Why I wrote Making Key Stage 3 Count

I started writing the first edition of my book, Making Key Stage 3 Count, in the summer of 2015 – having, over the previous decade, first as a teacher then as a school leader, become increasingly convinced that pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9 got a rough deal from our education system.  But life and work got in the way and I was forced to put the book on the back-burner.  In the autumn of that year, however, Ofsted published a report called ‘Key Stage 3: The Wasted Years?’ which had me scrambling for my manuscript…

The Ofsted report summarised the findings of approximately 1,600 section 5 inspections carried out between September 2013 and March 2015, 318 monitoring inspections carried out between September 2014 and March 2015, 55 section 5 inspections from June and July 2015, 100 interviews with senior leaders, 10,942 questionnaire responses from pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9, and 14 good practice visits.

Rather depressingly, the report found that, while pupils generally had the opportunity to study a broad range of subjects throughout Key Stage 3, in too many schools the quality of teaching and the rate of pupils’ progress and achievement were simply not good enough.

In fact, inspectors reported concerns about the effectiveness of Key Stage 3 in one in five of its 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 (MFL), history and geography at Key Stage 3.

Too often, inspectors found teaching that failed to challenge and engage pupils.  Additionally, low-level disruption in some of these lessons, particularly in MFL, was deemed to have had a detrimental impact on pupils’ learning.

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 the weaknesses inspectors identified in teaching and pupil progress reflected a general lack of priority given to Key Stage 3 by many secondary school leaders. For example, most leaders questioned as part of the survey admitted they staffed Key Stages 4 and 5 before Key Stage 3. Thus, too many Key Stage 3 classes were split between two or more teachers and/or were taught by non-specialists or inexperienced staff.

In this regard – and in the way schools assess and track pupils’ progress – Key Stage 3 is regarded as a poor relation to other key stages.

The report also asserted 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. Some secondary leaders simply accepted that pupils would needlessly repeat what they had already done in primary school during the early part of Key Stage 3, particularly in Year 7.

In addition, and this was not a feature of Key Stage 3 I’d paid particular attention to when first drafting my book in the summer, half of the pupils surveyed said that their homework never, or only some of the time, helped them to make progress.  And inspectors found that, too often, homework did not consolidate or extend pupils’ learning.

Finally, the report claimed that some school leaders did not use Pupil Premium funding effectively in Key Stage 3 to ensure that any differences in the outcomes of disadvantaged pupils when compared to their peers continued to be diminished following pupils’ transition to secondary school.  Instead, additional support tended to be focused on intervention activities at Key Stage 4, by which time they simply compensated for ineffective practice in the earlier years of secondary education.

Ofsted recommended that senior leaders should 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 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.

When I first read the report in the autumn of 2015, my immediate response was to nod along knowingly.  I certainly recognised many of the challenges it outlined.  For example, I knew that, when working as a deputy headteacher responsible for the school timetable, I had focused on Key Stages 4 and 5 before filling in the gaps with Key Stage 3 lessons, thus necessitating some split classes and some non-specialist teaching.  I knew, too, that I’d focused a disproportionate amount of funding on intensive interventions in the dying days of GCSE, rather than using funding – and other resources – equitably across all years and key stages.

The report, therefore, articulated what I’d long known and what had spurred me to write this book in the first place.  But, whilst all of Ofsted’s findings were sensible, they were also – perhaps understandably for a high-level report – vague and intangible.  For example, what does it mean, in reality, to give Key Stage 3 a higher priority?  What, in practice, do cross-phase partnerships look like?  What is robust assessment and monitoring, exactly?  And what, precisely, constitutes quality and effective homework?

In short, Ofsted’s report set out the challenges we face in making Key Stage 3 count, but did not proffer many solutions.  And that’s why I hurried back to my manuscript and finished the first edition of my book which was published in the summer of 2016.

The first edition of Making Key Stage 3 Count seemed to resonate with many people (and became my biggest selling book), and, thus, over the course of the last year or so, I’ve been invited to speak at various conferences and INSET events and have, along the way, been fortunate enough to debate the issues with hundreds, if not thousands, of wise teachers and school leaders.

Discussing the challenges of Key Stage 3 – and its possible solutions – with likeminded professionals really helped me develop and consolidate my thinking; what’s more, I’ve been able to see up close which strategies work and which do not.

The new second edition is my attempt to articulate my latest thinking and to share even more practical ideas about how to improve the educational experience of pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9 to ensure that those three years are not wasted but are, in fact, enjoyable, challenging, and rewarding.

The secret to an effective Key Stage 3, I believe, is to:

Make transition count by supporting pupils through transfer – not just as they transfer between the phases of education as they move from primary to secondary, but also as they transfer between the key stages and years of compulsory schooling – gradually and smoothly;

Make the curriculum count by ensuring there is continuity between primary and secondary schools both in terms of what is taught and when it is taught, and in terms of how it is taught;

Make homework count so it enables pupils to practice their prior learning, provides a real audience, purpose and context, and there’s an optimum amount of it so as to support but not demotivate pupils;

Make data count by improving the quality and effectiveness of target-setting, assessment, and tracking in order to ensure that the regular monitoring of progress leads to frequent, formative feedback, and timely interventions and support which seek to diminish any differences in the performance of different groups of pupils.

As such, the ‘meat’ of my book, sandwiched between its front and end matter, is divided into four distinct parts focusing on:

1. Making transition count
2. Making the curriculum count
3. Making homework count
4. Making data count


You can buy the book in paperback and ebook. You can download free resources from the book including a Pupil Premium annual report, a Pupil Passport, and a set of teaching posters. 

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