How can we ensure Key Stage 3 is academically challenging?

How can we ensure Key Stage 3 is academically challenging?
May 3rd, 2017

Toby French, a history teacher at Torquay Academy, has written this wonderful blog for us...

Many secondary schools expect far too little of pupils at Key Stage 3. It’s a bold claim, but it’s true. It’s a claim which angers some teachers, but it’s true. It’s a claim which should shock schools into action, but it does not. Why? And what can be done?

Ofsted’s 2015 report, ‘Key Stage 3: the wasted years?’ focuses on a number of problems with Key Stage 3 provision across the country. Those of low challenge and an overemphasis on pastoral care during transition from Year 6 to Year 7 are highlighted as particularly damaging. Most teachers will have heard of the now infamous ‘Year 7 gap’, the notion that we vastly underestimate what pupils are capable of, arguably perpetuated by a lack of communication between primary and secondary schools. What too few fail to do, however, is to respond purposefully or structurally: pupils are given more work, or extra homework; they’re invited to extra-curricular clubs, or given opportunities to visit museums and the like; artists and poets are brought in to enthuse, often at great expense. And you know what? All these things might well be fantastic, but they are the icing on a decidedly wobbly cake.

Schools feel, understandably, under pressure to perform well at GCSE, and so often take their eyes off the Key Stage 3 ball. This is a terrible mistake, for these two or three years are the last chance to study both broadly and without exam criteria. We must take the opportunity to broaden horizons for all during this precious period, especially as pupils can still choose to not study languages or history, for example, at GCSE. What a waste, then, to ignore Key Stage 3! Instead, let us use it purposefully to academically challenge.

So what does a purposeful and structurally coherent response to these supposed wasted years entail? It’s simply not good enough to dress up the curriculum as Neuschwanstein if the turrets are built with fairy dust. Firstly, an academically challenging Key Stage 3 requires some rather honest discussion, and probably the murder of a few darlings – is the comic-book Romeo & Juliet unit really challenging, or just fun? What about the not-so-explosive volcano-building competition? Is it good enough to be able to say how many brothers one has next Saturday near the beach, even if it is in French, after a whole year? Writing a curriculum is a professional and academic privilege, and so those decisions we make are not just for the privileged few.

‘What, ideally, should pupils know about our subjects by the end of Key Stage 3?’ I don’t ask this on a whim: if I value the grand narrative of English history, and believe this will help my pupils become better historians, then it’s no good starting, as so many do, at 1066. We need to begin with what is important, not what we, as teachers, might be comfortable with. This, then, is the cornerstone question because once we have an answer – and the ensuing discussions are what make us trusted professionals and not talk-show philosophers – we can focus on Key Stage 3 as a valuable journey in and of itself, rather than a series of skills-based GCSE-prep hoops through which to stumble. The purpose of Key Stage 3 should not be to prepare for exams, but to study the best that has been thought and said in a wide variety of subjects. And, in the end, this is better preparation for exams in any case, as it gives pupils a greater academic foundation.

A question I asked of my own subject a few years ago was ‘How many words do pupils read in each of my lessons?’ Those who do not read at home are obvious to us all, yet too often we fail to give pupils lots of reading because, well, it’s hard! But one of the best ways to improve reading is to read a lot – yes, along with lots of pauses and explanations about meaning and language, but always more, more, more. Let’s not be embarrassed by setting our pupils challenging texts to read, both in class and during tutorial time, and teaching them how to be successful. Key Stage 3 pupils at my school, Torquay Academy, now read a minimum of 1,200 words per lesson. This is tough, no doubt, but we’re not paid to click through YouTube explanations.

And what of the structure? This really does depend on the subject itself. Many interviewees are asked what a Year 9 should be able to do in a certain subject compared to a Year 7, but this is a bit of a trick question, although the tricksters aren’t always in on the joke. For example, maths, being a hierarchical subject, will expect certain competencies, otherwise pupils cannot move on. In history, however, the cumulative nature of the subject means pupils will simply know more, with their expanding domains increasing the schema by which they interpret the subject. Therefore, subjects need to be able to decide for themselves the road on which pupils will travel the Key Stage: in effect, how is the story told, and does this fit the bill? Subjects must not be afraid to teach their domains in the most effective and honest way: if this means lots of writing then so be it!

Of course, we need to ensure that we don’t heap on to pupils content of which they are not yet prepared to face, but schools must also recognise just how much more their youngsters are capable of. An academically challenging curriculum which is purposeful and structured appropriately broadens horizons and helps make the privileged few become the many.