Key stage 3: The curriculum and working across phases

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
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Continuing our focus this term on key stage 3, Matt Bromley looks at how effective cross-phase partnerships can aid transition and how the curriculum in years 7, 8 and 9 can be made more engaging

I believe the secret of an effective key stage 3 is a better transition process, a better curriculum, better quality homework and better assessment and feedback. Continuing my focus on improving outcomes at key stage 3, this article explores how to develop more lasting and sustainable cross-phase partnerships between primary and secondary schools and how to improve the curriculum so that it is more challenging and engaging.

Cross-phase partnerships

Making a pupil’s transition from key stage 2 to 3 smooth and effective takes more than just a little teamwork at the end of year 6. What is needed is long-term, genuine and sustainable collaboration between schools. We need early years, primary and secondary schools to work in close partnership on all aspects of a child’s education, sharing information and resources, in order to ensure that each child is well-protected and experiences a continuity of service and support.

Why do we need better collaboration? Because projects that link pupils, teachers and schools across early years, primary and secondary phases can have a positive impact on pupils and teachers by supporting pupils to experience a smoother transition and make continuous progress both academically and in terms of their soft skills and by enabling teachers and schools to learn from best practice across different stages of the system.

So what does this collaboration look like? It might involve all phases of compulsory education establishing family links, sharing services such as family liaison officers, education welfare officers, SENCOs, EAL teachers and other specialists. It might involve all phases jointly planning and running projects and events such as summer schools or careers fairs. It might take the form of joint curriculum planning, joint CPD networks and INSET, and teacher visits and exchanges. And it might also involve cross-phase mentoring and tutoring.

It is important, as much as is possible, to see the two phases as one, particularly to see years 5 through to 8 as a single phase when it comes to planning the curriculum, because this will help to bridge the primary-secondary divide. Planning a unique “middle years” curriculum will also help to combat the problem of key stage 3 – particularly year 8 – being seen as “wasted years” (to quote Ofsted’s infamous 2015 report of the same title). Indeed, it will give it identity and purpose.

Another desired outcome of an effective cross-phase partnership is to ensure that all year 6 and 7 teachers work together to familiarise each other with the national curriculum of the phase they teach as well as the secondary school’s own curriculum and the school curriculum for the primaries.

These partnerships are also essential in order to design “settling-in” sessions and summer schools for pupils – but these should have an academic rather than pastoral flavour. Primary and secondary colleagues could also work together to design formative and summative assessment strategies, making it easier for teachers to track pupils’ progress as they change phases.
Where possible, cross-phase partnerships should enable teachers to work across the different phases in order to introduce more subject-specialist teaching to the later years of primary school as well as encourage a more holistic approach to pupils’ development at the beginning of key stage 3.

Primary schools need to set clear expectations for their staff about the importance of sharing and communicating with secondary colleagues by encouraging teachers to help pupils produce transition “passports” to showcase both their academic and their broader achievements. Secondary schools also need to encourage year 7 teachers who are struggling to understand a particular pupil’s needs to consider contacting their old year 6 teacher for a conversation.

Multi-academy trusts that encompass secondaries and feeder primaries have an advantage when it comes to cross-phase partnerships and many are already ahead of the curve.

It would, for example, be possible to employ teachers who work across both phases. This might mean that year 6 teachers move up with their classes and teach them in year 7, making transition much less daunting. Furthermore, phases would not have to follow the traditional pattern but could instead straddle the key stage divide, such as the “middle years” of years 5 to 8.

The curriculum

One of the main advantages of a cross-phase partnership is the opportunity for primary and secondary colleagues to collaborate on curriculum planning in order to ensure a joined up approach so work is not repeated.

Another way of ensuring the curriculum flows between the two phases is for primary and secondary teachers to design a “bridging” unit that links the end of year 6 with the beginning of year 7.

This has several advantages. Not only do pupils see the explicit link between the two phases and therefore feel less daunted by the perceived divide between the two, they are also able to start the new year at an advantage, with prior knowledge of a subject and with ready-made work to show their new teacher what they are capable of.

A quick idea worth mentioning here is encouraging pupils to bring in their best work from each subject in primary school when they start secondary. This work can then be affixed in pupils’ exercise books in year 7 to remind them and their teachers what they are capable of producing.

Another advantage of cross-phase partnerships related to the curriculum is the opportunity to share data in order to ensure that pupils’ prior attainment is used to set groups and to plan teaching so that lessons provide appropriate challenge. This helps avoid the common criticism that year 7 often repeats work from year 6 or is too easy. It also helps year 7 teachers to differentiate effectively.

However, data is more than just a spreadsheet – it is a conversation. Most secondary teachers will already have access to some information about their new year 7s, including their SATs performance. But a pupil’s year 6 teacher will know so much more than these numbers can possibly tell us. They will know, for example, what the pupil is capable of achieving when they are not under test conditions and what particular topics they have studied and found interesting.

They will know what their attitude to learning is like and what skills they have developed over their first seven years of schooling. They will know what extra-curricular activities they have taken part in and how well they did, as well as what motivates them to succeed and what demotivates them. They will know, too, what their home life is like and what obstacles they have had to overcome and may still be facing on a daily basis.

As well as what is taught, cross-phase partnerships can ensure that when it comes to the curriculum, teachers from primary and secondary schools liaise on how it is taught. A partnership might, for example, set up a primary/secondary CPD network in order to ensure that approaches to pedagogy are better matched and that teachers from both phases learn from each other about what works in the classroom and what motivates pupils and how they learn. Primary and secondary teachers have a lot to learn from each other when it comes to pedagogy and practice.

Key stage 3 curriculum

Key stage 3 is a springboard to GCSE success. As such, it must not be regarded as a poor relation to key stage 4 – this will only prove to be a vicious cycle. This means that school leaders – particularly the person who creates the school timetable – should 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, especially in core subjects. 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.

As well as ensuring that key stage 3 lessons are appropriately staffed, the curriculum needs to strike the right balance between providing a good grounding for GCSE and being different enough to key stage 4 to be engaging and inspiring.

You might consider taking advantage of the freedom key stage 3 offers to consider project-based learning and a focus on developing meta-cognition and self-regulation skills. I am not suggesting you ditch the traditional academic curriculum, but I am suggesting that you try to teach the curriculum in a way that is different to GCSE and in a way that helps pupils to become their own teachers, to engage in cooperate learning activities and to take ownership of their studies.

There is no shortage of evidence that this approach works. For example, meta-cognition and self-regulation are ranked top in the Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit in terms of effectiveness. And Professor John Hattie, in Visible Learning, said: “The biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners off their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers.”

Meta-cognition and self-regulation

So what does meta-cognition and self-regulation at key stage 3 look like in practice? Well, it might mean planning for group work and collaborative learning. It might mean the explicit teaching of communication skills, as well as thinking and reasoning skills. It might mean using reflective learning journals. And it might mean developing a shared language of learning.

Pupils might engage in one project every half-term which is allocated one lesson per week on the timetable. The project might alternate between an individual and a group task. It could be organised on themes allowing a certain degree of autonomy over its content and format.

Where enquiry-based learning of this nature is used, it is important that the project briefs inspire and challenge students, are predicated on the idea of every student succeeding, and involve genuine research.

It is also important that projects have in-built flexibility to allow for a range of abilities, are broken into clear components, and make clear what is expected of each student at each stage of their development, thus spelling out the qualities and dimensions on which the work will eventually be judged.

Teachers need to foster a sense of whole-class pride in the quality of learning and ensure that, once finished, project work is made public – providing a genuine audience. Project assessments should be used as the primary context for sharing knowledge and skills and this means teaching pupils how to give constructive feedback – another important skill they will need for GCSE and beyond. Finally, teachers need to instil in their pupils the belief that quality means rethinking, re-working, and polishing so that they feel celebrated, not ridiculed, for going back to the drawing board.

Pupils might also be allowed to choose their own talk partners and small groups at the start of year 7, then their teachers might choose the groups later in the year. Conflicts might be resolved through the use of restorative justice.

There might be a focus on communication skills throughout the year. Ground rules for group talk might be co-constructed with pupils then displayed in the classroom and regularly revisited.

Pupils may complete reflective learning journals once a fortnight that focus on how they learn, what barriers they face and how they can overcome them.

One particular skill they will need and one key aspect of meta-cognition and self-regulation, is transfer. The ability to transfer what has been learnt in one context to other contexts. Perkins & Salomon (1989) identified two mechanisms through which the transfer of knowledge and skills could take place: low road transfer (in which a skill is practised to near automaticity); and high road transfer (in which transfer relies on the deliberate mindful abstraction of an underlying principle).

For a more in-depth look at transfer, see my two articles for SecEd (Transferring learning into new contexts: Parts 1 & 2, September/October 2015:

The importance of self-regulation in promoting such transfer became increasingly recognised at the turn of the century (Schunk & Ertmer 2000) while Watkins (2001) defined effective transfer as requiring: requisite skills, choosing to use the skills, recognising when a particular skill is appropriate in new situations, and meta-cognitive awareness, monitoring and checking progress.

In short, using key stage 3 to help pupils develop the ability to self-regulate will help them to transfer their learning at later stages of their education, thus making their learning universal and therefore meaningful. In other words, it will provide them with the springboard to success at GCSE and beyond.

  • Matt Bromley is an experienced education leader, writer, consultant, speaker and trainer. He is the author of several books for teachers. His latest book, Teach 2: Educated Risks, is available in paperback and ebook from Visit or follow him @mj_bromley.

Best practice: Key stage 3

Matt Bromley is focusing on key stage 3 learning and teaching in SecEd throughout this term. Next up will be a look at transition between the three years within key stage 3, in particular the transition into year 8 where pupils experience a dip in motivation and progress. This piece will publish on September 29. To read previous pieces in this series and to read all of Matt’s best practice in SecEd, visit


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