August 2017

The know zone

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  • Spotlight on KS3
    Suzanne O’Farrell asks some important questions to enable us to reflect on the impact and potential of Key Stage 3. More
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Suzanne O’Farrell asks some important questions to enable us to reflect on the impact and potential of Key Stage 3.

Spotlight on KS3

School leaders in secondaries are supporting colleagues with the challenges posed by reformed linear GCSEs while leaders in primaries are still grappling with the new primary curriculum. With considerable change at both ends of pupils’ curriculum experience in schools, perhaps it’s time to rethink and reflect on our approach to Key Stage 3.

What does it mean to design an effective Key Stage 3 curriculum?

When designing a Key Stage 3 curriculum you should consider the following: What are pupils entitled to know in a subject? What knowledge and skills should we teach? In what sequence? It therefore follows that the designing and planning of these key foundation years should be done by subject specialists who understand the constructs of a subject and understand how and when to effectively sequence the content.

Despite the fact that we are acutely aware of the pressures of reformed GCSEs, the starting point for Key Stage 3 should not be exam specifications – they represent a sample from the subject and threaten to undermine the overall curriculum if they receive excessive focus in Years 7 and 8.

Having said that, there are certain foundations or core concepts in all subjects that pupils need to grasp and this may mean focusing on a deeper understanding of fewer topics so that pupils have a confident understanding in key areas.

Asking yourself what pupils need to know in a subject to be successful linguists, historians or scientists at the end of Key Stage 3, should inform curriculum planning; this planning should then be mapped backwards from your end goal ensuring that knowledge is built up in a logical and sequential order.

Take modern foreign languages as an example. Previously we may have designed the curriculum exclusively by topics, prioritising specialised vocabulary and rarely using words at the expense of common words. This resulted in pupils not always feeling confident in their understanding of or to say basic things at the end of Key Stage 3. Schools that are now embedding knowledge of the most frequently used words (including verbs), together with a strong knowledge of grammatical principles with careful sequencing, are ensuring that pupils are able to manipulate the language more successfully and are better equipped to cope with the rigours of GCSE (see

How do we ensure our assessment is aligned to our curriculum?

We need to be clear about the purpose of our assessment in Key Stage 3 and ensure that it measures what it is intended to measure. Sometimes assessment can attempt to serve too many functions and an assessment of pupil progress can be hijacked to be solely an assessment of the teacher. Assessment at Key Stage 3 needs to be focused on what teachers need to know in order to improve learning and close gaps. Teachers should assess the core concepts that pupils need to master so they have good foundations for later on. This may mean strategically choosing fewer things to assess but ensuring it is the right information that they are tested on and that this is done in many different ways.

What essential skills can we embed in Key Stage 3 to prepare pupils for reformed GCSEs?

Thinking about the challenges ahead of pupils moving through to linear GCSES, we know that they will need more resilience and stamina in the face of increased terminal assessment – but what do we actually mean by resilience? Pupils being able to understand how they learn themselves is the key to resilience. Sharing with pupils that where they are making an effort to retrieve information through frequent mini-tests, generating answers, reflecting on what went well and what could have gone better and relating what they are learning to what they already know – all of this makes their learning stronger and better remembered.

How can we improve continuity of learning from Key Stages 2 to Key Stage 3?

Where secondary schools are able to work more closely with two or three feeder primaries, teachers are able to gain a better understanding of how to build on the knowledge and skills that most of their pupils will have developed during the previous seven years. With this in mind, some schools are focusing on a middle years curriculum for Years 5 to 8, creating cross-phase subject leader roles or simply sharing schemes of learning through effective collaboration, enabling teachers in secondary schools to plan the sequencing carefully and build on prior learning.

It is essential to keep Key Stage 3 as the bedrock of your provision where you can enjoy certain freedoms over curriculum design, focus on the knowledge and skills you want to build up to suit your context and be innovative in your approach.

ASCL PD Events:

Maximising Achievement in a Linear World

21 September in Sheffield Find out more and book your place online:

Demystifying Assessment 11–19

28 September in London Find out more and book your place here: (Alternative dates are available for these events – follow the links for more)

Suzanne O’Farrell is ASCL Curriculum and Assessment Specialist