But the Government was determined to help secondary pupils build on their primary performance. Susannah Kirkman reports
For more than 20 years, experts have been concerned about the "black hole" of under-achievement into which many children slide once they reach secondary school. The Government, too, has been alarmed by the dip in learning experienced by children in Years 7 and 8. That's why they introduced the key stage 3 strategy in 2001.
It began the year before in 205 pilot schools, with the original spotlight on improving literacy and numeracy. But it has grown over the past four years, and now extends nationwide to science, ICT , modern foreign languages and all the other foundation subjects. It has also reinforced the national drive to boost basic skills by focusing on literacy and numeracy across the curriculum. The Government now describes the strategy as a whole-school improvement programme, and its pilot projects range from out-of-class behaviour and conflict resolution to the role of librarians.
Programmes are also being developed to raise the achievement of specific groups, such as Afro-Carribean boys and white, working-class boys. In January a music pilot will begin, with the aim of overcoming schools' poor performance in the subject.
At the heart of the strategy is the tightly controlled lesson structure which is seen as having helped raise standards in primary schools. A typical lesson contains a short, lively starter to engage the interest of the whole class, the main teaching session and a plenary , where pupils can explain what they have learnt. One of the main aims is to motivate pupils and "demand their active participation", according to the Department for Education and Skills.
The Government is also pushing for a smoother transition from primary to secondary school. Methods have included visits to feeder primaries by secondary teachers, a sharpening of the data on pupils provided by the primaries and literacy and numeracy summer schools for Year 6 children who have performed poorly in the Sats. Catch-up programmes have also been provided for Year 7 pupils who need extra support in literacy and numeracy.
Other key aims are strengthening teaching and learning through tailored professional development and practical support and creating high expectations for all pupils. The main target for this academic year is to help pupils progress two levels across the key stage in the core subjects, so that most reach level 6. Other priorities include promoting inclusion and tackling under-performance, and a new emphasis on school leadership; the DfES says that effective leadership is vital if schools are to make good use of the strategy, and it plans to offer practical guidance for senior leaders.
By April 2005, the whole operation will have cost pound;650 million, but there are conflicting views on its success. Pupils taking last summer's key stage 3 tests have not reached the government target of 75 per cent achieving level 5 or above in maths and English and 70 per cent in science, although the DfES argues that there has been a "steady improvement" since the strategy was introduced. Results in English have gone up by 6 percentage points since 2001 to 71 per cent and in maths by 7 points to 73 per cent. More than half of 14-year-olds reached level 6 in maths this year. However, there was a two-point drop in science since 2003 to 66 per cent, with the proportion reaching level 6 also down.
Some research has indicated that slower pupils are being left even further behind by "pacey" lesson structures, but Gordon Stobart of the London Institute of Education who co-authored the evaluation of the strategy's pilot, says that gauging the results is tricky.
"Different schools choose to implement different parts of the strategy so it is difficult to work out cause and effect," he says. Dr Stobart thinks that the main benefit has been to raise the profile of this age group. "Key Stage 3 used to be the Cinderella stage and the strategy has actually managed to gee teachers up and make them think about what they do."
Teachers themselves rate the strategy highly. A study by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that teachers and local authority advisers felt it was making a "significant contribution" to teaching and learning, providing better-paced lessons and improved support for teachers.
Sue Hackman, the strategy's director, believes that the greatest achievement has been the focus on pupils' progress, classroom interaction and the craft of teaching. "It has highlighted how teachers improve their own practice and draw pupils out," she says.
But there is still much to do, according to Ms Hackman. Although schools are now more aware of the information on pupils coming from primary schools, teachers need to learn to use it more effectively, she says.
"Teachers look at the data, but not many are changing their plans as a result," she says. "If a number of boys are weak at writing, for instance, this needs attention." Ms Hackman would like to see a better dialogue between primary and secondary schools and more planning to meet the needs of individual pupils.
The next step is for schools to apply what they have learnt from all this into improving key stage 4, Ms Hackman explains. "The children and teachers are all the same, so it would be madness to introduce initiatives like assessment for learning in only one key stage."