Making KS3 Meaningful: Part 1

I’ve worked now fairly closely with KS3 curriculums of one kind or another- both directly in schools that I have worked in and indirectly through colleagues seeking pointers or providing guidance of their own. Almost four years on from Ofsted’s declaration that, nationally, KS3 years are the ‘wasted years’ in schools it has been depressing to see that the key stage, instead of being reinvigorated, has seen a continued decline.

I would say that this one is as close to the heart as a teaching and learning question can get for me: I firmly believe KS3 is the most important key stage a student will experience at Secondary school. I also think it is the most likely place where students will be done a disservice by otherwise well-intentioned professionals. So, this will be a series of 3 posts looking at how to make this most wonderful set of years in a child’s life meaningful at school. In the first one I want to lay out why I think it is so hard for schools to get right. The others will look at the solutions.

The Pressures of Key Stage Three

⁃ Low Status

The hierarchical nature of schools, and the inevitable prioritisation of work as a result of accountability measures, leads Key Stage Three to suffer immensely from the assumption that it doesn’t matter as much as the GCSE or A Level years. As a result several things tend to happen that often place it on the back foot from a teaching and learning perspective.

– Split classes

– Lack of development time allocation

– Greater proportion of trainee time

– Greater likelihood of agency staff usage

– Typically less experienced leadership

– Limited quality assurance of curriculum and assessment

None of these are a death sentence in themselves- as someone who has been both an inexperienced leader at Key Stage Three and a member of staff from an agency I believe strongly that these don’t necessarily mean poor quality! However, when you put it all together, it introduces limitations on leaders seeking improvement that you probably don’t face at GCSE and A Level. An inexperienced leader trying to manage teams with a mixture of supply teachers and with limited time in meetings to work with the team on common goals is not a recipe for rapid and effective change.

⁃ Narrowing Curriculum

The most common and devastating response has been to shorten the KS3 experience that students get. Swathes of schools start students at KS4 in Year 9 in order to maximise time to master the exam courses. Students are often not emotionally ready for the kind of commitment required to be successful at KS4- especially if in non-core subjects they are still studying at a KS3 level. If students struggle to apply themselves adequately to challenging course content in Year 10 it is not surprising to find this is hardly easier to achieve a year earlier.

From a management perspective this introduces extra pressures at KS3. If you give students two years at KS3 you need to spend half the time ensuring a robust transition from KS2, as well as identifying students in need of further support and catch up, at the same time as trying to get as many students as possible to converge on a challenging standard by the end of the KS3 course in order to be ready for KS4. Phew! If you think that the average student will need outstanding teaching for the course of 6 months to catch-up significant gaps in learning in a given subject area you will see that this is simply too much to achieve in a two year window; at least, in any way that isn’t a simple tick box exercise. This is even before we have considered that the breadth of learning they will experience both cross-subjects and within-subjects will be dramatically reduced.

The end result is that instead of fixing the gaps students have at KS3 you simply pass on their problems to KS4 just as the challenge of the curriculum suddenly hits.

The specialisation trend from curriculum reform

As curriculum reform has been rolled out, and I say this from a purely anecdotal level, there has been a trend for teachers to specialise within Key stages. If I’m worried about the pressure of the new course content as a teacher, or if I’m worried about my team as a leader, the response has been to move into a particular key stage and own in, or exclude some teachers from some key stages. I’ve met Heads of Faculty who teach more than half of an exam year. I’ve met older teachers boxing themselves in as KS3 practitioners and not bringing their creativity and experience to the KS4 and KS5 table.

This presents pressures on a number of fronts. KS3 teachers start to shy away from challenging their classes and stick to teaching old KS3 content because they don’t face the reality of KS4 and KS5. KS4 teachers start to hog CPD budgets in the name of exam results. The ultimate outcome is the continued under-development of learning in KS3. The first step on this one within schools is genuine professional challenge: departments should have frank conversations about this. Internal challenge from a place of professional respect is an important lever for improvement and leaders should not be afraid to use it!

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