Three years or two years for key stage 3? The question about the ideal length of key stage 3 is actually more complex than it may seem

Claire Heald is Standards Director and Executive Principal at Inspiration Trust

In the wake of the new Ofsted framework identifying the length of key stage three (KS3) as an inspection focus, there has been much debate over the length of key stage three. It also appears that some schools have felt forced to change their curriculum in direct response.

Personally I very much welcomed the focus on curriculum in the new Ofsted framework. At Inspiration Trust we have been investing in long term curriculum development for several years now and getting curriculum right is clearly vital to sustainable school improvement. However I would argue that the two or three year curriculum debate is actually a massive red herring, as it significantly over-simplifies the key issues and glosses over the questions that schools (and inspectors) should be asking.

So what other questions?

Initial things I would ask (and indeed do ask through my work with schools) are:


  • Why has the decision been made to choose a 2 or 3 year length KS3? For example, is it about having three years heavily focused on exam content and practising exam papers (which would not be encouraged) or is it about something else? Has the school considered its specific demographic when making these decisions?
  • What is the curriculum coverage? For example, is the National Curriculum covered? How have you decided what to teach?
  • How many hours are allocated to each subject in KS3? And also KS4?

At Jane Austen College, where I am Executive Principal, we made the decision to offer a two year KS3, in no small part because it supports curriculum breadth at KS4, something we felt was really important, particularly when it comes to the Arts (an area of specialism). The reality is that some pupils do need more time in core subjects to address the issue of lower starting points or other challenges, if we are going to go any way at all to solving the disadvantage gap. Whether due to SEND, high levels of absence, low prior attainment, poor motivation and engagement with school – whatever the reason may be – some students need more time to catch up and more support. And if they need more time in core subjects, they will likely need it in options subjects too.

As a school we have also committed to offering the English Baccalaureate for the majority of pupils because we feel it’s important for social mobility. Without a three year KS4 we would have needed to reduce the options subjects available to pupils significantly.

You can imagine the scenario – a lovely broad KS3 curriculum but then no option for pupils to continue with art, music, drama or another subject a young person may be passionate about. Or at least not without sacrificing performance in core subjects.

We agreed on a curriculum structure that we feel allows us to support pupils in achieving the success in core subjects that will open doors for them in the future, without sacrificing the space for the arts, for computing, for engineering – or whatever pupils wish to choose.

So is a three year KS3 the right choice if it creates excessive narrowing at KS4? Probably not.

Could a school, through innovation in timetabling and organisation of the school day, actually offer the same curriculum time allocation in two years for a subject as another school might offer in three? Yes they could. And one school in our trust does this very effectively, with coverage of the National Curriculum and beyond.

There are key questions here about the reasons why a school has chosen a particular approach, as well as questions about curriculum time allocation and also curriculum coverage. Curriculum quality is key as well of course. A school might be offering a three year KS3, but what is the curriculum standard? Curriculum is complex and it’s not a case of one size fits all. Ensuring curriculum quality and being able to see a measurable impact can of course take time. We’ve seen in the past that there can be a ‘knee jerk’ reaction to Ofsted frameworks. It feels like we are starting to see this again when it comes to the length of key stage 3. In an area of the curriculum that needs careful planning, investment and thought, such ‘knee jerk’ reactions aren’t helpful. For example, a school might wish to move to a three-year model, but might need to take some time to get to the point where it is able to, without sacrificing KS4 outcomes along the way.

Fundamentally this comes down to what is right for pupils. A school knows its context and demographic well and must make the decisions that are right for its pupils. The decisions aren’t always easy or straightforward, but school leaders are best placed to make them. Within our trust, some schools have a three year KS3 and some two. When we centralised our curriculum development strategy across Inspiration Trust, our principals made it clear that they wished to retain this freedom and made strong and compelling arguments as to why this was important. From a trust leadership perspective we are interested in two things – does each principal have a clear rationale behind their decision to choose either two or three years, and are they doing what is best for their pupils, particularly the most vulnerable of them?

With this issue firmly under the inspection spotlight, schools may well be concerned about inspectors understanding some of the complexities around curriculum. Are Ofsted inspectors trained and equipped to understand and interpret these nuances in multiple contexts?

Ofsted’s National Director for Education, Sean Harford has stated that it is not the case that Ofsted has a preferred length of KS3 or KS4 saying: “There has been a lot of speculation about whether Ofsted has a fixed view that schools should not have a two-year key stage 3 (KS3). This is simply not the case”.

That seems clear enough. Will this be borne out in schools’ inspection experiences? We have to hope so.