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Accountability, Curriculum

Justifying Your Key Stage 3 Curriculum

With the first set of Ofsted reports out, for the new Inspection Framework, some of the ideological oddities are beginning to be exposed.  We’ve seen the ideological Ofsted before.  Previously it was active learning and group work with limited teacher talk.  Now cultural capital, powerful knowledge and knowledge rich dominate; cultural bankruptcy, weak knowledge and knowledge poor are out.

It’s now obvious the two year Key Stage 3 must be justified.  Even when it is it will be damned in pursuit of greater curriculum perfection.  The three year Key Stage 3 requires no such justification.  If you’ve ever wondered about the rationale for the latter it’s simple; based on the five years of secondary education minus two years for GCSE, hey presto, the three year Key Stage 3 makes irrefutable sense.  It’s simply the number of years between leaving primary school and when students are expected to start their GCSE syllabi.

Many people don’t see a 3+2 curriculum model; they see a five year secondary curriculum progression model.  For those of us working in all through schools or trusts, the progression model is thirteen years or fifteen, as we have a Sixth Form.  The three year Key Stage 3 is totally arbitrary, cliff edged thinking.

Curriculum time is finite; there is a tension between depth and breadth in the limited time available.  Inevitably there are trade-offs.  For example, in many schools Design Technology – food, resistant materials, food and graphics at St. Mary’s – is taught as a circus in Key Stage 3.  A number of different subjects covered, in about 5% of curriculum time, giving breadth but limited depth.  About a decade ago we changed our Key Stage 3 curriculum plan, since reviewed, to what we believed works best for our students. 

Our solution was to keep greater breadth in Years 7 and 8; students studied a wide range of subjects but for a limited amount of time with many subjects like History, Geography, Music, Art, Drama and Design Technology getting just an hour a week.  Seeking greater depth in Year 9, we allowed students a limited choice; leading to students studying fewer subjects for a greater amount of time to a greater depth.  

All Year 9 students must study subjects from a range of disciplines:

  • English, Mathematics, Science, RE, a modern foreign language, general PE and PSHE form the core. 
  • Students’ first choice is between History & Geography (humanities choice);
  • Their second choice is between the various creative subjects – Art & Design; Design Technology; Music; Drama and then
  • A third choice allows a second humanities or creative subject or computer studies/ICT to be chosen. 

It is broad, balanced and allows students to tweak their curriculum a bit, towards what is most relevant to them.  GCSE options are chosen midway through Year 9, with a broader number of pupils on offer; commencing at the beginning of Year10.

One key principle in our decision making was that the curriculum was balanced.  It saddens me to see that Ofsted does not require students to study a balanced curriculum, at either Key Stage 1 or Key Stage 3.  It is a retrograde step as we seek to educate the whole person – the intellectual, moral, spiritual, aesthetic, creative, emotional and physical development of all.

The new inspection framework shows limited cognisance of the challenge of working in the most disadvantaged areas with the additional curriculum time that is required to support students with literacy & numeracy.  A quick unscientific twitter poll showed the time afforded to English & Mathematics varied from 20% up to 40% of the curriculum time available at Key Stage 4.  Something has to give; either fewer subjects are studied at GCSE in Years 10 & 11 or more subjects can be studied through a “long thin” approach, starting in Year 9.  The issue is exacerbated by examination syllabi that lack focus and have been stuffed to overflowing.

What particularly concerns me about Ofsted’s emerging approach is their obvious limited context knowledge.  You see it with their clumsy approach to the E-Bacc which goes something like this: an academic curriculum is a good thing; the E-Bacc is an example of an academic Curriculum; ergo, that makes the E-Bacc a good thing for all pupils or some arbitrary percentage you want to make up.  Wild correlations about the percentage of students following the E-Bacc and senior leaders aspirations sees the bludgeoning weapon of high stakes accountability in action.

The inspectorate seem unable or unwilling to comprehend the narrowness of their current view of education or the varying levels of difficulties schools have in finding and employing modern foreign language teachers to enable the E-Bacc.

Whilst I sense that there have been some really good subject thinkers and people with strong domain knowledge contributing to the new Education Inspection Framework; it’s screaming out for a contribution from those whose had experienced different contexts and the practical wisdom of people who have wrestled with the construction of a school’s timetable.



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