Parents have told Ofsted that preparing for exams was eating into their children’s learning time. Photograph: Eye Ubiquitous/Alamy
Disadvantaged children are being shut out from learning a rich range of knowledge, as schools restrict low-attaining pupils to “badges and stickers” rather than history or geography, the chief inspector of schools in England has said.
Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, said social mobility could be at risk if some pupils were given restricted options and schools watered down their curriculum to concentrate on exam results.
“Low-attaining pupils need basic skills, as all pupils do, but they shouldn’t as a consequence be shut out of parts of the essential body of knowledge for any pupil,” Spielman said in a commentary published by Ofsted.
Her comments were based on initial results from research carried out by Ofsted, involving visits to 40 schools, discussions with headteachers and other data such as inspection reports and parent surveys.
“In a few of the schools visited, lower-attaining pupils did not have any opportunity to study a language or some arts subjects, as the school directed them on to a pathway that excluded the subject as an option, in some cases from the age of 12,” Spielman said.
“It is a risk to social mobility if pupils miss out on opportunities to study subjects and gain knowledge that could be valuable in subsequent stages of education or in later life.”
Spielman said the results showed a worrying trend of children from poorer backgrounds or more challenging circumstances being offered fewer choices at GCSE level than their better-off peers.
Restricted subject choice for low-attaining pupils “disproportionately affects pupils from low-income backgrounds”, she argued. “The focus here should be on what these pupils should be learning and what they need to do to progress. It should not focus solely on the qualification they are taking.
“This leads us back to school leaders mistaking ‘badges and stickers’ for learning and substance. It should also not be taken as read that higher scores for the school always means a better deal for pupils.
“If a pupil gains valuable knowledge, for instance in history, but does not get a grade four [C], they will still be better educated for having studied it.”
The research also found schools opting to start pupils studying for GCSEs a year early, curtailing key stage three by a year in order to improve exam results.
“This inevitably means that a considerable number of pupils will be experiencing only two years of study before dropping, for example, history or geography or a language, possibly never to study these subjects again,” Spielman said.
“And for most children, the end of key stage three is the last time they will take art, music, drama or design and technology.”
The Ofsted research also confirmed that some primary schools have been discarding the national curriculum in favour of more test preparation in key stage two.
Parents told Ofsted that preparing for tests was cutting into their children’s learning time. One school told Ofsted its pupils sat mock tests every week in years five and six, in the run-up to standardised tests at the end of year six.
Spielman said: “Testing in school clearly has value. This kind of test is intended to measure the child’s ability to comprehend. However, the regular taking of test papers does little to increase a child’s ability to comprehend. A much better use of time is to teach and help children to read and read more.”
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said pressure from the government meant schools in England would be determined to improve their performance in tests and exams.
“If Ofsted wants them to focus less on these assessments, we would suggest it lobbies the government for a change to the accountability system rather than criticising schools,” he said.
Spielman’s comments come as Justine Greening, the education secretary, announced the first details of “T-levels” – technical and vocational qualifications for sixth-formers.
The first subjects, including childcare and construction, will be introduced from 2020 with a full range of subjects including hair and beauty, catering and business, starting from 2022.
“As part of making sure that the technical education ladder reaches every bit as high as the academic one, I want to see T-levels that are as rigorous and respected as A-levels,” Greening said.