One Size Does Not Fit All, Conquering the KS3 Cliff Edge

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01 July 2015 by Anne Heavey
For many children in this country starting secondary school can be a pivotal moment. The TES recently reported the following: “A range of studies over the past 20 years has shown that about two out of five pupils fail to make progress on standardised tests of English, mathematics and reading by the end of their first year in secondary school.”

40% of children fail to make progress in the first year of secondary school. Why?

What is the main difference between the Primary school and Secondary school curriculum? Primary = Projects. Secondary = Subjects. A student expecting to move to Key Stage 3 in year 7 can, in many cases at least, expect to move from an environment in which they have one class teacher to one where they have about fifteen. This is because in many Primary schools the vast majority of lessons are delivered by the main class teacher, regardless of subject, and in Secondary school subjects are delivered, at least in theory, by subject specialists.

When a child starts Secondary school they have to adapt to a lot of new situations: the number of adults with immediate responsibility for that child’s learning has vastly increased; the number of classrooms they have to find across the school over a week will also be significantly greater; the amount of books and equipment students will be expected to carry between lessons is far; the physical distance between classrooms, or even school sites, is greater than at Primary school; and, due to setting and streaming, they may have different classmates for each subject lesson.

On top of all of these structural changes students will be making new friends; learning a new journey to school, perhaps on their own for the first time; and be the youngest and therefore the lowest in the pecking order in a school which is usually far bigger than the primary school that they previously attended. It is stressful just thinking about it! Is it any wonder why some children take longer than others to adapt?

Stanley Park High has gone to great lengths to ease this cliff edge transition through the implementation of the Excellent Futures Curriculum (EFC). Firstly, students are always taught EFC by their form tutor. This means that in year 7 they see their form tutor for over 50% of their timetable. They still have an English teacher, and a maths teacher, as well as a few other subject teachers, but they have the stability of one teacher for EFC and the company of their tutor set in all EFC lessons. They also have the majority of their EFC lessons in the same room, which gives students a definite base.

Each half term students at Stanley Park High work on a different project, which integrates a number of different subject areas. This enables content from a number of subject areas to be explored and taught in a manner that students can relate to primary school. By reducing the number of subjects studied at any one moment, greater depth of knowledge and skills can be achieved. This depth of learning is patently obvious in the high quality of the final products that the students present at the end of each project. The project based model also allows for high quality teacher assessment. Assessment is thorough, taking place throughout the whole project as well as at the end and is conducted by the form tutor who has the time to get to know their tutees and tailor their planning and assessment accordingly.

At Springwell Learning Community, the Element Curriculum spans key stages 1, 2 and 3. This too removes the cliff edge transition often found between key stages 2 and 3. Within the Elements a love of reading and writing is nurtured across all lessons, meaning that the literary outcomes for students are very high. The standard of written communication and the depth of knowledge acquired by the students is impressive and it is hard to see how this could be achieved with a more traditional key stage 3 approach.

Such departure from more traditional curriculum structures and timetables cannot just be implemented. The teaching staff must buy in to the approach, feel equipped to deliver the lessons and must be offered high quality CPD and planning opportunities. This cannot be a bolt on, at Springwell staff training is timetabled every week on a Friday afternoon, and at Stanley Park team planning is integral to EFC. The culture also has to respect the teacher as a professional whose strengths are celebrated and opportunities to develop are not solely dependent upon the performance management cycle. Lesson studies, not observations, are used to great effect in both of these schools to highlight teacher strengths and collaboratively work on weaknesses. If teachers are expected to teach outside of their comfort zones then they must be permitted and trusted to take risks.

At both Stanley Park High and Springwell Learning Community the students clearly articulated a love of their curricula. They valued that the curriculum had been designed with them in mind and enjoyed the relevance of each theme or project. The starting place for the curriculum at both schools was the child, not the status quo. The freedom to create a curriculum that meets the needs of a school’s individual context is of paramount importance. Change can be hard, even scary, but schools must be free to prevent students from falling off the key stage 3 cliff edge.

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