Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Meet the class of 2015

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What does the future hold for the first wave of students to experience the revised Key Stage 3 curriculum? Geoff Barton examines the revolution to come and what it means for ASCL members.

It was keynote speaker Matthew Taylor who crystallised the changing shape of childhood at ASCL's annual conference in Brighton this year.

The expectations of young people, he said, have shifted. As much as ever, they'll appreciate good and inspiring teachers but in a mercilessly hi-tech, interactive world, they'll be less tolerant of the mediocre ones.

They won't be patronised and bored in the way many of us took for granted as the default mode of school life.

The world our students will inherit will be different, less certain, infinitely complex, and if we're to create the citizens who will make a better job of looking after it than us and our forebears, then they're going to need different skills and aptitudes from those we were taught.

Then there are the shifting tectonic plates of national policy. Nudged by a new regime at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, conscious of the chief inspector's view that standards have stalled, and mindful of the summer's disastrous cock-up with key stage test marking, many school leaders have begun to apply Bill Clinton's mantra: "If we keep on doing what we've always done, we'll get what we always got."

There's a new mood in schools of no longer wanting to replicate the old models of education that left a significant minority of young people at best disappointed and at worst disaffected.

So now, in the optimistic, late summer sunshine of a shiny new term, our fresh-faced year 7 pupils are embarking on a new, unblemished Key Stage 3, while our possibly less fresh-faced year 12 students are stepping into a new slimmed-down era of A levels.

So how will it all look different when the reforms have finally kicked in? What might we expect for the first generation through this brave new educational world, our current year 7 students - the Class of 2015?

First, let's remind ourselves that all the pieces of curriculum reform aren't yet in place. Jim Rose has been charged with reviewing the primary curriculum and, more recently, looking at whether the expectations of the foundation stage, in terms of its literacy demands, are realistic.

Depending on your standpoint, there's a feeling that we expect too much - or too little - of our children at an early age. Whatever Sir Jim finally decides will have a long-term impact on the skills, knowledge and attitudes of the young people we inherit from our primary partners.

Urge to be innovative

In the meantime there are plenty of other changes afoot. First, there's a new Key Stage 3 and anyone who has listened to the QCA's director of curriculum, Mick Waters, talking about it will know that there's a strong urge here to be innovative, to scrap the old subject silos and to help our pupils to join up their learning.

So what will this mean for them? The transition from primary to secondary school should blur a little as the emphasis on learning skills and joined-up knowledge nudges aside the old secondary ethos of subject specialisation. In innovative schools they are likely to experience more themed days or weeks, more projects, more focus on 'how' rather than 'what' to learn.

In the new curriculum, there's a welcome acknowledgement that what many of us remember from our own schooldays isn't the lessons but the activities that went on around them - the clubs, the teams, the trips and visits. The new Key Stage 3 makes this central with its range of experiences from 'events' to 'learning outside the classroom' which sit there alongside 'lessons'.

If we're bold, we'll think of learning as something that happens in and around timetabled lessons and our Class of 2015 will experience a joined-up curriculum which smacks less of utilitarianism and has a rich core of exploration and enthusiasm.

Then - whether the Key Stage 3 tests remain in place or not - the Class of 2015 will reach the end of year 9. This marks the end of a core curriculum. We should view it as what all future citizens should know and be able to do by the age of 14. This is where their grasp of important mathematical, scientific, geographical and historical principles should have been consolidated; their language skills secured; and their appetite for learning left intact. Our Class of 2015 will, if we get it right, complete Key Stage 3 having made two levels of progress per key stage and, at the same time, have a foundation of inquiry, independence and citizenship which will set them up for the specialisation that begins in year 10. Key Stage 4 is the big unproven territory of the reforms. There's much here that's still to be seen, such as the new specifications for GCSE, the introduction of functional skills in English, maths and ICT. And then, of course, there's the diploma.

Diploma is a gamble

Let's put aside both the excessive hype and the familiar carping about the new qualification. It's a major gamble as ASCL's 14-19 position paper has suggested. Any educational reform which won't be adopted wholeheartedly by the independent sector risks reinforcing the polarised 'them-and-us' division of so-called academic and vocational qualifications that has bedevilled English education for half a century.

If we get the diploma right, however, as a genuinely motivating and valued vocational qualification, then our Class of 2015 will benefit from a better range of pathways into a brave new post-16 world.

The introduction of a compulsory staying-on age of 17 and (later) 18 means that our Class of 2015 will be the first generation for whom the traditional year 11 leaving day will become irrelevant.

In this, like most of Europe, we'll see learning as something that all young adults are engaged in rather than rushing to escape. And - again if we get it right - we'll give status to a range of courses other than A levels which will have public esteem and - more important - be of high value and relevance.

So that's the veritable smorgasbord of changes that lies ahead this term. Of course there are uncertainties beyond our control which will affect their success. If the testing and performance table regime doesn't change, we're unlikely to create parity of esteem between the new courses and genuine partnerships between schools.

If the awarding bodies play safe with new specifications, then we'll simply replicate the worst of the old courses. If we keep piling too much weight of expectation on to what the diplomas are supposed to deliver, they'll implode.

Perhaps most important is this: if we as school leaders fail to take the risks that we know are in the interests of young people, then we'll have fluffed the chance to reshape education and to re-engage a generation for whom much of what they learn, or don't learn, in school looks laughably irrelevant. Good luck to the Class of 2015.

Geoff Barton is head of King Edward VII School in Bury St Edmonds and a frequent contributor to the TES.


Further reading...

The DCSF has published a magazine for year 7 students to help them through their transition year to secondary school. Called Moving Up, it contains activities, games and chances to win prizes. Schools can order copies from www.teachernet.gov.uk

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