01 June 2016
ASCL Specialist Suzanne O’Farrell offers top tips to help schools inject more challenge into the curriculum and ensure that the latest wave of reforms translates into higher standards.
In John White’s book Rethinking the Curriculum (2004), he says: ‘Given that the curriculum is a vehicle, or a collection of vehicles, intended to reach a certain set of destinations, we have to begin with the destinations themselves. Once we have these, we have at some point to work out what kinds of vehicles are best to help us attain them in particular circumstances.’
What we know about these destinations is that they will require us to do the best job we can, both to prepare pupils for an unprecedented amount of GCSE and A level reform and to deliver a curriculum that will equip our pupils to deal with an uncertain future. What do we know for certain? We know that reformed GCSEs are more rigorous, we know the new primary curriculum is equally rigorous, we know from the White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere that there is an expectation that more pupils will follow a core academic curriculum, and we know that grade 5 will be deemed the new ‘good pass’. If we want to raise standards, we have to make our curriculum more challenging, so it is worth reflecting on whether we are doing everything we can to maximise achievement at Key Stage 3.
Many schools are viewing years 7 to 11 as a five-year continuum and mapping back from GCSE for curriculum-planning purposes. However, schools should not neglect the impact that the new primary curriculum could have on their incoming Year 7 and on subsequent years.
Next year’s Year 7 will be the first group to have studied two years of the more demanding primary curriculum and will have sat harder Key Stage 2 SATS that prioritise reading, grammar, punctuation and spelling and times tables. There are various documents available below to help schools understand more about the knowledge and skills that primary pupils are now expected to develop and the standard they are expected to reach.
These documents are a potential starting point to ensure that your Key Stage 3 schemes of work are informed by what is happening in Key Stage 2, so that you are in a position to be able to accelerate progress in Year 7 and capitalise on gains made in primary school.
The analyses in the RAISEOnline library will contain the detailed responses of your incoming Year 7 pupils on their reading and maths papers. They will be available for the start of term and may help identify whether your incoming cohort has underperformed in certain aspects – for example, they may be weaker on fractions. You will be able to see in a granular and analytical way where the strengths and weaknesses of your pupils lie and can build this into your curriculum planning for Key Stage 3.
If you do any baseline assessment in Year 7 related to verbal and non-verbal reasoning and identify verbal reasoning as an area for improvement, it is worth involving as many departments as possible in a coordinated approach to ensure that everyone prioritises these key skills from the beginning. This approach could be particularly helpful in supporting and preparing pupils for the skills needed for English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects.
Schools have so many priorities but enabling departmental teams to devote time to high- quality curriculum planning is a key one. Getting the building blocks right with progressive schemes of work comprising well-thought-through sequencing of ideas and planned interleaving of topics will be essential to ensure pupils feel confident and have built up the skills, knowledge and understanding they need for Key Stage 4.
This is a huge topic but, in terms of Key stage 3, if you get the building blocks of your curriculum right and identify the key constructs and big ideas that pupils need to master, this will drive your assessment. Ensure you don’t just assess what is easy to assess rather than what should be assessed; think about where your pupils are going to have to think hard and how you can inject challenge.
We know that high expectations from teacher to students and for students of themselves has the greatest impact on achievement. Many schools aren’t sharing notions of targets with pupils at Key Stage 3, choosing instead to focus on progress and instructional feedback to challenge pupils to enhance their performance continuously. There is the opportunity early in Year 7 to establish a culture of challenging pupils to improve following specific feedback; this is a concept and language pupils can respond to as we move away from the labelling of levels.
How are schools preparing for and adapting to the new GCSEs in terms of specific skills required? Schools tell us that they are emphasising extended writing practice in all subject areas by doing targeted reading and analysis of longer passages; developing the numeracy requirements of the new science curriculum through Key Stage 3 mathematics; and ensuring that Key Stage 3 science focuses on essential practical skills, critical analysis and working on problem solving much earlier on. Although there has been an inexcusable delay in the accreditation of GCSE specifications, the subject content for all of the GCSES for delivery from September 2016 has been agreed and departments can use this to identify the key constructs to be mapped out across the key stages.
The impact of curricular reform means that students will need durable and flexible memories to retrieve information stored as we move to examination as the default mode of assessment and increased content.
How can we support pupils with this? Research by Robert Bjork tells us that what students can do in a lesson reveals very little about what they may be able to do elsewhere and later. Teacher support in lessons helps focus on the performance there and then and doesn’t always result in learning. So the focus has to be on the learning and subsequent retrieval; if we just focus on the performance, this will not improve performance. According to Bjork, the best strategies for improving retrieval strength include interleaving (spacing), variation, testing and reducing feedback.
A curriculum is more than a list of content specified by the DfE and if we really want Key Stage 3 to be the bedrock of a pupil’s education, it is worth ensuring that it focuses not only on the curriculum big ideas but also includes wider, purposeful and valuable experiences that prepare pupils for the next stage in their learning and their future lives. It is more important than ever that leaders do not lose sight of their curriculum vision and values and build in opportunities to develop self-assured, confident learners who are both resilient to failure and enjoy the challenge of learning.
We know from Ofsted’s report on Key Stage 3 that there is increased focus from inspectors on how well pupils are starting their secondary experience, how effectively Pupil Premium money is being used to support students and whether the needs of the more able are being met. Those vehicles I referred to at the beginning may need to be turbo-charged to get to our destinations! However, ultimately a curriculum is far more than prescribed syllabus content; we only need to watch our pupils develop and enjoy the challenge of learning to see for ourselves the impact of the rich, broad and balanced curricula we offer in our schools.
Suzanne O’Farrell is ASCL Curriculum and Assessment Specialist