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Moving schools in Year 11: the lowdown on one-year GCSE courses

For most pupils studying at an independent school in the UK, there’s a clear path of aspiration – whether it’s achieving a place in a sixth form, gaining a place at university or launching into a career or industry they’re passionate about. And it's the GCSE – the standard exam taken at the end of Year 11 in the UK – that acts as that crucial springboard to these goals.   

But what if your son or daughter’s education is disrupted for one reason or another while they’re in Years 10 or 11, and they need to move between schools part-way through their all-important GCSE course? There are a myriad of reasons why a pupil might need to change schools mid-way through their educational journey; they might be forced to miss a chunk of the school year due to ill health or pastoral reasons; they might be an elite sportsperson juggling travel and tournament commitments with a busy academic timetable; an actor taking time out to be on the stage; an international student looking for a taste of the British independent school system, or an expat returning from abroad.   

So, if your son or daughter needs to move schools during their GCSE course, what are their options? A growing number of independent schools and sixth-form colleges are now offering dedicated one-year GCSE courses, designed as a bespoke, fast-track launchpad into sixth-form studies. These courses allow pupils to catch up on work missed, get up to speed with the English language and bag a clean sweep of GCSEs, before rejoining their peers and seamlessly transitioning into A-level or IB sixth-form study.  

Thanks to the knock-on effects of the pandemic, these courses feel particularly timely right now. ‘We recognise the impact that economic and global situations may have had on a pupil’s journey to university,’ says Emer Nicholson, assistant principal academic at DLD College London, which offers a one-year GCSE programme at its central London campus. Designed to help students get back on track after a disrupted education, the college’s intensive course supports pupils in getting grades in a core group of subjects. It’s pacy, but increased contact time with teachers and a choice of just six subjects (as opposed to the more traditional eight to 10) helps pupils achieve their required grades. There’s also the option of studying art or BTEC Business to complement the more mainstream options.  

More than 50 pupils join the one-year GCSE programme at Taunton School each year, which welcomes students who might have struggled with their first year of GCSE study and need greater support alongside a different approach. Tiny class sizes and a smaller number of subjects allow teachers to spend plenty of one-on-one time with their students, and all lessons are recorded and uploaded online (alongside a host of additional resources including videos and podcasts), which pupils can access during their own private study time. ‘As universities tend to look at a student’s top five GCSE results only, focusing on fewer subjects enables our students to maximise their potential,’ says the school.   

At Gresham’s in Norfolk, the school’s one-year GCSE course is a solid option for pupils moving schools who want to get ahead socially and pastorally and feel fully settled in ahead of the crucial final two years of their education. Students are fully integrated into existing classes where possible, with extra lessons laid on in humanities and science subjects to help them catch up on content-heavy syllabuses. Most work towards seven or eight GCSEs, before making the leap up to the school’s sixth form.   

Of course, it’s essential that pupils signing up to these courses are up to the challenge. ‘The pre-sixth course is very intense and pretty non-stop, but it prepares you for the pace at which the IB or A-levels is taught, and helps with the jump,’ says Elizabeth, a pupil at Malvern College, which sees around 30 students join its intensive one-year GCSE course each year. ‘The teachers view us as responsible pupils because we work at a very similar pace and in a similar style to the sixth-form pupils.’ Students live and work in a nurturing environment designed to help prepare them for future educational and career development, while ‘the rounded education which comes from active engagement in music, art, drama, sport and DofE, plus growth in emotional and cultural intelligence is also a fundamental part of our overall programme,’ adds Malvern College.  

Malvern College

One-year GCSE courses are also an ideal opportunity for international students to experience a short stint at a British independent school, soaking up the endless benefits of a boarding education and brushing up on their linguistic skills at the same time. Bede’s was a trailblazer, and since it launched its one-year GCSE course more than a decade ago, the school has welcomed hundreds of students from all over the world. On top of five core subjects (and a bumper co-curricular programme), pupils take exams in English as an additional language, in turn allowing them to access a wide range of A-level subjects in the sixth form. ‘Originally, I had only planned to come to Bede’s for one year for the pre-sixth course, but I made so many friends that I didn’t want to leave, and I am now preparing to sit my A-level exams, having studied the subjects I love,’ says Donna, who joined Bede’s from her native Germany.  


Embley’s one-year Year 11 programme is similarly geared up for non-native English speakers, who are prepared for exams in internationally recognised English language qualifications (including IGCSE English as a second language), alongside five GCSEs. At the end of the course, some pupils may choose to return home, while others transition seamlessly into the school’s sixth form.   


Some courses offer this level of tailored support over a longer period. Stonar’s unique three-year programme welcomes a small number of Year 11 students each year, who work towards a minimum of maths and English GCSE in their first year, with the option of taking on additional subjects if staff deem them suitable. In the second and third years, pupils specialise in their chosen A-level or BTEC subjects. It’s a perfect solution for students for whom English isn’t their first language, with intensive English lessons integrated into the timetable.  


But what if the school best suited to your child doesn’t offer an intensive one-year GCSE course? It might be worth considering homeschooling in the interim, to get your child back up to speed and fully prepared for the reintegration into mainstream education. ‘In the 14 years that young people are at school, not everything will always go smoothly,’ says Felicia Britton-Read, director of client services at Enjoy Education, which offers pupils a temporary schooling bridge while they prepare to enter the sixth form.   

‘Some students need urgent help when mainstream school is no longer a healthy option,’ adds Felicia. ‘We work with students who have been suffering from anxiety, recuperating their physical health or struggling with an eating disorder or depression. Interim homeschooling can help students get back on track, allowing them to prioritise their recovery and providing them with the structure that is often much-needed after time out of school. One-to-one tuition gives pupils the confidence they need as they approach exams and slot back into sixth form.’   

Others suited to homeschooling might include high-achieving sportspeople, dancers or actors; families who have had to travel for work, or relocating families looking for a short-term programme to help them get to grips with the British curriculum. ‘We design a flexible, manageable and academically challenging timetable that works around their commitments and enhances their English skills, while they ready themselves and find new routes to flexible sixth-form colleges.’  

Thankfully, there’s a growing number of solutions for pupils looking for a new school at this vital stage of their education – and schools are clearly adapting to meet the needs of modern families.   

If you have any questions about moving school in Year 11, please contact our advisory team. We are here to talk, and can help you identify schools that meet your child’s needs, draw up shortlists of potential schools or sixth-form colleges and help with the application process.