Are KS3 pupils being failed at secondary school?

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With schools held so highly accountable for exam results, it’s no wonder heads feel pressured to prioritise resources and funding for Key Stage 4. But what impact is this having on pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9? We examine the recent Ofsted report which investigated just that.

With limited school resources, it’s natural to concentrate budget to those areas where the benefit will do most good, especially if the results are also tangible and measurable. Usually, this means the period covering the exam years in secondary school. But what about the most able students making their transition from primary school? Are they being let down because the focus is elsewhere? In a recent report, Ofsted has again found that progress made during Key Stage 3 (KS3) is often very slow – particularly in English and maths.

With a school system that holds schools accountable for what their students achieve in tests, it’s no surprise that schools come under pressure to focus on KS4. In fact, it is the DfE and Ofsted’s own accountability rules that force schools to focus on league tables and exam results. However, the new Ofsted report shows that too many resources are being skewed towards the upper age groups – focusing on GCSE and A-level years – so neglecting pupils in the early years of secondary school. But with limited resources, where are schools to concentrate in light of this new report?

Key areas of concern

Ofsted has long warned that almost two-thirds of the most able pupils in state comprehensives fail to fulfil their potential. Last year’s annual report said that thousands of bright pupils were going backwards in secondary school because of a worrying lack of scholarship combined with a tolerance of bad behaviour.

At the time, Ofsted defined ‘high achievers at primary school’ as those gaining at least a level 5 in the English and maths SATs tests – above the normal requirement for their age (level 4). They reported that, in 2013, 90,000 pupils from state-funded, non-selective schools achieved a level 5 at the end of primary education. Of those, 64 per cent – 57,000 – did not achieve A* or A grades in GCSE English and maths. Some 21,000 pupils failed to gain at least a B. That means that bright pupils in England are less likely to perform at the highest levels – particularly in maths – as those in other developed nations such as Germany, Poland and Belgium.

The report also revealed that a third of Ofsted inspections conducted in 2014 identified issues in the teaching of the most able pupils.

The gap between the performance of poorer and better-off students also gets wider at KS3. This is for a number of reasons, including teacher shortages, variable homework quality and also the impact of poverty and disadvantage, as better-off pupils benefit from the resources their parents can put into their education such as parent time, equipment and extensive tutoring (in effect filling in the gaps left by schooling).

The latest Ofsted report found a number of areas of specific concern:

  • Pupil progress in KS3 is often slow, particularly in English and mathematics.
  • Teaching of modern foreign languages (MFL), history and geography often fails to challenge and engage pupils.
  • Pupils are distracted from learning by low-level disruption, particularly in MFL lessons.
  • Teachers do not consistently build on pupils’ prior knowledge and skills.
  • Some schools are not using pupil premium funding effectively.
  • The quality of homework is too variable.

Commenting on the new report, HM Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said: ‘Pupils often leave primary school with good literacy and numeracy skills, confident and eager to learn, but their progress then stalls when they start secondary school.

‘In too many schools, the quality of teaching is not adequately preparing children for their next stage in education. In particular, lessons in modern foreign languages, history and geography often fail to ensure that pupils have the confidence or enthusiasm to get to grips with these important foundation subjects. It is, therefore, no surprise that there is a low take-up of these subjects at GCSE.’

This is a serious concern, given the government’s ambition for all pupils starting secondary school to enter the Ebacc subjects in five years’ time.

Beyond our control?

This is not entirely the fault of schools. Poor exam results always make headline news, and the problem is many schools feel they have no choice but to focus more of their resources on the important exam years, although they do recognise – and try to balance – the need to give 11- to 14-year-olds a good foundation at secondary level. The problem of the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their wealthier counterparts too cannot be entirely attributed to schools; it is part of a wider societal problem of poverty and the distribution of wealth.

But Ofsted is right to look harder at KS3, if belatedly. Too often in the past, Ofsted has focused on the current year’s exam results rather than investments in areas like KS3 which would only show up in years to come.

It is time though that both the DfE and Ofsted recognise that it is their own accountability agenda which is partly responsible for the skewing of resources to the upper school years, so dominated by exams and league tables, and where schools feel the need to demonstrate their worth.

The only way to address this is to change the way schools are judged.

As a result of their findings, Ofsted has made it a priority to focus inspections more sharply on the progress made by KS3 pupils, and report more robustly on how schools ensure that all pupils make the best possible start to their secondary education.

As good intentioned as this KS3 focus may be, Ofsted’s approach of placing yet more stress on younger pupils is probably not the solution. However, one thing is clear: KS4 results will not improve until KS3 is given a greater priority by school leaders.

Read the full report: Key Stage 3: The wasted years?

Recommendations for school leaders

In their report, Ofsted make a number of recommendations for school leaders to improve KS3 outcomes:

  • Make KS3 a higher priority in all aspects of school planning, monitoring and evaluation.
  • Ensure that not only is the curriculum offer at KS3 broad and balanced, but that teaching is of high quality and prepares pupils for more challenging subsequent study at KS4 and 5.
  • Ensure that transition from KS2 to 3 focuses as much on pupils’ academic needs as it does on their pastoral needs. 
  • Create better cross-phase partnerships with primary schools to ensure that KS3 teachers build on pupils’ prior knowledge, understanding and skills.
  • Make sure that systems and procedures for assessing and monitoring pupils’ progress in KS3 are robust.
  • Focus on the needs of disadvantaged pupils in KS3, as well as the most able, in order to close the achievement gap as quickly as possible.
  • Evaluate the quality and effectiveness of homework in KS3 to ensure that it helps pupils to make good progress.
  • Guarantee that pupils have access to timely and high quality careers education, information, advice and guidance from Year 8 onwards.
  • Have literacy and numeracy strategies that ensure pupils build on their prior attainment in KS2 in these crucial areas.
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