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Should key stage 3 be restored to the full three years?

Should key stage 3 be restored to the full three years?
The message from Ofsted’s application of its new framework so far confirms that you should do what’s right for your students, explains Tom Middlehurst, SSAT head of policy and public affairs

Since the start of term, there has been significant discussion on various media platforms, including SSAT’s senior leaders’ forum, about whether secondary schools should re-adopt a three-year key stage 3. This is no doubt in part due to this year’s new Ofsted framework, and the reflections on curriculum that this has prompted.

So what are the benefits of both a two-year and three-year KS3? What are the drawbacks? What are the effects of continued funding pressures on schools, the ‘bigger’ GCSEs and the continued fetishisation of the EBacc subjects? And what does Ofsted actually say about it all?

Dispelling myths: Ofsted and the curriculum

One of the most frequent questions that Alex Galvin, Colin Logan (SSAT senior education leads) and I are asked on our curriculum seminars or in-school consultancy is: what is Ofsted’s view of a two-year KS3? Of course, our answer is always based on our own insights, as we are not speaking for the inspectorate itself.

Curriculum & Assessment toolkit

Ofsted is clear that there is no ‘Ofsted-approved’ curriculum model, and that curriculum decisions should be made by leaders and teachers in the best interests of pupils.

That being said, looking at the common trends from reports published under the new framework last term, a significant number of RI reports include mention of a two-year KS3 and/or a low EBacc entry rate. Both of these points, while not curriculum models in themselves, strongly suggest a preferred curriculum structure. This is, understandably, why so many schools that currently operate a two-year KS3 are reconsidering.

Based on the published reports, Ofsted’s main concerns with a reduced KS3 are twofold. First, it is hard to cover the full KS3 national curriculum, or a curriculum of equal breadth, depth and ambition, in just six terms. Second, by choosing options in year eight, too many students don’t continue to study arts and vocational subjects beyond the age of 13 (a point made slightly ironic by Ofsted’s focus on EBacc entry – which has arguably led to a decline in arts GCSE entries… hey-ho).

But what’s the reality? There is a perception out there that a two-year KS3 is a limiting factor in inspection, or else predetermines the quality of education judgement (and therefore the overall judgement). However, the second secondary school to be judged outstanding under the new framework continues to offer a two-year KS3. So this perception is, in fact, a myth.

The headteacher of the school in question shared his experience of inspection at an SSAT curriculum event last term. He explained that he and his team had a strong rationale for why they operate this curriculum model: in this case, as a high-performing selective girls’ school, they find they cover the national curriculum content (and more) within two years, and are able to offer more options in a three-year KS4. He did say inspectors showed concern over curriculum narrowing too early, but he had been able to show that take-up in extracurricular arts activities was exceptionally high, even with pupils not taking arts-based GCSEs.

The message here is that the framework encourages schools to do what’s right for your students, within your context. Sure, there are caveats to this; but the message from Ofsted is consistent. Don’t try to game the inspection. Don’t try to game performance tables. Do what you think is right.

At SSAT, we know that headteachers’ and leaders’ experience of inspection remains mixed, a view that Ofsted is aware of. But based on our events, and conversations with many of you, the new framework is largely welcome and has been implemented sensitively in most inspections that you’ve told us about.

So what is right for your school?

Two-year v three-year

When extended KS4 became very fashionable 15 years ago, part of the rationale was to give students a deeper experience at KS4, rather than it just being seen as the ‘exam prep key stage’. A three-year KS4 meant that schools could offer a broader curriculum, with more time for pupil choice and pastoral support, than previously. At least, this was the argument put forward by David Hargreaves and Kai Vacher in the Personalising Learning series of pamphlets.

This point remains true: particularly with the new, larger GCSEs, a three-year KS4 may allow students to study more subjects to 16, by increasing the number of options.

However, is this to the detriment of a narrowed KS3 curriculum? Therein lies the problem. Tom Sherrington’s analysis of curriculum models that he has collected from across the country suggests it’s difficult to offer both a three-year KS3 and four options at GCSE. Which is more important?

The EBacc and funding certainly play into this question. SSAT has always opposed the EBacc as a school performance measure, and was disappointed to see it feature in the new Ofsted framework. Our view has always been that Progress 8 encourages more students to enter traditionally academic subjects (the term ‘facilitating subjects’ having been formally dropped by the Russell Group), without narrowing the curriculum. However, if a majority of students are entered for EBacc – and with funding as it is – it becomes impossible to run tiny options subjects of 15 pupils. So schools inevitably have to limit the option choices available. This makes a strong case for a longer KS4, with more subjects available.

In Personalising Learning, David and Kai never suggested that the additional year should be used to repeat the same material. An extended KS4 should always be enriching, never repetitive or seen as extra revision time. All of the ‘new’ GCSEs are designed for two years’ worth of study and teaching.

Done intelligently, a three-year KS4 can be seen to broaden the curriculum – not narrow it – for example, by ensuring that all students study a humanities, a languages, an arts, and a vocational subject to 16, by increasing the number of options available.

But what of KS3? The brilliant report The wasted years highlighted how overlooked the KS3 curriculum has been. This transition between primary education and formal exams at 16 is the most fertile ground in which to sow the seeds of disciplinary knowledge, skills and passion. By limiting this, we run the risk of denying students access to the very best that has been thought and said in each discipline – a powerful vehicle for social justice.

So where does this leave us?

Ultimately, schools should resist the urge to knee-jerk on any aspect of curriculum purely based on the new framework. Instead, we should continue to reflect on our curriculum offer, and how we can offer the most broad, balanced and ambitious curriculum for all students. What this looks like will depend upon each school’s context, and the needs of the pupils and community. We know that the new framework is challenging – but schools should always put the needs of their pupils first.

If you are interested in booking in-school curriculum consultancy from SSAT, Colin Logan, Alex Galvin and Tom Middlehurst all offer regular keynotes, updates and training for headteachers’ associations and conferences, senior leadership teams, middle leaders and whole-school Inset.
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