Curriculum matters: Part 6 – making the KS3 curriculum count

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2018.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

This is the sixth instalment in a 7-part series. Read part one, part two, part three, part four and part five.

In last week’s instalment I modelled how to use GCSE outcomes (in the form of assessment objectives) to determine some of the foundational concepts (or content knowledge) that should underpin our secondary curriculum.

For example, I said that, to succeed at GCSE English language, pupils need to be able to identify and explain explicit and implicit meanings and, as such, we should introduce pupils to the words “explicit” and “implicit” in year 7 and revisit these concepts throughout key stages 3 and 4, albeit with increasing complexity each time.

In other words, I said we should teach the same concepts throughout key stages 3 and 4 – building in time for repetition and reinforcement as retrieval practice – but develop pupils’ knowledge and understanding of these concepts as they travel through the school curriculum.

Think of our progressive curriculum as peeling back the layers of an onion, deepening pupils’ understanding of content but also enabling them, as they acquire more and more content knowledge, to make connections and develop schemata in long-term memory that permits thinking – including thinking about any new content they encounter – to become more efficient and accurate.

As I said last time, the more we know, the easier it is to know more because we process new information in the context of what we already know. We can’t think critically about something of which we are ignorant.

This week I want to look backwards rather than forwards. In other words, rather than look at the end goal – GCSE outcomes – I want us to investigate pupils’ pasts and identify what they have been taught at primary school, because a truly joined-up and progressive curriculum bridges the gaps between years, key stages and phases of education and this includes the gap between primary and secondary school. But first a note on skills…

Transferable and non-transferable skills

It is helpful, I find, once we have determined the concepts that provide the foundations of our curriculum – the content knowledge upon which success at GCSE is dependent – to differentiate between the transferable concepts that a particular programme of study will introduce and embed, and those concepts which are indivisible from their context. Allow me to elaborate…

When teaching Romeo and Juliet, for example, pupils will need to learn about how playscripts work and about stagecraft; they’ll need to understand the language used, including blank verse; they’ll need to learn about themes such as conflict, romance, and tragedy; and so on.

These concepts are all transferable because they can – and should – be applied to different texts and indeed to life. The narrative shape of an Elizabethan tragedy is almost the same for every tragic play – certainly the audience would know to expect mass bloodshed in the fifth act, whereas they’d expect a romance to end in marriage. Knowing this can help pupils to understand a range of different texts and compare one with another.

By the same token, when teaching prose fiction, it’s helpful to teach pupils Freytag’s Pyramid or the six-part story structure, and get pupils to comment on how the author builds towards a climax.

But, in order to study Romeo and Juliet, pupils will also need to learn the names of characters and details about the plot, as well as contextual information about when and where the play is set, and when and where it was written and first performed. These concepts are not transferable because they are specific to this play.

Both transferable and non-transferable concepts are important, but the transferable concepts must be mapped across the curriculum and repeated and reinforced regularly. We must make the explicit link between the study of these concepts in the context of Romeo and Juliet and how these concepts apply in other parts of the curriculum.

So long as we teach the non-transferable concepts well when taught in context, there is no need to repeat them beyond the bounds of normal exam revision.

For example, we do not – knowing we will teach Romeo and Juliet in year 11 – need to start introducing the play in year 7. It is enough to introduce the transferable concepts that will aid pupils’ understanding of the play.

Key stage 3 – the poor relation?

In our new curriculum, 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. For example, we need to avoid the temptation to timetable 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.

And we need to avoid timetabling non-specialist, underperforming and/or inexperienced teachers for key stage 3 lessons. Rather, we should utilise our 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. Last week I explained how we can ensure key stage 3 provides a springboard for GCSE. But key stage 3 also needs to flow naturally from key stage 2.

Ofsted’s 2015 report, The Wasted Years, argued 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 have already done in primary school. 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 admitted that the process – overseen by then education secretary, Michael Gove – was “chaotic”. Prof Hudson says that, as a result, the new curriculum and assessments are not based on good research evidence and many primary teachers are not equipped to teach it.

Prof 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 advisor, 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.

Prof 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.”

Prof 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”.

The government did eventually produce a new secondary curriculum 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.

So, in short, we have a primary national curriculum which 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.

The problem seems to be that curriculum reforms at the national level 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 stumbling 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 near-pointless the three years of key stage 3 sandwiched in between. This poses an additional challenge to secondary schools than those outlined in Ofsted’s report: what can we cover in the year 7, 8 and 9 curriculums 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 Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman advised in her Festival of Education speech in 2017 and ensure that the key stage 3 curriculum broadens minds, enriches communities, and advances civilisation.

Bridging the gap

As I say above, the primary curriculum provides pupils with an impressive knowledge of, say, grammatical terms. Indeed, the terminology and concepts now being taught in key stage 2 would not, ordinarily, be introduced until A level. However, the primary national curriculum encourages schools to teach concepts and skills in isolation. One job for our joined-up, progressive secondary curriculum, therefore, is to place these concepts and skills into some sort of context, for example by studying the best that has been thought and said.

In fact, I would advise a teaching sequence that begins with the development of spoken language, then develops reading comprehension, before moving onto writing composition. Once this sequence has been followed, we can zig-zag back and forth so that writing composition can inform reading comprehension and spoken language, and so on.

We need pupils in key stage 3 to enjoy whole texts – and, yes, reading and writing in silence for a full lesson. Studying extracts is valuable, too, of course, in allowing pupils to apply their skills and knowledge, particularly to unseen texts as they will need to in the exam. But there is no substitute for reading a book from cover to cover, understanding and appreciating the plot arc and the detailed, sustained development of character, setting and theme. What’s more, in this digital age of instant gratification, pupils rely on schools to teach them the art of concentration and attention.

Next time, in the final part of this series, I want to turn to the language of learning and the language for learning and consider how we might further bridge this gap between primary and secondary schools by being consistent in the words we use.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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