towards a narrow range of subjects. The demands of EBacc are driving creative and vocational subjects out of the curriculum and are harming students’ motivation, engagement and appetite for learning. The Government still has not published the results of its consultation on implementing the EBacc. It is high time it did.

“The report finds that classrooms have become even more focused on exam and test preparation, especially in the subjects that are most heavily weighed in the Progress 8 basket. Secondary teachers are adamant that the Key Stage 2 SATs are not a reliable bench-mark from which to measure pupils’ progress through to age 16. The Government must engage with this valid concern, which runs to the heart of the reliability of their primary- and secondary-school accountability system.

“Secondary education, like primary, has taken a wrong turn. A massive effort will be needed to get it back on course. It is essential that we develop a system in which the achievements of all students can be recognised and in which students’ individual strengths and interests can be used as catalysts for supporting good progress and positive life chances. The Government could and should learn important and constructive lessons from the thousands of secondary teachers speaking up in this report.'”

Voices from the report

“Students are pressured into the EBacc with the result that they are now taking subjects that they ‘dislike least’. This has led to demotivated pupils and more behavioural issues for subjects like history and geography.” (W: Head of department and history teacher in a standalone academy with an ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted rating)

“I am being made redundant because we will only be teaching EBacc subjects at KS 3 & 4 from now on.” (W: Head of department, PSHE and citizenship studies teacher in a local authority school with a ‘Requires Improvement’ Ofsted rating)

“Redundancies have been made. Teachers in creative subjects have not been replaced.” (W: Head of department, ICT and Computer Science in a local authority school, Ofsted rating not specified)

“I became a teacher to encourage creativity, promote independent learning and develop problem solving skills. To teach students to think for themselves in new and exciting ways, not just to be exam factory fodder – strictly learning answers does not teach people to think!!” (W: Drama teacher in multi-academy trust with an ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted rating)

“…We are merely becoming an exam production unit and we are losing the breadth and depth of knowledge that we ought to be giving students. Also, we seem to be driven by the need to get rid of any in-depth, exciting and innovative teaching and now are solely focused on the PowerPoint driven lesson with reliance on textbook materials, which I feel is a real step backwards and is a result of the changes which have taken place recently.” (W: Geography teacher in a multi-academy trust school with a ‘Good’ Ofsted rating)

“We are encouraged to welcome and work with children who have a vast range of special needs and this is great, but we are setting them up to fail when it comes to the new GCSE. … We nurture and support our most vulnerable children, gradually gaining their trust and making then feel positive and enabled. At the end of this, we let them down by making them sit hours and hours of examinations that are way beyond their capabilities.” (W: English teacher and union rep in a multi-academy trust school with a ‘Good’ Ofsted rating)

“As a teacher of English, the pressure that has been added is incredible. Further expectations for data collection and reporting on target setting have come into place with no additional time provided, making teaching more about reporting on what you are doing rather that actually doing a good job educating the pupils in your care.” (W: Newly qualified English teacher in a multi-academy trust school with a ‘Requires Improvement’ Ofsted rating).

“I really am not sure about the impact of the current reforms. What I am sure about is that workload has hugely increased in [the] last five years and that students and teachers are more stressed out than ever before. I know many teachers who are quitting, or who have quit, who were great teachers but constant changes to exam specifications, and a huge decrease in teacher morale due to constant monitoring and accountability measures, which have stifled creativity in the classroom, have led to the very best finding alternative careers, or often quitting with no job to go to, just burnt out and exhausted.” (W: Head of RE department in a local authority school with a ‘Good’ Ofsted rating).

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