The key stage 3 dilemma

Written by: Russell Hobby | Published:
Russell Hobby

Ofsted has warned that key stage 3 is the poor cousin of key stages 4 and 5. Russell Hobby says there are some key barriers facing schools if we are to tackle the problem

It seems like human nature to focus on causes closest in time to the effect we are concerned with, rather than on perhaps more powerful but more distant factors.

This is a rather abstract way of saying we don’t give enough time to key stage 3!

Last week, Ofsted published the results of its survey into that key stage. The survey was stimulated by Ofsted’s concern that primary schools were outpacing secondaries (although I don’t know that this is a tenable position given that massive turmoil at secondary level).

And their conclusion was that key stage 3 is the poor cousin of key stages 4 and 5. This was true in planning, monitoring and staffing, where the high-stakes “examined” key stages tend to get the most attention.

I think there is some truth in this assertion. And, to return to the opening thought, this creates a problem. If we leave it until key stage 4 to address deep-seated problems then we have, of course, left it far too late.

Although the risk and scrutiny may be firmly focused on the latter key stages, we can best affect performance in them by focusing our attention much earlier, where small and benign changes can have large effects.

It may be tempting to put the best staff and most management time into key stage 4 and 5, but it may not be right. These sorts of decisions, though understandable, may be a safe route to mediocrity rather than a risky route to excellence.

This is not just a secondary issue. If we can have the most effect on key stage 4 by getting key stage 3 right, it is also true that we can help secondary by ensuring that primary education works, and that we can help primary education by investing in early years. It is clear that if we build on secure foundations, we do not have to play catch up and correction later on.

Take careers advice. NAHT has consistently called for high-quality careers advice as early as possible; if we embed aspiration and ambition in young pupils rather than wait until career choices have to be made, we in the teaching profession can have the greatest impact.

The issue at secondary is further complicated by the pressures created with the new English Baccalaureate demands, whereby, as currently proposed, all students (starting with those currently in year 7) will be expected to sit the EBacc subjects.

The recruitment crisis will make it hard enough to fully staff all the EBacc subjects with specialist teachers at key stage 4, without also having to compete with staffing at key stage 3.

And yet Ofsted also tells us that lower quality teaching and monitoring of progress at key stage 3 can discourage students from choosing and engaging enthusiastically with the more academic subjects later on.

A genuine dilemma awaits and it makes the government’s failure to even recognise the current teacher recruitment crisis facing the profession, let alone act on it, an even greater disappointment.

We cannot demand ever more of schools unless we give them the resources they need.

  • Russell Hobby is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Visit

Further information

Key Stage 3: The wasted years, Ofsted, September 2015:


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