KEY STAGE 3 – Ofsted’s new report

Everyone who teaches in secondary should read this report. It illustrates in bleak terms how KS3 has become the Cinderella stage of education, sandwiched between the narrow imperatives of Years 6 and 11.

Typically, Ofsted have used a coy question mark in the report title: Key Stage 3: the wasted years?  They really shouldn’t have bothered with the question mark.  It’s plain that KS3 has entered a period of sloth and the document, which draws on 1,600 inspection reports and thousands on interviews, picks out the important ways in which that is evident:

  • Progress and achievement are not good enough.
  • The most able lack challenge.
  • Poor teaching in a very substantial minority of MFL, history and geography lessons.
  • There are ineffective arrangements for primary-to-secondary transition. Teachers do not build on prior attainment.
  • The Pupil Premium is failing to closing gaps quickly
  • Cross-curricular mathematics loses out to whole school literacy.
  • Homework does not help pupils to consolidate or extend their learning.
  • Careers education is sparse and poor in quality

One of the main reasons given by Ofsted for weaknesses in KS3 is the obsessive focus of attention and resources on KS4.  Timetabling and assessment in KS3 takes back seat. Too many classes, for example, are split between two teachers or taught by non-specialists.

The report does point to instances of good practice and these are published in a separate case study document. The report acknowledges that a broad and balanced curriculum has been established in most schools, and that almost all academies have stuck with the prevailing curriculum model used by other schools.

Some interesting statistics are thrown up but not explored. For example, one third of secondary schools now run a two-year KS3, having annexed Year 9 to KS4. It would be useful if Ofsted were to comment on the effective use of Year 9 and whether that annexation has paid off, especially now that early entries have been curtailed by the ‘first result only’ rule.

Another statistic: 10% of schools have merged Humanities into a single subject in KS3.  In fact, the picture is also changing rapidly in arts, practical and vocational subjects as the traditional E-Bacc subjects suck up curriculum time.

With half of all secondary reports now citing KS3 among its headline negative findings, leaders should look harder at KS3 as the means of raising standards in KS4.  It’s cheaper and more effective to get a child on course when they are younger than engage in last-minute catch-up and cramming when they are already under extreme pressure.

GCSE is a syllabus-driven curriculum. New and aspiring heads of department should note that KS3 is the place where they can most easily make their mark by defining its purpose: a long run-up to GCSE? an extension of KS2? a lovely break from external pressure? a space for local enthusiasms to thrive? There must be something better for the in-between stage. This is where the old freedoms of departmental heads can be deployed to deliver something joyous and ambitious.