City Academy Norwich’s new approach to GCSE teaching

Education correspondent Victoria Leggett has been finding out about a radical new approach by City Academy Norwich in Earlham.

Four years ago it was named and shamed as one of the worst schools in the country. Now, City Academy Norwich – the former Earlham High School – is well and truly bouncing back with dramatically improved results and a recent 'good with outstanding features' Ofsted report.

But the school is now hoping to go even further with a pioneering new approach to teaching GCSEs which will see youngsters taking the exams they want at the time that is right for them.

It is a radical approach which will no doubt draw a few raised eyebrows from academy sceptics and fans of a more traditional approach where students study for two years and sit all their exams at the end of year 11.

But for others, the new 'stage not age' approach will be seen as the epitome of a system which is increasingly encouraging schools to take control of the way they teach and adapt their offering to the needs of their pupils.

As of last September, pupils at City Academy now begin their GCSE courses a year early in year 9 and will take their exams gradually over the course of three years.

For principal David Brunton, the idea behind it is simple: 'It's a personalised curriculum. Instead of saying to pupils 'you're 14, you're all going to study maths for two years and you're all going to sit down and take your exam whether you're ready or not', we're trying to break that mould and say 'you take it when you're ready for it'.

Most Read

'Some of our year 9 students will take it in year 9, some will struggle in year 11. They are encouraged to take the courses when they are ready for them, not according to what their chronological age happens to be.'

Each year, pupils focus on three options chosen in consultation with their teachers, as well as a core of English, maths and science lessons which will continue to be taught to everyone throughout their time at school.

In most cases, subjects are taught as one-year GCSE courses. The classes can be made up of a mix of year groups who happen to be at the same stage in their learning.

Students ready to take the exam at the end of the year can, others may carry on into the following year if they need more time, while those who find they do not get on with a subject can choose to drop it and pick up something else.

Each spring, pupils review their options for the following year.

At its simplest level, it will mean most students will not find themselves taking a barrage of exams all at once, relieving the pressure.

That is something 13-year-old Robbie Shaw, of Earlham, likes. The year 9 pupil said: 'I prefer doing it this way rather than doing it all later. It's better to have a choice about what you want to do.'

But staff believe it will also impact on their attitudes.

'The whole point is we think it's going to raise standards and improve results. We will have young people who are motivated because they are doing courses they have chosen,' said Mr Brunton.

For vice principal Nigel Youngman, who has taken a lead on the new approach, that change is already beginning to show.

He said pupils demonstrated a sense of responsibility when discussing their options. 'We have students saying, despite having 40 courses to choose from, 'I should do extra English and maths lessons because that's what I need to work on'. That's really encouraging.'

The school will not be able to prove its approach has paid off until students get their results – but the principal believes it could begin to have a dramatic impact on the academy's rapidly improving performance by this summer. Already, 37pc of the current cohort of GCSE students have gained a C or above in maths.

Spreading GCSEs over three years means the school has also been able to offer a wider range of courses. Spanish has now been introduced as a beginners' course in year 9, allowing pupils to try it out and progress on to GCSE level if they enjoy it.

And pupils can take both the government-preferred academic courses as well as more vocational ones that suit their interests.

The approach has the backing of government at both local and national level.

Alison Thomas, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for children's services, said as one its sponsors the authority had been involved in the new approach. She said: 'All good schools look at the needs of their students and adjust their curriculum to ensure that it is broad, balanced and enables all students to achieve their very best.

She said, while the approach was 'the most radical' the council had seen, it already seemed to be reaping benefits.

A department for education (DfE) spokesman said: 'We think schools are best placed to judge what is right for their pupils. They can organise their teaching to ensure pupils take their exams when they have properly covered the course and are best placed to get the highest possible mark.'

Do you have a story about your school? Call education correspondent Victoria Leggett on 01603 772468 or email