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Why a three-year Key Stage 3 is a poor metric for judging the curriculum

In recent weeks there has been something of a storm in the educational press as Ofsted and the leaders of some prominent schools groups have gone head-to-head over the way that Ofsted is judging schools under the new 2019 framework.

This confrontation comes in the wake of a snowballing movement amongst the teaching profession, especially many of those who are high-profile on edutwitter, to champion the three-year key stage 3. Brewing for some time, this position seems to have been adopted implicitly by the inspectorate as well.

The arguments in favour of a three-year key stage 3 are powerful:

  • It provides greater breadth and depth of knowledge and thereby provides a greater entitlement to knowledge for students

  • It better prepares students for GCSE study by providing more of the kind of ‘powerful knowledge’ needed to access GCSE level texts, case-studies etc

  • It avoids a culture of teaching-to-the-test, so exam-focussed that it disengages students, damages their ability to learn well, and results in “success without substance” (in the recent words of HMCI herself)

I tend to agree with all of the above, and certainly don’t accept the case that a three-year key stage 3 cannot be appropriate for disadvantaged children. However, in this blog I want to look at some of the dangers of accepting the length of key stage 3 as a valid measure of curriculum quality.

While I’m not convinced that this is necessarily what Ofsted are doing, I have little doubt that many school leaders, and therefore it stands to reason Ofsted inspectors (let alone others involved in influencing school curriculum decisions) are happy to make initial judgments about curriculum quality from the length of key stage 3 alone. I’ve certainly overheard engaged and well-meaning colleagues’ sharp intakes of breath, tut-tuts and ‘oh dear’s in response to finding out that a friend’s school has a two year key stage 3. Indeed, I’ve seen first-hand how quickly well-meaning judgements can be passed on curricula that individuals know very little about, and we’ve certainly seen sweeping statements to this effect on twitter too.

Why is length of key stage 3 a poor metric?

I think we need to look at two related features of the curriculum here:

  1. Curriculum breadth (how much high-quality knowledge is taught, and how)

  2. Curriculum effectiveness (how well the curriculum supports and enables good learning)

While length of key stage 3 is certainly an indicator of breadth, there’s enormous variation in the breadth of different key stage 3s and it’s about so much more than time with a subject on a student’s timetable.

Problem 1 – Different subject weightings in key stage 3 matter more than length of key stage

The first problem is a simple one but significant.

In school A, students study History for one 80 minute lesson per week for 3 years.

In school B, students study History for two 60 minute lessons per week for 2 years.

In school C, students study History for one 60 minute lesson per week for 3 years.

In school D, students study History for two 45 minute lessons per week for 3 years.

All perfectly reasonable models right? We could imagine these schools giving similar amounts of time to Geography, the Arts, perhaps RS too.

However, in terms of curriculum time, lets look at how much History each of these schools gives their students as an entitlement before they are able to drop the subject. Assuming a 39 week school year:

School A: 156 hours of History

School B: 156 hours of History

School C: 117 hours of History

School D: 175.5 hours of History

As we can see, School A and B, despite one having a 3 year KS3 and one a 2, teach the same amount of History before students are able to drop it.

School C, with a 3 year KS3, teaches significantly less history than the others.

School D, despite short lessons, teachers the most by a ways.

Obviously there are many other factors and many other subjects to look at here, and few arbiters are likely to make their judgments based purely on hours of history studied, but it reminds us that length of key stage alone doesn’t give us sufficient information to go on.

Problem 2 – Curriculum choices are a more important indicator of breadth than length of key stage

In one new-framework Ofsted report I saw a reference to students being taught no history past the 1600s if they dropped history at the end of Year 8. Worrying, right? This example is particularly problematic because this school wouldn’t be getting close to covering the NC. However, it made me think about how important the choices made by curriculum-makers are. Is there a level of coverage that inherently reaches the quality of being ‘broad and balanced’? Let’s again consider some examples:

School A:

History: Romans – Normans – Black Death – Tudors – Empire – Industrial Revolution – Holocaust

RS: Christianity – Islam – Christianity – Hinduism

Geography: Maps – Climate – Rivers – Plate tectonics – Erosion – Migration

School B:

History: Romans – Anglo-Saxons – Normans – Islamic civilisations – Middle-ages – English Civil War – Slave trade – Victorians – WW1

RS: Hinduism – Judaism – Buddhism – Christianity – Islam – Sikhism

Geography: Maps – Ecosystems – Development - Climate – Erosion – natural disasters – population – sustainability – globalisation

Now, there’s a serious lack of information here. I’d suggest both are realistic curriculum plans. I’d suggest that, in terms of breadth, School B has got the edge; slightly more of a multi-cultural, global view of things.

However, if we assume that School A has a 3 year Key Stage 3 but teaches topics for much longer, while School B teaches all this content over 2 years, what then? How do we weigh breadth against depth? And what if the Humanities teachers in both schools are incredible and instil life-long powerful knowledge? School A just do a lot more on a few topics but ignore the rest?

Length of Key Stage doesn’t tell us enough, yet again, to judge accurately.

Problem 3 – Curriculum implementation in the time given is more important than length of key stage

Isn’t how the curriculum is implemented in KS3 just as if not more important than length, too? For example, I’m sure we’ve all seen KS3 curriculums which feature ‘GCSE-style questions’ and GCSE-focussed writing frames from the very start of Year 7. This isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but when set beside a curriculum which encourages students to articulate their knowledge through a range of other valid means (let’s say, includes termly presentations and extended reports alongside traditional essays and short answer questions) might we begin to ask questions about the nature of the curriculum implementation in a school?

Certainly, a school with three years of KS3 subjects in which all assessments are GCSE style and students never learn to articulate their learning outside of an AO1/AO2/AO3/PEEL/PEA etc essay format has limited claim to be ‘teaching to the test’ less than a school with two years of ‘awe and wonder’ KS3 which then gets down to business for KS4 for three years in order to give their students a fair crack.

Concluding thoughts

The above are just a few major concerns I have with an over-reliance on length of key stage as a focus for curriculum judgment. There are plenty of other questions we can raise. I am sure that in many schools judged less than outstanding on the grounds of curriculum design, there are perfectly valid limitations in their curriculum. Likewise, I don’t doubt that many inspectors take a nuanced view of the issues raised above and more besides when judging the curriculum before them.

Nevertheless, in the same way that ‘amount of teacher talk’ was for a time used as a blunt instrument measure of lesson quality for observers who either couldn’t or didn’t want to look deeper at the quality of teaching and learning in schools, I think as a profession we have to be wary when numbers and labels creep to the fore of conversations about ‘what’s good’.

Every school is at least a bit different, and I’m certain that along the spectrum of curriculum quality we’ll find schools with both two and three year key stage 3s at both ends. We need to firmly resist oversimplifying complex, tough and important curriculum questions in search of any golden rules or magic bullets (as nice as they would be), especially when judgments about curriculum quality have the potential to impact schools and school leaders so dramatically.

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