It's generally the age range paid least attention in secondary schools, but it seems as though Key Stage 3 is having a moment in the spotlight. Amanda Spielman’s speech to launch her organisation’s annual report, released in December 2017, drew attention to the importance of a broad, balanced KS3 curriculum and argued strongly against reducing it to two years to create a three year GCSE. This was music to our ears at the English and Media Centre. To us a challenging, meaningful, relevant experience of English at KS3 is crucial in helping pupils to become confident, articulate, critical, creative readers, writers, speakers and listeners for the 21st century.
Spielman’s words resonated with my own experience working as a KS3 Coordinator. On reflection, I realise that I have been guilty of some of her charges related to curriculum shrinking, albeit masked slightly by the fact that we (technically) do not follow a three year GCSE (though, suspiciously, we do study a 19th century novel in Year 9!). At the least, I knew I had been legitimising the removal of good KS3 schemes of work because they didn’t link perfectly to GCSE Assessment Objectives. I think this sort of mindset is part of the problem Spielman refers to.
So what’s the solution? Well, if Ofsted seems to be suggesting that we should keep our Key Stage 3 English curriculum broad and balanced, then we should presumably take advantage of this.
Primarily, Spielman’s words give permission for teachers to offer students a rich and varied curriculum. Her message calls for students to acquire a 'deep body of knowledge'. It’s hard to argue with that! Significant exposure to the worlds of language and literature, in all their wonderful variety, should be a basic entitlement for all. I would, of course, argue that how students interact with this knowledge is also vitally important.
Here are a couple of examples of things which have particularly struck a chord for me since I've been working at the English and Media Centre.
First, EMC’s ongoing ‘It’s good to talk’ group work project. EMC has been working with teachers from a variety of schools to discover what group work really looks like, and investigating how it can best lead to meaningful learning in the classroom. I've been impressed with the way it shows how students can genuinely engage with a challenging curriculum in order to bring it to life.
Second, on a recent course we ran here, Dr Julia Sutherland from the University of Sussex spoke about ‘A faster, immersive read’, a research project involving 40+ schools in Brighton, Hove and Sussex. It struck me that all the elements of the project were in line with Spielman’s message. Her team have been researching the benefits of reading two novels back-to-back over a term. The focus is on explicitly developing reading comprehension strategies, especially inference, and practising these in group work, guided reading and reciprocal reading. Activites are light-touch and the focus is on enjoyment, keeping up the momentum of reading (whole lessons just reading!), talk and critical discussion.
I’ll admit to a few palpitations when Julia described how Ofsted had inspected one school in the study during the time pupils were mid-way through the project – because they had been busy reading there was little to be seen in their books in the way of writing. Thankfully, and naturally enough, the inspector asked why this was the case, giving the teacher a chance to explain what pupils had been doing. He invited the inspector to listen to some of the pupils discussing the novels and explaining how he had been assessing their discussions. The inspector was impressed at the depth of understanding and personal response they demonstrated when verbally comparing the texts. Their progress and understanding was clearly evidenced without the need for lots of writing. This is reassuring for teachers who, like me, might wonder how such lessons might be viewed.
The encouraging findings from the project are that weak readers made an average of 16 months improvement on their reading age over 12 weeks. This seems to be partly because they actually read and understood two whole novels (an unusual experience for the weaker readers) and partly because the pace and momentum of the reading prompted real enjoyment, with pupils coming to lessons excited about reading and keen to continue reading after the end of the project. Teachers remarked that they had previously spent all their time on analysis (preparation for GCSE again) but that comprehension (in the richest sense), and personal response had been neglected.
Now, more than ever, we need KS3 to work for us; to keep our pupils excited about learning in English and resilient to the challenges they will face at GCSE. If, like me, you are looking for strategies that genuinely take students forward in their learning about our subject while working with the realities and pressures of the classroom, you might like to join Kate Oliver and I on the 8th March at the EMC for a course on 'Reinvigorating KS3'. Although this course is almost full, a similar course, 'Getting Your KS3 Curriculum Right', will be running on 17th May. Look out for details on our website or pre-book via firstname.lastname@example.org.