Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Having vision to prepare

Carrots

Despite ministerial intervention on behalf of climate change and cooking, the key stage 3 review has resulted in much more freedom for individual schools over the content. The question is whether teachers who have only ever known the national curriculum will be ready for it.

The QCA review of key stage 3 produced a predicable crop of headlines in early February as government ministers strived to publicise the preservation of essential points of learning, such as climate change, the abolition of slavery and Jane Austen.

Mick Waters, QCA's director of curriculum, joined in with his memorable soundbite that, in spite of the slimming down of the curriculum, "Anne Boleyn will still be beheaded, the battle of Trafalgar will still have taken place in 1805, Romeo will still love Juliet, litmus paper will still turn red in acid, and music will still be the food of love."

All this media froth disguised the important message of the QCA review that much of the detail of the original national curriculum has disappeared and schools will have a lot more flexibility about what they teach 11 to 14 year-olds.

This presents both an opportunity and a challenge for secondary schools. After 18 years of a national curriculum in stifling detail, schools will have much more freedom to plan the curriculum for key stage 3.

But are schools up for it? Teachers under the age of 35 have spent their whole careers working under a centrally prescribed curriculum, looking upwards for direction on what they have to teach. Many heads of department and leadership team members come into this age bracket. Are they raring to get stuck into some genuine curriculum planning for perhaps the first time in their careers, or are they not sure how to go about it?

All change

What is on offer is no ordinary re-jigging of the content of the key stage 3 curriculum, but a wholesale look at what and how we teach this age group. The review includes a number of 'lenses' through which to plan the curriculum and these will enable schools, if they wish, to make the curriculum more local and more relevant to the interests of 11 to 14 year-olds.

One of the lenses - personalising learning - is particularly important in engaging young people more in their education, which is never an easy task for an age group for whom hormones are more urgent than history and text messaging more immediate than technology.

With key stages 1, 2 and 4 already slimmed down, the aim of the review was partly to reduce the content of the national curriculum, but this broadened into the aim to "develop a modern, world class curriculum that will inspire and challenge all learners and prepare them for the future".

There are three main themes - creating successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens. Put alongside the aim of inspiring and challenging all learners - including those with special needs of all kinds - in addition to the five Every Child Matters outcomes, this represents a considerable challenge.

As well as maximising academic achievement, the review encourages schools to reflect on the qualities that the curriculum should aim to develop in young people, citing self-reliance, the capacity to cope with change, feelings of justice and fairness and cultural flexibility. Then there are the skills to be built in literacy, numeracy, information technology and the other softer skills that employers say that they regard as important.

Flexing the timetable

QCA invites schools to consider whether a more flexible timetable is needed in order to pursue these aims at key stage 3, with some subjects being taught together and whole weeks being used at some times of year for certain subjects.

Examples of joint subject teaching are offered, such as science and physical education to teach anatomy, and different length lessons to reflect the differing needs of learning, say, a new modern language. All this will have school timetablers groaning as they survey their pinboards or computer printouts.

However, all of these ideas are being put into action in some schools, so while we may correctly point to the immense practical difficulties of what is being suggested by QCA, the proposals cannot be rejected out of hand and may even be helpful in broadening our thinking about the best ways in which children learn.

Question of KS2 tests

Change has been in the air for some time at key stage 3, where there is concern about disaffection among some learners and, allegedly, a dip in performance among pupils in the early years of secondary school. I say 'allegedly', because I have never been wholly convinced about this criticism of secondary schools.

This is partly because of the way in which the key stage 2 tests dominate the final year of primary schooling, with children and teachers exhausted by the months of preparation for the tests in May and then reducing the emphasis on maths and English in the wake of the tests, creating a period of four months when they forget much of what they had previously learnt.

It is also partly because the key stage 2 tests may, or may not, be a good way to measure achievement in the primary years, but they are certainly not, and are not meant to be, predictive of secondary school performance. Members in secondary schools will be well aware of this; the CAT or Midyis tests provides a much better baseline for target setting during the secondary years.

Thirdly, the ages from 11 to 14 are critical periods of personal and bodily development, when children are undergoing changes that have only begun for a small percentage of them in primary school. Raging hormones are not conducive to concentrated study.

This makes it particularly important that learning should be exciting at key stage 3 and the review offers the opportunity to reduce the extent to which these are the Gradgrind years. As examples, the QCA review suggests that children should attend at least two theatre performances, build a bird hide and go on an unaccompanied 50-mile journey.

Realistic expectations

While we might all want to broaden the education of children in interesting ways, the QCA has clearly not been studying the latest health and safety legislation or seen the risk assessment forms that schools have to complete. Unaccompanied 50-mile journeys will have to take place, if at all, when the children are under the control of their parents, since schools will not want to take this level of risk.

The QCA review has little to say about the relationship between assessment and the proposed new curriculum. Yet assessment is critical. ASCL will continue to try to persuade the government that the curriculum should lead assessment, not the other way round.

This is especially the case at key stage 3, when the important assessment on the horizon should be the GCSE or equivalent, not the key stage 3 tests, which should be no more than a staging post on the way to more important objectives. The process of making key stage 3 tests more important, through the creation of league tables, for example, has to be reversed. Even more important is good assessment for learning throughout the three years of key stage 3.

The consultation on the review's proposals takes place up to the end of April and the Secretary of State is expected to announce his conclusions by the end of June.

My strong advice to members, which I set out in the ASCL regional information conferences last autumn, is that preparation for the key stage 3 changes should start now. With the extent of the challenge and the limited experience of many middle managers in curriculum planning, there is much to do and it is advisable not to wait for the new curriculum to arrive in school in September 2007 to begin planning for September 2008.

During this period, many more schools will be starting to plan work for the 14 to 19 specialised diplomas, so making a start with the new key stage 3 as soon as possible makes sense.

By John Dunford, ASCL General Secretary

© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders