English teachers are always under pressure to produce strong GCSE results, but this year things have been particularly tough. New specifications have brought new priorities, and the challenge has been all the greater because the exam boards have been forgivably – but frustratingly – slow to provide the support materials needed.
In these circumstances, particularly in schools with a shortage of specialist teachers, the culture tends to be one of intervention rather than prevention. Exam classes inevitably take priority.
Yet we mustn’t forget that our key stage 3 classes are the real bread and butter of teaching. The knowledge, understanding and skills that we equip pupils with from when they first come to us as 11-year-olds prepare them for the challenges they will face at KS4.
A lifelong love of a subject is also often born in KS3. When I first started secondary school, I remember a new DT teacher who so inspired me that for three weeks in September I wanted to become an architect. I got over it: he was abruptly moved to an exam class as soon as they realised how good he was.
However, I did get to keep the substitute English teacher who was teaching me for a whole six months. She taught me Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and to see writing as a way to connect to other people. In the short time that she taught me I "got it"; the subject became real, purposeful, beautiful and worthy of my full attention. The flame she lit for me in my first months of secondary school saw me through some patchy years, to be refuelled only at A level five years later.
I don't think that a teacher’s only function is to inspire a love of a subject, but I do believe that it is all too easy to forget the lasting legacy of our KS3 teaching.
Of course, making sure that we are devoting enough attention to KS3 is not easy, by any means. The culture of individual accountability that exists in schools today means that we are forced to put our exam classes first.
Put KS3 'front and centre'
The seeds of understanding sown most successfully in KS3 often bear no fruit for the teacher at the time. Some of the best work that we do in KS3 is to help students put down a deep and effective root system into the subject, which shows little top growth. Making it look like our KS3 students are progressing, meanwhile, is a different project altogether and one that often impedes, rather than deepens, the understanding of our students.
The new GCSEs have created a new landscape for us to manoeuvre through. If we want our students to do the best that they possibly can, we need to ensure that we are giving them the best teaching possible. This means working together, designing and delivering new KS3 curricula that complement new exam schemes and investing in a sustainable and sturdy system for learning that puts KS3 front and centre.
It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. The joy of teaching pupils simply so that they can learn is why many of us came into the profession in the first place. We can still find this joy in the KS3 classroom.
Anne Williams is an English teacher at The Grammar School at Leeds