Key Stage 3: Avoiding the Year 8 ‘dip’

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This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in October 2016.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here

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Previously in this series, I have referenced Ofsted’s 2015 report, KS3: The Wasted Years?, which claims that key stage 3 is not a high priority for many secondary school leaders in term of timetabling, assessment and the monitoring of pupils’ progress and that school leaders prioritise the pastoral over the academic needs of pupils during transition from primary school.

The report also says that many secondary schools do not build sufficiently on pupils’ prior learning. Some school leaders, Ofsted states, are not using the Pupil Premium funding effectively to close gaps quickly in key stage 3 and, although developing pupils’ literacy skills in key stage 3 is a high priority in many schools, the same level of priority is not given to numeracy. Finally, the report claims that homework in key stage 3 is not consistently providing pupils with the opportunities to consolidate or extend their learning.

Ofsted made a series of recommendations which, while sensible and worthwhile, are also vague and intangible. These articles, therefore, are my attempt to offer advice on how to lead an effective key stage 3.

The secret to an effective key stage 3, I believe, is a better transition process, a better curriculum, better homework, and better assessment.

In this series so far, I have already tackled homework, transition and the curriculum (see the end of this article for a link to all previously published pieces).

This articles also focuses on “transition”, but in its wider sense – because transition is not just about the move from year 6 into year 7. It is about the various movements within a key stage, too; particularly from year 7 into year 8, which is often regarded as a stop-gap year.

Transition within a key stage

Year 7 is new and exciting, if not a little daunting; year 9 assumes a higher status because its curriculum often includes elective subjects, it comes at the end of a key stage and carries with it national tests (albeit now optional) and GCSE options or, in some schools, signals the start of a three-year key stage 4.

Year 8, however, which is awkwardly sandwiched between them, is often seen as a stop-gap, wandering alone and confused in the wilderness.

In year 8 there are no tests of any great import, no big decisions to make, and nothing is particularly new or exciting anymore. New school is now old hat. What’s more, it is often the year in which pupils’ hormones begin to rage. As a result, towards the end of year 7 and during year 8, pupils begin to get demotivated and their progress slows or stalls.

If you search online for “year 8 dip”, you will find plenty of frustrated patter in parents’ forums as mums and dads ask if it is normal for their son or daughter to be so demotivated at school and to be stalling in their studies.

The responses they garner are invariably reassuring: yes, it is perfectly normal and a perennial problem in schools. But aside from the chatroom chatter, there is precious little research or advice on how to tackle this phenomenon. So how can we avoid this “dip”?

Well, as is often the case, I find the solution lies in the problem. If the problem is that year 8 isn’t regarded as new or exciting, then we need to make it feel new and exciting. If the problem is that year 8 is the year in which pupils usually start puberty and their hormones kick in with a vengeance as they begin the journey towards maturity, then we need to recognise this increasing maturity.

If the problem is that year 8, without tests and options, is regarded as meaningless, as a stop-gap, then we need to make it feel meaningful and use assessment and feedback to motivate pupils to make better progress.

So here are my top tips for avoiding the year 8 dip and ensuring that the transition from year 7 into year 8 is just as smooth and effective as we hope the transition from primary to secondary proved to be…

The curriculum

Make each year special and have a curriculum that ensures progression and continuity. We need to ensure that year 8 is different to year 7 and year 9, that it offers something unique, challenging and engaging.

This might be in the form of cross-curricular project-based learning, but whatever approach to the curriculum we take we must make sure that year 8 represents a significant step-change in terms of difficulty and complexity.

Notwithstanding the importance of spaced practice (repeating learning several times and leaving increasingly long gaps before returning to retest), what year 8 must not do is unnecessarily repeat curriculum content from primary school and year 7. To ensure year 8 offers something new, year 7 and year 8 teachers, if they are different, must closely liaise on their curriculum planning to achieve continuity.

Extra-curricular

Another way to make year 8 feel special is to take advantage of the freedom afforded by its lack of formal testing and qualifications and pack it full of extra-curricular opportunities, such as educational visits, residential trips and so on.

Serve a rich diet of culture – in or out of school – with theatre productions and museum visits, healthy eating expos and sporting events, science fairs and art and design competitions and exhibitions. Really bring learning to life.

Of course, money is always a consideration but we must take Ofsted’s advice and make better use of the Pupil Premium funding in key stage 3, rather than stockpile it for key stage 4 interventions. If we use more of it in year 8 (and therefore less at GCSE) – in conjunction with other funding streams – in order to ensure that all pupils get fair access to enrichment opportunities, then they will be motivated and make better progress, hence they will commence their GCSEs from a more advantageous starting point and far fewer remedial interventions will be needed in years 10 and 11.

Responsibility

Recognise the increasing maturity of pupils. We need to ensure that pupils – who are starting to experience puberty and grow into young adults – feel that their increasing maturity is being recognised and appreciated. To do this, we need to make year 8 pupils feel set apart from year 7 but only in the best sense. Rather than setting year 8 in opposition to year 7 we should utilise their maturity and experience to support, advise and mentor the new cohort of pupils.

Year 8 pupils could be trained as reading mentors, for example, or as break and lunchtime “buddies” and guides. They could play a big role during the year 7 induction. We tend to favour much older pupils in these roles – and not without good reason as sixth form students are mature, more accomplished readers, and are in need of supporting evidence for their UCAS applications – but older students are also busy with important exams whereas year 8 have the time to spare and need to feel valued. Year 8 are also more able to empathise with their year 7 peers, being closer in age and having more recently experienced transition and induction.

We could also recognise the increasing maturity of year 8 pupils by tweaking our rewards and sanctions policy, ensuring that rewards remain age-appropriate and motivational, and that sanctions continue to be suitably punitive but not demeaning. Ideally, we should involve year 8 pupils in this process by consulting them on what the rewards and sanctions should be – the very process of consultation, whatever the outcome, will make them feel valued and mature.

Behaviour

Have systems that recognise and correct disaffection early, and provide opportunities for a fresh start. As well as ensuring our rewards and sanctions policy remains relevant as pupils grow in maturity, we need to make sure that low-level disruption and general disaffection – which are prevalent in year 8 – are spotted early and tackled effectively.

Those systems need to be positive and motivating, giving pupils a reason to reassert themselves and work hard. The key, again, is in an effective rewards policy but also in the use of intrinsic rewards, the reward of learning itself, not extrinsic rewards such as prizes.

In order for pupils to feel rewarded by learning and achieving, we need them to believe that their work has a genuine audience and purpose. Pupils also need to feel that they have some ownership of the work – both in terms of the content and format, and in terms of how it will be assessed.

Perhaps most importantly, any system that seeks to recognise and correct disaffection and low-level disruption must make clear that there is a way back. Pupils need to be afforded a fresh start.

This applies to pupils who may have misbehaved or underachieved in year 7 who now need to know – both explicitly and implicitly – that year 8 represents a new start for them and an opportunity to make amends. It also applies to pupils who let themselves down during year 8 but need a way back before they start year 9.

Pastoral role

Have pastoral systems that support pupils in their learning as well as their behaviour. We need to make sure that our pastoral systems do not focus solely on pupils’ behaviour and wellbeing – as is often the case in the early years of key stage 3. We must not neglect pupils’ academic needs.

In practice, this means providing support for pupils whose behaviour is good but who need support either over the long-term or at key waypoints on their learning journey.

This might be in the form of in-class support or extra sessions, or it might be in the form of differentiated learning such as differentiated questioning, a choice of outcomes, or the application of mastery learning approaches.

Monitoring and evaluation

Regularly evaluate progress and have effective intervention plans. We need to ensure that year 8 isn’t a wasted year filled with “fluff” assignments and meaningless assessments.

We need to set meaningful work that will stretch and challenge pupils and then assess their progress regularly and accurately so that they can be given detailed formative feedback on which they can act and improve.

In short, we should ensure that we put in place the same robust assessment, monitoring and tracking systems in year 8 that we use for our GCSE and A level students.

In practice, this means that pupil progress is regularly observed and analysed and that the data is shared with all interested parties – parents, staff and governors.

This means that the data is used in a number of ways including to identify underperforming groups, to direct the appropriate deployment of staff and resources, to inform target-setting, to monitor the impact of strategies and interventions, and to challenge the aspirations and assumptions of pupils, parents and staff.

This also means having in place a well-developed pupil tracking system to capture a wider range of data in addition to attainment levels, and using external data and self-evaluation in order to focus on gaps and progress, not just average attainment. And it means that attainment data, as well as informing staff on pupil progress, is used to provide pupils with regular feedback on their progress.


teach2-3DMy latest book, Teach 2: Educated Risks, is out now.

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Download it on your Kindle

From Amazon:

“A wise, accessible and practically useful book” – Professor Bill Lucas, Author of Educating Ruby

“Compelling… clear and convincingly argued” – Dr Jill Berry, Author of Making the Leap: Moving from Deputy Headship to Headship

“A useful summary of research on teaching and learning. In encouraging us to ‘connect everything back to our students’ – it makes a helpful contribution to the literature.” – Mary Myatt, senior Ofsted inspector and author of High Challenge, Low Threat

‘Teach 2’ is a follow-up to the best-selling book on pedagogy by the author of ‘Leadership for Learning’, ‘The IQ Myth’, and ‘How to Become a School Leader’. It has something for everyone: from the NQT looking for teaching tips to the experienced school principal in search of leadership inspiration.

Within its pages, we examine what it means to be a great teacher and what great teaching really looks and feels like in practice. We analyse how to model high expectations in the classroom and reveal the habits of academic achievement. We consider ways of closing the gap that exists between the educational achievement of boys and girls and how to help our students transfer their learning from one context to another, thus making learning universal. We also share some useful lesson planning advice and consider the cornerstones of great curriculum design.

This book is subtitled ‘Educated Risks’ and, as such, we explore the importance of risk-taking in education – of avoiding group-think and a culture of compliance. We pose some big questions about the nature of education and about what it means to be a member of the teaching profession.


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