Key Stage 4

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When Strategic Met Operational

The concept of strategic planning often gets confused with long term planning.  Remember just because someone writes strategic in the heading or says it in a sentence doesn’t mean that their thinking or planning is strategic.  The key difference is whether you take account of what is happening all around you, in the environment, in which you are working.  The National Professional Qualification for Headship had two modules which put together made the compulsory core – SLAM (Strategic Leadership & Accountability Modules).  The Strategic Leadership Module emphasised five factors to consider in strategic leadership and I’ve given an example for each one below:

  • P – Political: increasing zero tolerance of educational failure linked to accountability measures
  • E – Environmental: a new housing estate being built near the school
  • S – Social: changes in family structures, reducing or increasing birth rates
  • T – Technical: increased use of mobile technology by young people
  • E – Economic: impact of increased austerity on school budgets, in particular, capital budgets

I was never sure why education was never included as a factor but maybe it was considered a “given”.

The Boiled Frog

Before I share this bit of wisdom I need to stress you must not try this at home!  The story goes that if you put a frog in a pan of water and then put the pan on the stove the frog will sit there and slowly boil to death – it simply does not detect the gradual change in the environment around it.  Schools, leaders and teachers can all sometimes suffer from a bit of the boiled frog syndrome if they are not continually alert.

Shift Happens

When I first pulled the school’s data on ability profile, for this year, I wasn’t expecting this:

Shift Happens - Increase in Upper AbilityThe percentage of students we have in current Year 7, in the upper ability band, looks like a bit of a trend but also possibly a blip.  I think by next year it may definitely be a trend.  Staff had noticed that our new Year 7 was “different” and the data supports it.  Over twelve months ago we started looking at our Key Stage 3 curriculum, targeted levels of progress and collectively agreed they were just not challenging enough – we were faffing about in Key Stage 3 and then going like the clappers in Key Stage 4.  Please note this is not an approach I am recommending!

Our challenge now is to develop a curriculum, taking into account the new National Curriculum and content of qualifications, at Key Stage 3.  I’ve set the expectation of three differentiated schemes of work.  This will then need further differentiation by teachers within the classroom.  The strategic and the operational are beginning to merge as part of a continuum from assessing external changes and their potential impact to responding to them.

Scheme of Work to Challenge the Most Able

Z Band - Increase the Challenge

Put simply don’t reteach the Year 7 students what they already know, get a move on in Year 7 and take their learning on at pace and in depth.  I think it is with the most able that we waste the greatest time in Key Stage 3.  Our school’s new ability profile data will really challenge our mindset and expectations.  In Year 7 we now have two classes, about sixty students, outside our top ability band, that would have previously been in it.

Scheme of Work for the Middle Ability Students

X Band - Nudge the Middle

Here there is a need to balance consolidation and challenge but to be honest we are better at consolidating than challenging these students.  We need more challenge particularly in Year 9 where students can opt to follow a reduced number of foundation subjects with each occupying ten percent of curriculum time instead of the usual five percent.  At the very least, students need to achieve a 6B (in what is now old money) by the end of Year – my new “Key Stage 4 Ready”.

Scheme of work for Lower Ability

W Band - Passports

What interventions can we put in place to help accelerate the learning of our least able students particularly at the beginning of Year 7?  We need to passport these students towards greater success and not reinforce their educational disadvantage that they already have.  The challenge is to accelerate these students learning so that they too will be “Key Stage 4 ready” by the end of Year 9.  Literacy is often a key issue.

As part of my work for the SSAT (Schools Network) I came across a piece of work by Fiona Hope from Pleckgate in Blackburn.  She produced this work as part of a whole school drive to improve literacy.  The five objectives seemed great to me.

Developing Literacy

There is clearly a massive amount of work for teachers to do here at a very operational level and it is likely to be a task that takes a number of years to fully complete and embed particularly with the new Key Stage 3 National Curriculum and the release of new GCSE specifications with only GCSE English and GCSE Mathematics currently available.

Full Circle Back to the Strategic

In some very interesting conversations with staff we discussed how we might sequence the expected learning for the different schemes of work.  If this makes sense (and I realise levels are old money now) imagine sequencing all the learning expected to take a student from level 3 to level 7/8 in one single continuum.  If you take that continuum of learning you now have a learning sequence that the different ability groups may enter in different places.  For example, the most able students enter at level 5 and move towards level 8.  Whereas, the least able would enter at level 3 and be looking to move towards level 6.  The level 5 work would be the same for both groups of students; it is just that some students would complete it at the start of Year 7 and others at the end of Year 8 or start of Year 9.

Once the continuum of learning has been created, teachers can then start to use it to differentiate work in the classroom as no amount of banding or setting ever produces a homogeneous class of students.  The first role of the teacher will be to assess where students are on the continuum and where they should be taken over a certain timescale.  The scheme of work devised in a school will be more critical than ever in embodying the curriculum and first level of clarity and differentiation, to assist teachers, in matching and meeting the needs of all students.  What schools now believe a curriculum should contain will be of paramount importance to the education it provides.  For nearly twenty five years this has been largely dictated from outside schools.

Increasingly the main curriculum developers will be found in schools not Whitehall as the role of informed prescription has come and possibly gone for some time.  The initial challenge will be to weave the Key Stage 3 National Curriculum & programmes of study at Key Stage 4 into a seamless whole with links into what has gone before and will come after.  In essence Key Stages 3 & 4 will become non-events as there is just a continuum and continuity of learning.  The more strategic challenge will be to work across phase – imagine producing a continuum of learning, for schools, teachers and students to use, with children and young people from 3 to 19 years old.

I’ve read some very good blogs recently on the curriculum and would recommend having a look at Alex Quigley’s (@HuntingEnglish)  A New English Curriculum”  to see how some people are beginning to think about and use the new curriculum flexibilities, which are appearing in school .  The strategic issue is how to link beyond the particular phase of schooling we work in to look across all key stages.  Children experience the phases and key stages across schools in a sequential manner.  However, the learning across, and often within, them is anything but sequential in nature at the moment.

Devising a continuum of learning from Key Stage 1 to 5, across primary schools, secondary schools and Sixth Forms, is possibly another “When Harry Met Sally” (explained in an earlier post) moment.  Different Worlds and philosophies colliding to create something much stronger together than we can apart.  The implications for re-imagining education are immense – the whole examination system and professional structure for teachers would need to be re-thought.  These thoughts are more Vision 2040 than “Harry Met Sally” and so I’ll blog these out as part of the follow up to this year’s SSAT Conference at the beginning of December.

If you’re interested in other “When Harry Met Sally” Moments, why not try:

When #SOLO Met Bloom

When Didactic Met Co-operative

When Feedback Met Bloom

If you are interested in the Flight Path graphic the posts are here:

Targets, Learning Gaps & Flight Paths

Changing Flight Paths & Intervention


Redesigning Schools: Masterchef II – Great Menus, Great Food

In Redesigning Schools: Masterchef I – Mustard Seeds, Yeast & Salt, I attempted to lay down the challenge facing us as we attempt to redesign schools.  We have the opportunity to take back control of the core business of learning in our schools and for our students.  The SSAT’s Redesigning Schools Campaign may be the banner we can gather under.

 “A bit like the parable of the mustard seed I have a sense that from small beginnings this movement (Redesigning Schools) will grow and grow until it becomes one of the mainstream educational groups of this decade.  The use of social media is helping it reach beyond the physical group of people and out into a virtual world, the “yeast and salt” that produces massive effect far beyond its original being.”  

Continuing the Masterchef theme, to become the eventual winner a chef will need to put together some great menus and deliver great food.  This blog is concerned with the menu we offer and I’ll blog again soon about “Great Food”.  A menu can be fixed or a la carte.  So it is with the curriculum model that we offer our students.  The extent of choice and personalisation differs from school to school, depending sometimes on curriculum philosophy and sometimes on circumstances.

Great Menu – The Curriculum Model: Setting the Scene

The Curriculum Model covers all aspects of the timetable constructed including: the subjects, time available to subjects, organisation of students into learning groups (pathways & classes) and the allocation of teachers and learning spaces.  The main authority and primary decision makers are the headteacher and senior leaders.  This is what I call macro-personalisation, the school may consult various stakeholders but ultimately controls the offer made to students and students make their choices within the limitation of what is offered.

Following a SSAT Think tank, led by Dylan Wiliam a few years ago, I went back to College and immediately redrafted the whole Curriculum Policy to make our principles more explicit.  Following suggestions by Heads of Departmnets, the Curriculum Policy was written as a handbook for staff and the first section states, the Curriculum Model will:

  • Ensure that all students have access to a balanced curriculum.  Students will be increasingly able to personalise their curriculum through the process of informed decision making.
  • Ensure that there is a high level of rigour by providing a subject based curriculum through which students can develop the “habits of mind” – powerful ways of thinking – associated with sustained engagement with the particular disciplines and subjects.
  • Ensure coherence across subjects by implementing a series of dynamic days that enable staff and students to work at a cross-curricular and interdisciplinary manner.  This will help students develop a broader understanding of the application of particular subjects within the World and the links between them.
  • Ensure relevance for all students by ensuring there is high quality information, advice and guidance available to students and their parents at key transition points.  Choices about what to learn will increase with the maturity of the learner and students must be aware of the consequences of their choices for themselves and their future engagement in society.
  • Ensure focus through the development of students as learners along side the development of knowledge, understanding and skills. 

We determined a number of disciplines that students would experience at Key Stage 3 and have a choice from at Key Stage 4 with even greater choice at Key Stage 5:

Disciplines at St. Mary’s

  • Communication: English Language, English Literature, Media Studies & Modern Foreign Languages
  • Design, Creativity & Technology: Art & Design; Design Technology; Enterprise; Photography; Music; Drama
  • Humanities: History, Geography, Politics & Religious Education
  • Information & Communication Technology
  • Mathematics
  • Physical Education
  • Sciences: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Applied Science & Astronomy

Students in Year 9 followed an accelerated pathway – complete a number of foundation subjects by the end of Year 8 and have a set of enriched GCSE opportunities studying Photography, Psychology, Astronomy or ICT alongside GCSE in French or Spanish before completing GCSE options for Key Stage 4 mid-way through Year 9.  In the standard pathway students studied a large number of core and foundation subjects, the latter for a relatively small amount of time each, which is a fairly normal pattern in many English schools.

Additional Disciplines at St. Mary’s in Key Stages 4 & 5

  • Social Sciences: Business Studies and Psychology
  • Applied Learning: Computer Science; Health & Social Care; Travel & Tourism; Child Development; Construction; Hairdressing & Motor Vehicle

A number of years ago we introduced Dynamic Days, when students would spend a whole day focussed on one area of study which could either be subject based, for example, they proved really useful for English Controlled Assessments or Science Coursework in Key Stage 4 or thematic days, which produced some really rich, coherent learning into the curriculum, for example, a Holocaust Day in Year 9 or a Sexual Health Day in Year 10 alongside Rewards Days and Sports Day.  In addition, this will be the third year we have run a Wonderful Week for eight hundred students in Years 7-10, during the second half of the Summer Term, with a whole variety of trips abroad, day excursions and on site provision.  The focus is project based learning with students exploring a single theme for a week.  It is a mammoth task of organisation but one of the highlights of the year.  We are in the second year of a fortnightly timetable of three one hundred minute lessons a day, except for Thursday when we shorten them to ninety minutes to allow a weekly CPD session for teaching staff.

Moving Forward

With the scene set, how are we looking to move forward over the coming years?  As mentioned in Masterchef I, external forces may restrict us but will never define us and we have looked at restructuring Year 9 and tinkered with Key Stage 4 options.  The former is due to internally driven change with the latter responding to the proposals put forward as part of the “Secondary School Accountability Consultation”.  The three touchstones in guiding my thoughts and decisions have been:

  • Will the proposed curriculum help further our vision and is it congruent with our values?
  • Would the curriculum be good enough for my children?
  • Will the curriculum help keep the wolves away from the door?

Year 9

In Year 9 students tended to follow a similar curriculum pattern to Years 7 & 8 though some schools have looked to start their GCSE courses in Year 9 as either a series of “short, fat GCSEs” or as part of a three year GCSE course.  Key Stage 3 is only three years long as students currently complete their compulsory education at 16 and they need two years for their GCSE, it’s as simple as that.  Continuing to study a wide range of subjects for relatively short amounts of time tended to produce a balanced curriculum for students but limited a really rigorous study of the subjects. Opting for GCSEs too early can be a concern as students may not have the information and maturity to make life enhancing choices, however, giving students choice can help engagement and raise achievement as we tend to excel at things we enjoy doing.  Both approaches have their merits but neither extreme quite suited us.

We are towards the end of a consultation with staff and about to consult with students and parents about a “limited” choice for students in Year 9 except for those in the Integrated Pathway.  All students will follow: English, Maths, Science, RE, MFL, PE & PSHE.  Then students will have a choice from two disciplines, Design, Creativity & Technology and Humanities, spending 10% of curriculum time on each and an open choice again with 10% of curriculum time available:


The last block is probably the most interesting as it gives students a real opportunity to move their curriculum in the direction of the aspirations and enjoyment.  They can be a double linguist, take two humanities, two creative subjects or Computer Sciences.  It’s not a limitless option for students and whether a subject can run or not will depend on numbers opting.  Our hope is that it will also help teachers build relationships with their students, something that is close to our heart.  No longer will teachers in foundation subjects be teaching large numbers of students for a short amount of time or operating carousels in which they no sooner get to know a students name than s/he moves on.  This is an example of redesigning from the inside out, we do it because we believe it is in the best interests of our students.

Key Stage 4

In Key Stage 4 all students study GCSE English, English Literature, Maths, RE and two Sciences plus general PE and PSHE.  For a number of years now we have provided two pathways for students to opt from: the General Pathway is a largely GCSE pathway and the Specialist Pathway has a day a week timetabled at Blackpool & Fylde College who deliver high quality vocational courses that we do not have the facilities or expertise to offer.  Students travel directly to and from B&FC, for their day, removing the hassle of transport that these partnerships sometimes pose.

The recent “Secondary School Accountability Consultation”, a clever piece of political manoeuvring but also some sound educational thinking, left us with a little puzzle to solve.  Whilst students had always been able to opt for the combination of subjects in the E-Bacc we had never forced any student to do so and had essentially ignored the E-Bacc as we felt it was an educational red herring.

Our bit of manoeuvring was to move from four “open choice” option blocks to three open choices with Option Block A producing the third E-Bacc subject alongside GCSE Double Science.  Mission simply accomplished – though I’m not sure Julia, our Curriculum Deputy, would agree, as she now has the task of piecing this massive jigsaw puzzle together.  The “Best 8” including English, Maths, any three E-Bacc plus three others measure should be satisfies so this will hopefully keep the wolves away from the door, it would be a good enough curriculum offer for my children (what about yours?) and doesn’t compromise our curriculum principles.


The specialist pathway was a bit more interesting as we decided that beyond GCSE Double Science and with the need for a full day a week available for students at the College insisting on another academic qualification, which suited the school but not them, was a step too far.  These are great young people many of whom are massively skilled with their hands and we should allow them to flourish in that environment alongside their academic core of subjects.  A very large majority will go on to vocational studies post-16 at Blackpool & Fylde College.  Hopefully if you need a plumber, electrician or car mechanic in the future there will be one a fully trained one available.  This may damage out “Best 8” point score as they will only have two of the E-Bacc subjects for the three slots but the enhanced points in other subjects may compensate for this, either way what we have offered seems right for the students.


Providing a great menu is only part of the Masterchef Challenge and part of the education we provide.  We need to provide the right options for our young people and whether you are an academy who can legitimately ignore the National Curriculum or not you can be the masters of the curriculum offered to your students.  With out extended lessons, dynamic days, wonderful week, curriculum pathways and option choices we have designed a curriculum that matches the needs of our different students.  It is a challenge to walk through the curriculum minefield, managing the tensions, but take control, you know you want to.  Secretaries of State will come and go but your Mission for young people remains.  Masterchef III focussing on great food is about to be prepped.

Leadership: Being, Knowing, Doing (New Book)

Liminal Leadership


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