Results suggest the key stage 3 strategy isn't working - so what can the Government do? Susannah Kirkman reports
By April the Government will have poured pound;650 million into its key stage 3 strategy in England, designed to raise the attainment of pupils in the first three years of secondary school. But opinion is divided on whether the initiative has provided value for money.
Introduced in 2001, the strategy was developed to halt pupils' slide into a "black hole" of under-achievement once they reach secondary school.
Research over the past 20 years has highlighted growing concern at falling standards in Years 7 and 8, with one study showing that around four out of 10 pupils failed to make any progress in maths, use of English or reading in Year 7.
Wales has also been concerned by the dip in performance at this stage. Its KS3 strategy, Aiming for Excellence, does not emulate the more prescriptive approach in England. Instead, it is a programme of resources and practical advice based on existing good practice. Schools have also received extra funding to devise "transition plans" supporting pupils as they move from primary to secondary.
In England, the Government's panacea for poor performance has been to focus on a tight lesson structure, capitalising on the success of the literacy and numeracy policies which have helped to raise standards in primary schools. A typical lesson should contain a bright starter activity to engage pupils' interest, the main teaching session and a plenary where students sum up what they have learned.
A smoother transition from primary to secondary, with better liaison between teachers and sharper pupil data, is another linchpin of the strategy.
But has it made any difference? The latest KS3 test results have certainly failed to give the strategy the ringing endorsement it needed.
Although the Department for Education and Skills insists that there has been "a sustained improvement" since the strategy was introduced, pupils taking last summer's tests failed to reach the government target of 75 per cent achieving level 5 or above in English and maths and 70 per cent in science. Science results actually worsened, showing a two-point drop since 2003 to 66 per cent.
However, the DfES could point to slight improvements in English, up six percentage points since 2001 to 71 per cent, and in maths, up seven percentage points to 73 per cent. Yet it seems most unlikely that schools will reach the Government's original target of 85 per cent attaining level 5 in English and maths and 80 per cent in science by 2007.
Successive research studies and evaluations have queried the strategy's efficacy, starting with the failure of "catch-up" summer classes in 2001.
These were set up for borderline pupils who had not attained level 4 in the KS2 Sats. No less than pound;22 million was spent on the summer schools nationally, yet research into local authorities piloting the KS3 strategy showed that, in at least nine of the 17 LEAs, most of the pupils given the extra help had still failed to reach level 4.
Further disappointing news was to follow with a 2002 report into results at the 205 pilot schools, which showed that they did no better in the KS3 tests than any other schools. The vanguard schools produced only a 1 per cent improvement in English and maths, similar to the national average.
Extenuating circumstances included teachers grappling with new materials and training programmes, but in January 2003 came the first hint that the pacy lesson structures were in fact making it even more difficult for slower pupils to keep up. Research commissioned by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers into the experiences of teachers at the pilot schools found that the gap between the highest and lowest achievers was widening.
This view was endorsed by a government-commissioned evaluation released the following month, suggesting that the new teaching methods favoured privileged children. The evaluation report also described any gains in test results as "limited", although there was some evidence that teachers'
expectations of pupils had been raised and they were using more variety in their teaching.
An Ofsted report in March 2003 was no more encouraging. The inspectors said the strategy had not done enough to raise standards, blaming weak heads of department and staff shortages. Nevertheless, there were benefits for teaching, including clearer objectives for lessons, greater variety and purposefulness and more pupil involvement.
A year later, inspectors finally confirmed that the KS3 strategy was improving the results of high-flyers but leaving the less able behind. In English, many low achievers still had significant problems with their writing, and catch-up classes for those who had struggled with maths at primary school were still failing to bring pupils up to the required standard.
Worryingly, Ofsted also found that the strategy had failed in one of its key aims - to improve the transition between primary and secondary. Pupils of all abilities were being held back because they were having to repeat parts of the curriculum already studied at primary school. Continuity was weak in half of all schools. To plug the gaps, at a cost of pound;400,000, yet another curriculum pilot scheme was announced, this time focusing on English and maths for the lowest achievers.
The Government's five-year education plan, published last summer, confirms that many of the aims of the KS3 strategy remain unfulfilled. While teaching in secondary schools is improving, says the plan, serious challenges which remain include transition from primary to secondary and under-achievement at every level.
"The failure to make a good transition from primary to secondary school is one of the biggest causes of poor achievement in secondary schools," it insists. The five-year plan proposes that the KS3 strategy should now be extended to include Years 10 and 11, but it will spotlight areas of learning that pupils find particularly difficult, such as writing, algebra and investigative work in science.
Despite the strategy's shortcomings, it has been very popular with teachers. A study by the National Foundation for Educational Research discovered that, according to teachers and local authority advisers, the strategy is making a "significant contribution to teaching and learning".
Sue Hackman, director of the KS3 strategy, says that teachers enjoy working alongside consultants. "They like having someone who will help them to make change stick in the classroom," she explained. She says that the strategy's greatest achievement is the focus on pupils' progress, classroom interaction and the craft of teaching.
Another reason for its popularity, says Dr Gordon Stobart, of the Institute of Education, London university, is that, particularly in maths, heads of department have welcomed the firm lesson structures, which provide invaluable support for non-specialist teachers.
Dr Stobart praises the fresh emphasis the strategy has brought to the early secondary years, formerly the "Cinderella" area of the curriculum, but he feels it is now too teacher-focused.
"It has to become more learner-centred," he says. "It is very short on group work, for instance, yet research shows this is one way children most enjoy working."
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the strategy's ultimate success is the notion that it is missing the point. Some secondary heads have blamed the regression of pupils in Years 7 and 8 on what they see as artificially high levels of attainment in Year 6, the result of intensive cramming for the KS2 Sats. Others have challenged the relevance of the apparent decline in the face of continually improving GCSE results.
Meanwhile, Professor Maurice Galton, of Cambridge university, says that motivation is crucial for effective learning. His research shows falling levels of interest in school work since 1997. He is worried that the increased emphasis on direct teaching gives even less chance for creative and group work and may further reduce motivation.
If the Government wants to ensure that "every young person is excited by school", as it says in the five-year plan, the solutions it proposes, such as greater variety and choice within the curriculum and more school clubs, outside visitors and trips, need to form an important part of the new "secondary strategy".
DfES Five-Year Strategy for Children and Learners - Chapter 5: Personalisation and Choice in the Secondary Years: www.dfes.gov.ukpublications5yearstrategychap5.shtml