Ever since HMCI Amanda Spielman proclaimed her views on a shortened Key Stage 3 and urged school leaders to think what pupils might be missing out on, schools have been left wondering what the inspectorate might think about a school operating a two-year KS3.
In fact, it is too simplistic to judge a school on whether it chooses to deliver KS3 across two or three years. The real focus should be the totality, quality and breadth of the curriculum experience and how well it enables pupils to achieve and progress further.
Frame the debate
Whilst it is right to be asking questions about a narrow curriculum and the quality of access to a range of rigorous subjects for pupils of all backgrounds, it is essential that we frame the debate from a wider perspective than the length of KS3.
Each school’s curriculum is unique and we have to guard against a scenario where some inspectors adopt an absolutist position, or one-size-fits all-approach, and fail to focus on the whole curriculum experience over five years.
Schools have always had the freedom to organise their curriculum as they see fit, in fact curriculum freedoms were hailed as one of the benefits of academy status.
In response to Ofsted’s The Wasted Years? report in 2015, many schools dropped the notion of KS3 and KS4. They focussed on creating a challenging culture in the early years of secondary, and rebranding the various stages of a pupil’s journey from a foundation stage to an acceleration stage and final examination stage. They sought to maintain momentum, inject new challenges and reverse a nationally identifiable dip in the upper years of KS3.
There are many schools operating a shortened KS3 and delivering a high-performing curriculum with tangible benefits for all groups of pupils – particularly for SEND and disadvantaged students at both KS4 and KS5 – and valid destinations for pupils at 16 and 18.
Those offering a longer KS4 may well be able to increase their academic offer, for example triple science or another language or more arts, so that pupils are able to enjoy a more personalised curriculum.
The point is that the key purpose of the curriculum is to provide pupils with learning experiences, opportunities and qualifications that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
The real debate
Charged with the delivery of this huge responsibility, school leaders must be able to determine the curriculum which works best.
They should evaluate its impact in terms of equality of access, stretch and challenge for all groups, whether it is motivating and engaging pupils, whether it inspires a love of learning and how it helps deliver social justice.
That is the real debate about the impact of a curriculum and should transcend any facile notion of the length of a particular key stage.
When considering the foundation years in secondary schools - where students first start to build their knowledge and learning - the focus of inspectors must extend to how well this stage works as part of the whole. They need to understand the broader knowledge and skills base covered, and how pupils are being prepared to access the next stage of their learning.
Instead of an inspection evidence form which records whether a school operates a two or three-year KS3, it would be refreshing to see one which attempts to capture the distinctiveness of a school’s curriculum.