Making KS3 Meaningful: Part 3

Challenge

As I covered in my last post on KS3, high attainment and a diverse curriculum are often presented as being mutually exclusive, to the detriment of productive discussions on how to revitalise this Key Stage. I think I’ve demonstrated (albeit not scientifically) that being creative with our KS3 offers is perfectly possible even within the constraints of the national curriculum. Now I want to turn to how we couple that with robust academic outcomes.

  • Prevention is better than intervention

I adopted this absurdly corny mantra as a KS3 leader. It seems obvious but actually implementing this ethos can be hard; we are so used to intervening in Year 11 as practitioners that we can hardly imagine a world without it. Yet we marry this with the expectation that swathes of children will underachieve in KS3 and we typically won’t even do half as much about it. The stress of year 11 is very much a monster of our own making: children come to expect an easier ride at KS3 (and behave accordingly) and then expect a full suite of after school, weekend and holiday interventions at GCSE. In the end many come to believe that the only thing teachers care about is results which is quite sad.

Unpacking this vicious cycle starts with establishing a zero tolerance approach to underachievement in KS3. Not with teachers I hasten to add- perhaps there are some teachers who tolerate underachievement but I’ve not met them. I appreciate zero underachievement sounds a tad mad but what are we doing tonight communicate these expectations to students? The standards agenda and mantra of high expectations appreciated a simple fact: teachers may have high expectations and you can go blue in face teaching and intervening but ultimately if the students have low expectations of their own conduct and academic progress you will get nowhere. So the question we need to answer is: are there subtle ways in which we indicate to them that KS3 is an easy ride?

  • Challenge in curriculum and assessment

Tip one: avoid targets as a standards raising measure. I’ve seen targets artificially jacked up as a way to motivate teachers to stretch students and it does not work. 10% of children nationally stick to the learning pathways laid out by targets. There is no causal link between a child’s target and their attainment. If you try to use it as a lever of improvement you will get stressed students and teachers gaming assessments.

Tip two: the academic standard of a department is ultimately expressed for students in the conditions of their assessment. If a student knows they will get a prep lesson spoon-feeding them the answers and a bunch of sentence starters telling them how to express them then expect them to only care about the penultimate lesson every term. Alternatively, you tell them anything covered this term could come up at the end, and they aren’t going to be told what to say, then you send them a couple of important messages. One, pay attention. Two, everything I teach you matters even if it isn’t in the test. Yes, they will bomb their first assessment but the pay off is more meaningful feedback in the short term and more engaged students in the long term.

Tip three: underachievement can not be effectively challenged without data that comes from KS4 conditions. Year 9 students should be exposed to the full force of the test conditions at GCSE, but not the challenge of the text/curriculum more widely; whilst the former can be a stressful shock which students need time to acclimatise to, the latter can be dealt with more easily at KS4 through revision and revisiting. Open book tests and dumbed down questions also tend to cover up gaps in learning for the sake of a neat data sheet. If your outstanding teachers don’t know what students are capable of then they can’t support them to get ready for Year 10. However, you might not need them to read and understand an entire Victorian novel; or grasp the most challenging Geographical concepts; but they may need to develop a strong understanding of what makes a good a critical essay in relation to a complex Literature text and a gather a decent dose of relevant, challenging geographical academic vocabulary. If these building blocks can be in place by the end of Year 9 then you don’t need to start their GCSEs early- you simply need them to apply this understanding in Year 10.

Tip four: data can be extremely hard to interpret and should be used with care. Ensure you cross reference with other data points to build a better picture of individual student performance. Do not draw up a list of actions for staff if you look at the mid term outcomes and see widely inconsistent results despite the fact the teachers in question get fairly similar KS4 outcomes. Does the data suggest gaps in teaching and learning or bad moderation? Did everyone approach the test in the same way? If I look at the student level can I see a pattern from last year? I got some suspicion for an exams analysis that showed 90% of our KS3 students were on target and a drastic decrease in inconsistency in students results across classrooms. Then 90% of our GCSE students got a 5+ etc and the department got an ALPS one (i.e. many students ‘overachieved’) and I relaxed: it made sense that a team will get similar end of year attainment outcomes at KS3 and KS4. Cross referencing is crucial to get an adequate understanding of the impact of the challenges.

Tip five: don’t do what you’re told if it doesn’t make sense. Question, reason, collaborate; initiatives coming from above and below should be tested at the altar of your priorities. Will this increase challenge? Will this workload produce a decent outcome? People seek out complete re-organisations without thinking about implications for staff time and good teams make each other pause for thought. Changing the curriculum takes two years. Ensuring the resourcing and delivery is differentiated takes another year. These timelines need to be articulated and shared before embarking on major change.

Hopefully the above tips help, although they aren’t a blueprint. KS3 is not an easy gig and it falls so easily to the bottom of the pile which is a great shame.

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