In earlier blog posts I’ve been exploring the ways that KS3 can be reclaimed to have a positive impact on student achievement over time. Ofsted’s document KS3: The Wasted Years explores the issues affecting KS3 at the moment and, to me, gives very clear guidance to schools about what is required for them to be successful.
Firstly, Ofsted state that ‘[successful schools] ensure that pupils are well aware of their school’s high expectations for behaviour and conduct, and they have a clear understanding of pupils’ achievements in primary school and build on them from day one.’ (Ofsted, 2015). For more on this see the earlier posts in this series.
The ways that this can be done are:
If we want to see students make expected or more than expected progress at KS4, we need to get in early on and identify knowledge gaps, effort issues and behaviour issues before they become a massive problem. It sounds very common sense: intervene at KS3 to prevent putting a sticky plaster on a gaping progress wound at KS4.
Behaviour issues tend to be addressed because the effect of poor behaviour is immediately noticeable in the classroom and on the child’s achievement. Effort is more complex than that. 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. It’s these students who can slip through the net, and it’s these students who will find themselves on intervention programmes in Year 11 – particularly if they’re borderline for a key threshold. At this point resources are thrown at them left, right and centre with the understanding that ‘we need to get whatever% above the C threshold’ or ‘we need more A/A*s’.
But what if it doesn’t need to be like this?
What if there’s an alternative way of ensuring students succeed without the panic stations approach to intervention which usually starts at the end of Y10 because nobody stopped them coasting for almost 4 years and now the pressure’s on? What if slow and steady wins the race, and a focus on student effort and achievement throughout KS3 can prevent a situation where teachers seem to be working increasingly harder trying to pull target groups over the threshold of choice?
With a change in school performance measure to Progress 8, these coasting students are going to make a significant difference to how successful schools are deemed to be in national accountability measures. They may be above the C threshold, but Progress 8 is a value added measure so the acheivement of every student is now in the spotlight. Based on that, the current model of intensive KS4 intervention will only last so long. For schools to succeed in Progress 8, the curriculum has to be in place from KS3 and intervention needs to happen on a smaller scale, earlier on.
Intervention sometimes becomes synonymous with additional programmes, catch-up classes, remedial literacy lessons – but it’s much more than that. Whilst there is a place for all of these approaches for the right students, I’m not convinced that pulling students from ‘mainstream’ lessons is always the most effective way to intervene.
The focus here will be on things that classroom teachers can do in their own lessons to close progress gaps.
- Use technical and academic language each lesson
- Use skills based intervention sheets to prompt dialogue with students about areas for development
- Keep parents/carers informed – and not just with problems
- Make time and space for students to achieve by having a specific time for them to pop in
Ofsted highlighted that too often secondary schools recover content from primary school, leading to slower than expected progress. A good starting point for designing a knowledge-rich KS3 curriculum is to read the KS2 grammar glossary (here). One thing I find is that from the SPaG test, students arrive with a much higher level of technical knowledge than we may expect so by using the terminology regularly, we can strengthen students’ subject knowledge and equip them with the tools they need to apply knowledge to any text.
2.Skills-based intervention sheets to promote dialogue
Almost all students want to succeed. That should be the starting point of any intervention conversation. Find time to discuss progress with students. It doesn’t need to be loads of time and I do my intervention conversations when the class are doing independent writing. It’s a positive conversation about where the student was, where they are now and how they feel you can support them to make progress.
Each sheet has a grid of reading and writing skills and we highlight the areas the student feels weakest with. On the back, there’s a list of easy teaching-tweaks that teachers can do to support that student/what the student can do to support themselves (see intervention tweaks). It also helps for keeping records because there’s evidence of intervention – but this is secondary. The main value is that it’s a quick, visual way for students to see that there’s something personal being done for them.
3.Keep parents/carers informed – and not just when there’s problems
I’m a believer in a ‘no-surprises’ culture. No teacher should save progress issues up until parents’ evening. Students know that if it’s big enough to be raised at parents’ evening, it’ll have been raised earlier in the year.
The way I think about it is ‘what do I want to achieve here?’ – I want students to succeed and students know that. A trainee teacher has been observing my lessons and one of the things they’d noticed was that most of the time I don’t talk about behaviour; I talk about progress. Students love being praised when they’ve worked hard and achieved well and parents love to hear positive things about their child. I try to make at least 3 positive phone calls a week but the bar is high for them and students have to really earn them. Parents/carers will often issue rewards at home when school get in touch so it means that home and school are sending the same message that making progress is what we want to see.
The flip side is that students know that I’m very willing to call home so effort dips of more than 1-2 lessons also get a phone call home. They know that what they do in lesson dictates the kind of call they’ll inevitably get at some point. It places the ball back in the students’ court and so any discussion about progress can be framed in terms of the choices they make.
4.Make time and space for students to achieve by having a specific time for them to pop in
It goes without saying that we make ourselves available to students throughout the week. But I like to create space where students know that I’ve got time set aside for them, should they need it. If nobody needs it, then additional planning and preparation hasn’t been wasted.
For example, one night a week our learning support department run homework club. My KS3 students who use that know that in the first 15 minutes of homework club, they can come across to English and get a refresher of what the homework was to help them focus. Following an assessment, if students want to make sure that the work they’re handing in is the best, they know that they have 2 days worth of break/lunch if they need to finish off their conclusion or proof read. If I need to see a student to recap something, then asking them to come and see me for a quick 1-1 chat at lunch is a much more positive experience than sanctions.
This works for a number of reasons:
- It places the responsibility for learning and progress back on to the students
- It gives a safety net for students who are unsure but perhaps feel reluctant to ask in class
- It’s not about running endless revision sessions/intervention classes – reduces planning
- Students can control the content so it helps them reflect on their learning
- It’s flexible so I can respond to their needs
- It gives me time to do short 1-1 teaching inputs where needed but without the planning/preparation required to run an intervention session after school
Staffing for KS3 success
A lot of what I’m suggesting over this blog series is that through having strong KS3 teaching that is challenging and engaging, the pitch of KS3 teaching can be high, students will feel like they want to achieve and progress gaps will close. Where students are still struggling, there are tweaks that teachers can make to their lessons to help work with students who are underachieving/struggling. Staffing is central to this. Weak staffing at KS3 will cause problems at KS4/5.
85% of the secondary leaders interviewed by Ofsted admitted to prioritising staffing and KS4/5 before KS3. The issue there is that KS3 gets pushed to the bottom of the pile as the kind of fire-fighting KS4 interventions that I mentioned earlier take up an increasing amount of teachers’ time, creating a cycle that’s difficult (but essential) to break.
Ofsted found that progress gaps often occur when the status of KS3 is reduced and classes are increasingly split or taught by non-specialists:
‘”The weaknesses in teaching and pupil progress identified by inspectors reflect the lack of priority given to Key Stage 3 by many secondary school leaders. The majority of leaders spoken to as part of this survey said that they staffed Key Stages 4 and 5 before Key Stage 3. As a result, some Key Stage 3 classes were split between more than one teacher or were taught by non-specialists.” (Ofsted, 2015)
Split classes can work well, if the curriculum offer is designed to account for split groups taught by subject specialists. But the extensive use of non-specialists in KS3 teaching is a problem because without the subject knowledge, staff cannot reasonably be expected to have the subject knowledge to plan lessons that are highly challenging for the more able or deliver the kind of tailored intervention that aids progress. KS3 cannot be left to the bottom of the pile or plugged with non-specialists who may lack the tools to do the job. Not only does it have a negative affect on pupil outcomes but it’s also bad for staff who may feel lost and out of their depth delivering and assessing material that they simply do not have the required knowledge for.
A recent SLTChat/MLTchat about progress asked when progress dips first appear. Most people on that TwitterChat said around Y8/9. It’s these dips that lead to the problems at KS4.