Making KS3 Meaningful: Part 2

I’m not going to sit here and say all the pressures of KS3 outlined in my last post can be easily resolved. Departments facing cuts due to the Ebacc are in a very difficult place and no blog is going to make them feel better. On the other hand, though, I think teachers (myself included) are uniquely talented at talking themselves into a hole, throwing their hands up, and blaming the powers that be. Too many MFL and Humanities colleagues are declaring themselves ‘screwed’ now that students of all ability ranges will do their subjects at GSCE, and worry ‘unmotivated’ students will drag down results. Yeah, well, English and Maths have been doing it for a long time! We need to get better a seeing the positives: most teachers are pretty good at their jobs, you have an opportunity to raise the status of your subject at KS3, and you can solve the appalling complacency our nation has towards learning the languages of other people.

So in the name of positivity here are a few examples of how we can overcome challenges presented by government edicts with a little creativity and determination.

Diversity and challenge in a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum

The most difficult balance for KS3 is meeting the need to prepare students for KS4 at the same time as allowing students to access a wide range of knowledge and skills. There’s not a lot History and English departments can do about the horrendous and baffling focus on Britishness at GCSE but you can be creative at KS3. In the history curriculum, for example, Medieval Britain can and should encompass an understanding of the Crusades and the Middle East. There are clear opportunities to consider Empire from a number of perspectives and in its proper context: can you understand British control of India without considering the rise of the Mughal Empire? It might be slimmer pickings than otherwise but there are some options if you focus in depth on particular areas. There is time: I’ve seen it done.

For those that say History curriculums have been reduced to winners and losers (with the Brits always winning)- you’re not wrong but we can do more about it than we often admit. I’ve seen brilliant schemes of work looking at the failure of Sir Walter Raleigh to successfully colonise Roanoke and the mysterious disappearance of the colony and its settlers when the Governor, John White, left to visit England. He returned to nothing. In some ways exposing the farce and incompetence of the British ruling classes is the best antidote to the otherwise relentless narrative of Empire building. This is one example of how you can provide students with a story of agency and resistance within the context of the horrific imperial violence. Also, it’s just a fascinating and gripping mystery! Perhaps we should be frank as practitioners- sometimes we don’t teach alternative histories not because of government structures but because of the limitations of our own historical perspectives. Yes, resources are hard to find but if we give KS3 the attention it deserves, the students can have the education they deserve.

It is similar with English KS3, if it isn’t reduced to a two year husk. You can cover a wide range of cultures and 19th Century work and avoid narrowing down the skills students are exposed to. In my previous curriculum role, Year 8s, having studied Wuthering Heights, short stories and poetry from a range of cultures, went on to critically analyse music videos in an 8 week long speaking and listening unit. They deconstructed racial representation in Taylor Swift, gender in Britney Spears and Destiny’s Child, and sexuality in Hoozier and Macklemore. We deconstructed the presentation of domestic violence in Shawn Mendes’ Treat You Better video and posed the question – why doesn’t Shawn call the police? There was some discussion of the need for tension and drama in a video and the critique was hard for students to initially accept- he was a hero to many- but they all learnt that heroes disappoint; a whole year before #MeToo.

In an increasingly image-conscious, intolerant world- full of disappointing bystanders- with the collective reservoir of moral bravery rapidly depleting, this type of unit is vital- students need to question the norms they consume on YouTube and they need to express themselves clearly and confidently in challenging contexts. You can’t explicitly teach empathy through knowledge organisers but can sure as hell model it. Students need to discuss ideas and be exposed to difference in a structured and safe space. If you’re nervous about introducing this kind of content then I’d say two things: I was formally observed twice delivering this content- once by someone outside my Faculty and once by someone outside my school. Also, the results of the department as a whole sit in the top 1% nationally.

So, don’t believe those that would simplify education by carving out easily-labelled battlegrounds: you can be academically robust and provide a diverse curriculum experience at the same time. In fact, it is probably our duty as educators to actively reject and undermine that false choice.

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