The problem with the Key Stage 3 curriculum

The Chief Inspector of Schools, 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 that 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 – and this is the crux of the matter for us – 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 “pupils 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 outcomes and the current year’s predicted outturn.

Stakes are high and schools must ensure that Key Stage 2 SAT and GCSE outcomes are above the floor standard and that the line drawn between the two sets of tests represents good progress for pupils. What’s more, with a school’s reputation and future at risk, not to mention jobs, it’s unsurprising that so many schools have attempted to game the system in any which way they can.

But the sorts of ‘system-gaming’ Spielman bemoans – narrowing the Key Stage 2 curriculum to English and maths, starting GCSE study in Year 9 and tracking GCSE objectives from Year 7 onwards – 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 is understood by a good education.

But, as she says, these behaviours have persisted for a long time so 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 they add further weight to the arguments in his book.

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 and makes a mockery of Key Stage 3.

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 limit the need of 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…

Ofsted’s Key Stage 3: The Wasted Years? report said that too many secondary schools do not work effectively with partner primary schools in order to understand pupils’ prior learning and therefore ensure that they build on this during Key Stage 3. Indeed, some secondary leaders simply accept that pupils will repeat what they had already done in primary school during the early part of Key Stage 3.

This problem, sadly, has only worsened since the government implemented its new national curricula…

Richard Hudson, emeritus professor of linguistics at University College, London, who was part of an expert group advising the government on the primary curriculum, has since admitted that the process – overseen by the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove – was “chaotic”.

Hudson says that, as a result, the new curriculum and assessments are not based on good research evidence and, as such, many primary teachers are not equipped to teach it.

Hudson is not alone in criticising the new primary curriculum he helped to write. Indeed, all four members of the expert panel have spoken publicly about their concerns.

The government’s key curriculum adviser, Tim Oates, has also warned that the spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG) tests “need a rethink [because there is a] genuine problem about [the] undue complexity of demand [of the] “language about language” that pupils are now expected to know.

David Crystal, one of Britain’s leading English language experts, has argued that the SPaG test, and its underlying view of language, “turns the clock back half a century” because it places too much emphasis on simply spotting and labelling linguistic features and regards this as an end in itself rather than as a starting point that enables discussions about effective writing. In other words, grammatical features are now taught out of context and without purpose, and yet just because a pupil can recognise a split digraph or a fronted adverbial doesn’t mean they can write any better.

Hudson, in an interview with the Guardian in May 2017, recalled the disorganised process of writing the curriculum:

“To give you an idea of how chaotic things were, when [the expert panel] was originally put together, we had about four meetings and were supposed to be devising a grammar curriculum to cover the whole of compulsory education: primary and secondary. We started off with the primary curriculum, which we were a bit unconfident about as none of us had much experience of primary education and were looking forward to getting stuck into the real thing: secondary.

“Then the DfE pulled the plug by saying: ‘We are not going to do any secondary curriculum.’ So [the primary curriculum that] was published was meant to be about building the foundations for the real thing. But that’s all there is.”

There is so much with which to take issue in what Hudson says. Firstly, the fact the primary curriculum was written by a panel without primary teaching experience is somewhat troubling and goes a little way to explain why the result is so disappointing. It might also help explain why children were left in tears when they sat the first reading test in 2016 because it required a reading age of fourteen.

Also, to suggest that the secondary curriculum was “the real thing” is deeply insulting to primary colleagues and fundamentally wrongheaded.

And, finally, the fact that the panel’s plans to develop a secondary curriculum that flowed from the primary one were abandoned explains why there is such a disconnect between the two and why pupils experience such difficulty following transition.

Hudson went on to say that the result is “terribly worrying, because it means that all the work children do in primary is wasted, as they probably won’t take it on in secondary.”

As I say above, the government did produce a new secondary curriculum in English, but it was a slimmed down, less prescriptive version of what had gone before, and therefore did not build upon the foundations laid down by the primary curriculum.

The emphasis on grammatical terminology has also been criticised by academics because there is no research evidence to suggest that this approach helps improve children’s writing. Indeed, when asked whether there was any evidence at the time that a greater emphasis on traditional grammar was developmentally appropriate for children, Hudson said: “No, there was no evidence, and we were guessing. But I think we were right.”

Another member of that four-strong panel, Debra Myhill – director of the centre for research in writing at the University of Exeter – has said she wants the SPaG tests scrapped.

In a submission to parliament, she said that the tests should be discontinued “because they serve no valid educational purpose”. She added that the way the tests are designed is flawed and that “children are developing grammatical misconceptions … caused by an over-emphasis on naming and identifying [technical terms simply ] for test purposes”.

“There is no evidence,” Myhill said, “that being able to name and identify linguistic terminology has any effect on your use of language.”

So, in short, we have a new primary curriculum that is much more prescriptive than that which preceded it. However, because it proved so problematic to write and implement, the government abandoned its plan to follow it with a progressive secondary curriculum. The secondary curriculum the government did eventually introduce was less prescriptive. As a result, the primary curriculum does not flow naturally into the secondary curriculum and the knowledge and skills taught at Key Stage 3 do not build upon that which is taught in Key Stage 2.

This disconnect, as we have seen, is particularly true in English where pupils now finish Year 6 with an impressively detailed knowledge of grammatical terms (albeit taught out of context rather than through the teaching of great texts), 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 aged 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 quick fix for this is for every Year 7 teacher to download and read the glossary of grammatical terms taught in the primary curriculum.)

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. What’s more, the government hasn’t provided – or equipped schools with the funding for – staff training on the new curriculum and so many teachers are working in the dark.

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

This poses an additional challenge to secondary schools than those already outlined in The Wasted Years report: what can we do in Years 7, 8 and 9 to ensure that 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, developing a love of reading for reading’s sake, and developing pupils’ ability to write in a range of contexts, for a variety of purposes, and in different styles.

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…and no one could claim that the years spent doing that were wasted.


This is an edited extract from Making Key Stage 3 Count which is available in paperback and ebook. The Kindle version is currently discounted to £4.99.

For more free advice and resources to help you manage transition, visit the Making Key Stage 3 Count webpage.

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