Curriculum, English, Progress

Reclaiming KS3: Challenge

ProgressThere’s been a lot of focus on KS3 and the role it plays in achievement at KS4. Sometimes I wonder if due to pressures in the upper school, KS3 risks becoming the neglected sibling of KS4/5. It shouldn’t be. If KS3 is purposeful, challenging and engaging, the chances of having the progress gaps to be filled in KS4 will be drastically reduced. In short, the key to success at KS4 is strong KS3 provision.


The keys to success at KS3 are:

  • Challenge
  • Engagement
  • Early intervention

This post will focus on the first area: challenge.


Challenge across KS3 can be done in a range of ways: through increased teaching of linguistic knowledge to more difficult text choices.

Part of challenge involves extended periods of independent writing. There are some schools of thought that promotes myths like ‘Ofsted want to see progress every 10/20 minutes’ and use that to justify chunked learning, endless mini-plenaries and ‘engaging’ group work tasks. But engagement and progress are not always the same thing. Students may be engaged, they may appear enthusiastic, but if the tasks aren’t having an impact on learning over time, then there’s a problem. It’s not helpful to get into the ‘traditional vs progressive’ debate because not only is it a false dichotomy,  it becomes a ‘who can win the pedagogy war?’ discussion. Common sense would say balance is key, there are times for teacher talk and there’s time for group work – as long the purpose of the teaching choice is student progress.

Just throwing older or difficult tasks into KS3 won’t automatically lead to challenge if the consequence is that the text has to be diluted down so much that students are guided through an oversimplified adaptation of the original. As a result, the question we should be asking is ‘How can we help guide students to access challenging texts?’ That could be through direct instruction and input; it could be through coaching tasks; it could be through marking/feedback; it could be through a structured approach to challenging tasks. The goal should remain the same. Don’t lower the goal and lower the challenge just because they’re KS3. Often students are capable of far more than we ask of them in lower school.

Examples. The following slides are all taken from mixed-ability Year 7 lessons this year. The focus was representations of school in extracts of 19th Century literature.

1. Regular low-stake knowledge testing
  1. Develop knowledge that students bring from primary school. Regular low-stake testing reminds students about their terminology, allows staff to identify any trends in knowledge-gaps so misconceptions to be addressed.




2. Model analytical thinking skills.

2. Model analytical thinking skills. Help students to approach language and texts so they can do it again independently. Pitch high and scaffold discussions to support students. Be positive and unapologetic about the level of academic challenge. Most students want to please and impress, so give them the chance to shine. Don’t set the bar too low because it’s KS3.


3. Help students make links between different areas of knowledge. This aids criticality later.

3. Giving students the option to push their thinking  can allow them to ‘join the dots’ between different areas of knowledge. By drawing regularly on prior knowledge, not just within a scheme but across the subject, students will have a much more secure knowledge base.


4. Give space for sharing ideas and be prepared to push students that little step further.



4. Allow for collaboration. In this slide, I went around the class, collected the best ideas from group planning and put them into a ‘whole class comparative plan’. Students were really proud of the ideas they generated and were keen to have their independent work match this standard. Crucially, this was an opportunity to praise academic excellence and set a culture of ‘this is what we do here’.


The results:

Mix of independent and paired annotations on Jane Eyre
Independent quotation analysis poster – Nicholas Nickleby
A short extract of a Y7 essay ‘How does Charlotte Bronte make Jane’s school experience appear so unpleasant?’


Some thoughts…

I’m currently doing similar projects with Year 9 students through teaching war and conflict poetry as a GCSE topic rather than a Y9 topic. Within weeks of term starting, the classes have made high level observations about Simon Armitage’s Out of the Blue and other high level poetry with minimal teacher input other than to stretch and challenge. These are skills that are key for success on the unseen poetry element of GCSE. But the real success in this increased challenge approach is seeing students’ self-esteem and motivation increase because they know they’re achieving in difficult areas. Succeeding in challenging tasks is much more rewarding than doing ok in bite-sized chunks with endless writing frames, which risks creating a safety blanket and in turn students can become over-reliant on prompt sheets under the false impression that they need the prescribed answer in order to be successful. Student voice throughout the process has varied considerably, but it’s great to see that students who (at first) were reluctant to give it a go and craved the certainty and predictability of highly scaffolded learning now feel more confident in their independent analysis skills and already many students who were behind expected progress at the end of Year 8 have closed that gap within the first half term.

In short, KS3 students want to achieve, but some equally are happy to coast by doing the minimum we expect, often without demonstrating any low level behaviour issues. It’s these students who can slip through the net at KS3, and it’s these students who will find themselves on intervention programmes in Year 11 – particularly if they’re borderline for a key threshold. The biggest gains in pupil progress can be made by ensuring that well-behaved, middle-ability students don’t spend KS3 coasting by keeping a low profile and meeting the low expectations we set for them. Crucially, with a change in school performance measure to Progress 8, these middle students are going to make a significant difference to how successful a school is deemed to be. If we are committed to ensuring all students make expected or more than expected progress, then KS3 needs to be a challenging, stimulating environment that lays secure foundations for later success.



6 thoughts on “Reclaiming KS3: Challenge”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s