What’s next for key stage 3?

Written by: Suzanne O’Farrell | Published:
Image: MA Education

With the increasing demands of key stage 4 and recent Ofsted criticism of provision in years 7, 8 and 9, Suanne O’Farrell looks at how schools can best use key stage 3 to support students’ achievement and their wider learning

With GCSE reform at the forefront of our minds, this is a good time to reflect on the role of the key stage 3 curriculum in preparing pupils for the transition to these new courses.

We know that the second phase of reformed GCSEs being introduced from September will mean more content, more assessment, more extended writing and more mathematics.

This means thinking about key stage 3 not only in terms of the key concepts we want our pupils to master, but also developing the skills, such as stamina and resilience, to prepare them for an unprecedented amount of exams in year 11.

Many schools are already planning their curriculum for years 7 to 11 with these thoughts in mind. However, it is also essential not to neglect the effect of changes taking place at primary level. Next year’s secondary school intake will be the first to arrive, not only with a new scaled score, but having studied two years of a rigorous new primary curriculum.

They will have sat harder key stage 2 SATs prioritising reading, grammar, punctuation and spelling, and multiplication tables.

Our education ministers have set out the expectation that they want every 11-year-old to be able to know their times tables off by heart, perform long division and complex multiplication, and be able to read a novel and write a short story.

There are various documents available that help schools understand more about the knowledge and skills primary pupils are now expected to develop, and the standard they are expected to reach. These include programmes of study, sample key stage 2 SATs, how to calculate and submit teacher assessment data, and material to support teacher assessment of writing at the end of key stage 2.

These documents could be a potential starting point to ensure that key stage 3 schemes of work build on the progress pupils have made in primary school. The links to these documents can all be found at the end of this article.

Sharing key stage 3 schemes of work with primary school partners may also help year 6 teachers know more about the demands of the curriculum when preparing their pupils for the next stage in their education.

As schools re-evaluate their key stage 3 curriculum in the light of the demands of the reformed GCSEs, they are supporting their students’ preparation for the new exams in a variety of ways.
More emphasis is being placed on extended writing practice in all subject areas. There is targeted reading – for example, frequent reading of passages of 500 words followed by immediate analysis of the text – and the development of ambitious vocabulary throughout the school with “words of the day”.

Numeracy skills in the new science curriculum are being developed through mathematics courses so that there is real mastery of them. Schools are also ensuring that key stage 3 science is focused on developing both practical and critical skills. Problem-solving skills are also being covered earlier than they might have been previously.

Raising achievement at key stage 3 means ensuring that the curriculum is as challenging as possible. It is worth departments asking themselves whether projects undertaken in years 7 or 8 are really delivering the skills pupils need or whether they are included in schemes of work because they always have been. It is also essential that literacy and numeracy strategies have an impact during these formative years with added attention to spelling, punctuation and grammar throughout the whole curriculum.

Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw described key stage 3 as the poor relation to key stage 4 in his report last year – entitled Key Stage 3: The wasted years? – and signalled his intent that inspections would focus on how well pupils were starting their secondary school careers.

Recommendations focused on a more effective use of Pupil Premium money, improved partnerships with primaries, improving the quality and effectiveness of homework, ensuring the needs of the more able are being met, improving the quality of teaching, particularly in English Baccalaureate subjects, and improving careers information, advice and guidance at key stage 3.

The report has an annexed pupil questionnaire that schools may want to use to evaluate their own key stage 3 provision in terms of the level of challenge and whether work is repeated from primary.

A curriculum is more than a list of content specified by the Department for Education. If we really want key stage 3 to be the bedrock in a pupil’s education, it is worth ensuring it focuses not only on the curriculum big ideas but also includes wider, purposeful and valuable experiences that prepare pupils not only for the next stage in their learning but also for their future lives.

Ofsted inspectors look for pupils to be self-assured, confident learners, who are both resilient to failure and enjoy the challenge of learning. A rich key stage 3 curriculum can go a long way in achieving that objective.

Alongside curriculum reform, schools are also having to design closely aligned systems of assessment. The removal of national curriculum assessment levels gives departments the opportunity to define for themselves what progression looks like for their subject.

The emphasis should be on ensuring all pupils develop a secure understanding of key concepts and ideas through high-quality classroom-based formative assessment. This allows teachers to glean how well key concepts have been learned by students and shape teaching accordingly.

When considering summative tests for pupils, it is advisable to undertake standardisation across the department and benchmarking with other schools if possible to ensure consistency and accuracy. Over time departments can then build up evidence of the impact of their curriculum and teaching practice on pupil achievement.

In conclusion, it is worth emphasising the need to constantly evaluate key stage 3 as we learn more about the demands of both key stage 2 and 4.

Departments will need to be flexible and adaptable and be willing to evaluate the success of what they are doing, asking themselves whether their pupils are learning, enjoying and making progress.

Amid all this imposed reform though, we must not lose sight of the fact that school leaders are best placed to determine the curriculum to meet their pupils’ current and future needs. It can be challenging to find the time and resources to focus on doing so, but the planning and delivery of lessons is our core purpose and must be a priority for us all.

  • Suzanne O’Farrell is the Association of School and College Leaders’ curriculum and assessment specialist.

Resources and information

  • The National Curriculum in England: Key stages 1 and 2 framework document, Department for Education, September 2013: http://bit.ly/1Sx5hvB
  • National Curriculum Assessments: 2016 sample materials, Standards and Testing Agency: http://bit.ly/1RQ2V8E
  • Teacher Assessment: Key stage 1 and key stage 2, Standards and Testing Agency: http://bit.ly/1UQ2UEp
  • 2016 Teacher Assessment Exemplification: KS2 English writing, Standards and Testing Agency: http://bit.ly/1Xa3QSX
  • Key Stage 3: The wasted years?, Ofsted, September 2015: http://bit.ly/228mj5R
  • ASCL is holding a national summit in London on April 27 entitled Taking Ownership of Your Curriculum which focuses on curriculum design. Speakers include schools minister Nick Gibb. For details, see: www.ascl.org.uk/events


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