Gerald Haigh explains what all the fuss is about
What's been called the two-year key stage 3 has been around for longer than most of us realise. Some Year 10 students at Admiral Lord Nelson school in Portsmouth are about to take core subject GCSEs a year early, having done KS3 tests at the end of Year 8. The school - 1,000 pupils aged 11 to 16 - began its two-year key stage 3 before it became a national issue, and now takes all its pupils through the programme in Years 7 and 8, in core subjects and humanities (but not the arts subjects) .
"At first, we thought of it as acceleration," says associate head Steven Labedz. "As many as a quarter of our children were turning up from primary schools with level 5, which is considered entry level for GCSE." After two years, though, the staff agreed that the same argument applied to the whole of the intake. "Primary schools have become increasingly adept at teaching literacy and numeracy," he says. "By the end of Year 8 we should be able to have almost everyone at level 5, and able to move on to GCSE work."
What the school does in effect is get KS3 out of the way to give its students the option of either taking GCSE early or having a longer run at it.
Does it work? "Parents love it, the students love it," says Mr Labedz. "KS3 results are holding up staggeringly well, and we're getting A* and we're increasingly confident of higher levels for GCSE."
Nationally, the issue was raised when the 2001 Green Paper Building on Success said that the Government might consider shortening the key stage to two years after 2004. Doing this, the mandarins writing the paper explained, might up the pace of learning, increase motivation and address the problems of low expectations, disaffection and consequent low standards.
Then in 2003, some 40 schools - and an additional 20 as associates - began to try out the idea under the wing of the KS3 strategy. The original assumption was that this would be a straightforward matter of finishing with KS3 tests at the end of Year 8. What's emerging from the project schools, though, is something more flexible and varied. Colin Penfold, KS3 senior regional director, says: "We hardly ever refer to a two-year KS3 now - it's a condensed KS3."
Within this definition, the straightforward Years 8 and 9 model turns out to be just one of many. There are three possible areas of variation, which multiply out to a host of permutations.
First, the condensed version doesn't have to be for all pupils. Second, it need not include all subjects. The third variable is that there are many ways by which the time reduction can be achieved. Project schools have tried three basic models - front-loaded: KS3 in Years 7 and 8; end-loaded: Years 8 and 9; and split: Years 7 and 9. The last one enables schools to revitalise Year 8 with demanding challenges. In one school, pupils studied some GCSE science modules.
It doesn't end there, either. It's possible, for example, to defer the start of the key stage for just a term - to address the induction of their incoming 11-year-olds.
Each school should think about what's possible and use the flexibility to address its own improvement priorities, says Mr Penfold. "We're saying that schools should have the curriculum that's appropriate for their pupils.
Maybe the existing way will turn out to be the right one, but the important thing is to question it."
Importantly, the issues that schools might address through these variations aren't themselves limited to KS3, but may be introduced with an eye on liberating the timetable and curriculum to tackle new approaches in KS4.
Similarly, delaying the start of KS3 studies might provide a secondary school with the opportunity to work on basic skills with low attaining Year 7s.
Collingwood technology college in Camberley, Surrey - 2,040 pupils aged 11 to18 - started last year with a two-year key stage 3 programme for all its students in ICT and initially for the low and high-ability bands in science. As well as turning the focus of attention on teaching and learning in KS3, this also addressed issues of motivation in key stage 4. "We were very interested in the long-term gain of freed up time for students in Year 11," says Karen Hannaby, assistant principal. "We envisage gifted students starting an advanced programme, and other students doing other kinds of work in different areas."
This year, Collingwood has extended its condensed KS3 to include all pupils in science, having decided - as did Admiral Lord Nelson school in Portsmouth - that they are all capable of the shorter course.
Some schools making enquiries from outside the project have been worried about the legality of changing KS3. Colin Penfold is at pains to reassure them that there are no legislative or regulatory implications in any of these changes. (Strictly speaking, it's not the key stage itself that's shortened, but the programme of study. Tests can be taken at the end of any year so long as the programme of study has, in the judgment of the headteacher, been completed.) It's the fact that all the conditions already exist for "condensation" to happen that gives the pioneer schools the status of a "project" rather than a pilot (which would imply an experiment not available to others). By the same token, because the option already exists for every school, there's no need for any sort of "national roll-out".
THREE YEARS INTO TWO
Why do it?
If you have concerns about any or all of
* Performance, motivation, pace in key stage 3
* Effective transition from key stage 2
* Structure and motivation in key stage 4 then "condensing" KS3 in whole or in part becomes just one of the possible options.
Does the increased pace mean sterile lessons?
Steven Labedz at Admiral Lord Nelson school, Portsmouth, says it shouldn't happen, and that the answer lies in effective teaching. "If your planning is clear so you know precisely what your objectives are, then you still have time to go down the byways and interesting side alleys. The people who get it wrong are those who think they have to deliver everything that's written down in less time so it becomes all pace and no rigour. That's an important message."
Can you do it?
Yes, nobody's going to give you a green light. You've always had that.
Shall we just get on with it, then?
Best if you take time first to read this autumn's very comprehensive publication A Condensed KS3, based on the experience of the project schools, then pay some visits. Perhaps you'll adopt one of the patterns there, perhaps you'll devise one of your own, perhaps you'll stay as you are. The decision is yours.
A Condensed Key Stage 3: Designing a Flexible Curriculum. Available from www.standards.dfes.gov.ukkeystage3