On the “cannibalisation” of Key Stage 3

Ofsted’s new Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, gave a speech at the Festival of Education in June 2017 in which she trumpeted the importance of the school curriculum.

She said that, all too often, schools lose sight of the real substance of education: “Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.”

She said that, although it’s true that education has to prepare young people to succeed in life and make their contribution in the labour market, “to reduce education down to this kind of functionalist level is rather wretched.”

Education, she argued, “should be about broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation” and “ultimately, it is about leaving the world a better place than we found it.”

She said this reductionist, functionalist attitude was evident in the way schools tracked GCSE assessment objectives all the way back to Year 7, and started SAT practice papers as early as Year 4.

She said this attitude was also evident in the increasing “cannibalisation of key stage 3 into key stage 4”.

“Preparing for GCSEs so early,” Spielman said, “gives young people less time to study a range of subjects in depth and more time just practising the tests themselves.”

We have, she said, “a full and coherent national curriculum and [it is] a huge waste not to use it properly.”

Indeed, all children should study a broad and rich curriculum and yet “curtailing key stage 3 means prematurely cutting this off for children who may never have an opportunity to study some of these subjects again.”

Spielman said “scrapping most of your curriculum through Year 6 to focus just on English and maths” is equally misguided and does “students a disservice”.

In short, Spielman said that all of the above practices reflect “a tendency to mistake badges and stickers for learning itself… [and put] the interests of schools ahead of the interests of the children in them.”

“We should be ashamed,” she said, “that we have let such behaviour persist for so long.”

Of course, it’s not difficult to see why such behaviour has persisted for so long: the government’s accountability system, centred on performance tables, is undoubtedly at the heart of the matter, aided and abetted by Ofsted itself who’s starting point for inspection is the previous year’s KS4 outcomes and the current year’s predicted outturn.

Stakes are high and schools must ensure KS2 SAT and GCSE outcomes are above the floor standard and represent good progress for pupils and, with a school’s reputation and future at risk, not to mention jobs, it’s unsurprising so many schools have attempted to game the system any which way they can.

But the sorts of ‘system-gaming’ Spielman bemoans – narrowing the KS2 curriculum to English and maths, starting GCSE study in Year 9 and tracking GCSE objectives from Year 7 – are clearly not in pupils’ best interests. These behaviours put league table performance ahead of what’s morally right for young people, and thus stand opposed to what a good education means.

But, as she says, they have persisted for a long time.

Surely now is the time for change?

I, for one, am pleased that the Chief Inspector has highlighted these issues and, as a result, given them the column inches they deserve, because I’ve been banging the same drum for many years, albeit seemingly in a soundproofed studio…

I began writing Making Key Stage 3 Count in 2015 but put it on the back-burner to concentrate on other work commitments and to finish Teach 2. In the autumn of that year, however, Ofsted published a report called ‘Key Stage 3: The Wasted Years?’ in which it summarised the findings of approximately 1,600 section 5 inspections, more than 300 monitoring visits, 100 interviews with senior leaders, and nearly 11,000 questionnaire responses from pupils in Years 7 to 9.

The report’s findings had me hurriedly returning to my manuscript…

The Ofsted report found that in too many schools the quality of teaching and the rate of pupils’ progress and achievement in KS3 were not good enough.

In fact, inspectors reported concerns about the effectiveness of Key Stage 3 in one in five of their routine inspections, particularly in relation to the slow progress made in English and maths and the lack of challenge for the most able pupils.

Inspectors also reported significant weaknesses in modern foreign languages, history and geography at Key Stage 3.

Too often, inspectors found teaching that failed to challenge and engage pupils.

Achievement was not good enough in just under half of the MFL classes observed, two-fifths of the history classes and one third of the geography classes.

The report claimed that weaknesses in teaching and pupil progress reflect a general lack of priority given to Key Stage 3 by many secondary school leaders. The majority of leaders spoken to as part of the survey, the report said, admitted they staffed Key Stages 4 and 5 before Key Stage 3. As a result, some Key Stage 3 classes were split between more than one teacher or were taught by non-specialists. In this sense – and in the way schools monitor and assess pupils’ progress – Key Stage 3 is regarded as a poor relation to the other key stages.

As I say above, it’s not difficult to understand why school leaders prioritise Key Stages 4 and 5 over Key Stage 3 because this is where external accountability sits and it takes a brave, perhaps foolish, headteacher to focus on Key Stage 3 at the possible expense of – in the short-term at least – GCSE and A Level outcomes.

But putting all your eggs in one GCSE basket – including starting Key Stage 4 in Year 9 and using GCSE assessment criteria from Year 7 – is clearly short-sighted.

Key Stage 3 must not be regarded as a poor relation to Key Stage 4 for this will only prove to be a vicious cycle. In practice, this means that school leaders – particularly the timetabler – need to avoid the temptation to schedule Key Stages 4 and 5 first then fill in the gaps with Key Stage 3 lessons, thus increasing the chances of Key Stage 3 classes being split between two or more teachers.

It also means avoiding timetabling non-specialist, underperforming and/or inexperienced teachers for Key Stage 3 lessons. School leaders should utilise their best teachers because this will pay dividends in later years and avoid having to employ remedial interventions to help pupils catch up for lost time.

In addition to being appropriately staffed, the Key Stage 3 curriculum should strike the right balance between providing pupils with a grounding for GCSE and being different enough to Key Stage 4 so as to be engaging.

As well as providing a springboard for GCSE, Key Stage 3 needs to flow naturally from Key Stage 2…

The Wasted Years report said that too many secondary schools did not work effectively with partner primary schools to understand pupils’ prior learning and ensure that they built on this during Key Stage 3. Indeed, some secondary leaders simply accepted that pupils would repeat what they had already done in primary school during the early part of Key Stage 3, particularly in Year 7.

This problem has only deepened since the government implemented new national curricula in the primary and secondary phases…

The new primary curriculum is much more rigorous than that which preceded it, and also much more detailed and prescriptive. However, because it proved so problematic to write and implement, the government gave up on its plan to succeed it with a progressive secondary curriculum.

The secondary curriculum the government did eventually introduce was much shorter and less prescriptive. As a result, the primary curriculum does not connect with the secondary curriculum and the knowledge and skills taught at Key Stage 3 do not follow on naturally from Key Stage 2.

This disconnect is particularly true in English where pupils now finish Year 6 with an impressively detailed knowledge of grammatical terms (although, sadly, grammar tends to be taught explicitly and out of context rather than through the teaching of great texts, but that’s for another blog) but most secondary teachers don’t know what has been taught and do not have the same level of subject knowledge as their pupils. If I did not have a primary age daughter, for example, I would not know what a ‘split digraph’ was and yet I’ve been teaching English for 15 years! Nor would I know that primary pupils are now taught about ‘conjunctions’ rather than ‘connectives’.

One simple fix is for every Year 7 teacher to download and read the glossary of grammatical terms taught in the primary curriculum (you can download a copy here).

The problem seems to be that curriculum reforms have been implemented in isolation, and primary and secondary schools don’t have enough time to talk to each other about what and how they teach.

Another consequence of this lack of joined up thinking on the curriculum is that the primary curriculum now better prepares students for the new, more demanding GCSEs but renders pretty pointless the three years of Key Stage 3 sandwiched in between.

This poses a challenge to secondary schools: what can we do in Years 7, 8 and 9 to ensure pupils are challenged, engaged and making progress? One answer, I think, in English at least, is to put into context the technical terminology now taught at primary. This involves reading and writing increasingly complex texts.

Another solution is to ensure that pupils are fed a rich diet of subjects from across the arts, humanities, languages and sciences, and are afforded experiences outside the classroom by visiting museums and art galleries, theatres and monuments.

In short, schools should do as Spielman advises and ensure that the Key Stage 3 curriculum broadens minds, enriches communities, and advances civilisation.

That way, Key Stage 3 will leave the world a better place than pupils found it.


Read more about Making Key Stage 3 Count here.

The Wasted Years?

In Key Stage 3: The Wasted Years? Ofsted recommended that senior leaders make Key Stage 3 a higher priority in all aspects of school planning, monitoring and evaluation, and ensure that not only is the curriculum offer at Key Stage 3 broad and balanced, but that teaching is of a high quality and prepares pupils for more challenging subsequent study at Key Stages 4 and 5.

Ofsted also recommended that senior leaders ensure that transition from Key Stage 2 to 3 focuses as much on pupils’ academic needs as it does on their pastoral needs, and that senior leaders foster better cross-phase partnerships with primary schools in order to ensure that Key Stage 3 teachers build on pupils’ prior knowledge, understanding and skills.

Ofsted said middle and senior leaders should make sure that systems and procedures for assessing and monitoring pupils’ progress in Key Stage 3 are more robust and that leaders should focus on the needs of disadvantaged pupils in Key Stage 3, including the most able, in order to close the achievement gap as quickly as possible. Leaders should also evaluate the quality and effectiveness of homework in Key Stage 3 in order to ensure that it helps pupils to make good progress. And, finally, school leaders should put in place literacy and numeracy strategies that ensure pupils build on their prior attainment in Key Stage 2 in these crucial areas.

My book, Making Key Stage 3 Count, explains how to achieve all of the above…

In that book, I argue that the secret to an effective Key Stage 3 is a better transition process (by which I mean a more effective transition between Key Stages 2 and 3 but also within Key Stage 3 itself as pupils transfer between Years 7, 8 and 9), a better curriculum (by which I mean greater curriculum continuity between the key stages, a curriculum that is challenging, engaging and different to that which precedes and succeeds it, and a curriculum that provides for the effective development of literacy and numeracy skills as well as a knowledge and interest in the arts, humanities, and sciences), better homework (by which I mean homework that enables pupils to practice their learning and provides a real audience, purpose and context), and better assessment (by which I mean the regular monitoring of progress, quality formative feedback, and timely interventions which seek to close the gaps in the performance of different groups of pupils).

Read a free sample

Buy the book

Download free resources to accompany the book




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