Outcome depends on middle years;Opinion

1st October 1999 at 01:00
IF WE are to achieve world-class performance in the middle of the next decade then it is essential that in this Parliament firm foundations are laid in the early years: hence the top priority given to primary education over the past two-and-a-half years.

Even so, there has been no lack of urgency and progress at secondary level. Greater curriculum flexibility at key stage 4, the broader post-16 qualifications framework, the doubling of the specialist schools programme and the Excellence in Cities agenda are moving ahead. They are all part of our drive to improve the capacity of secondary schools to meet individual needs and aspirations and to encourage both diversity and collaboration among schools.

Contrary to Nick Davies' counsel of despair in The Guardian recently, all the evidence suggests that, where there is good leadership, secondary schools do make a difference and standards are rising. Examination data as well as inspection evidence, all point in this direction.

Last year also saw the first recorded fall in exclusion numbers and this year has seen the numbers of failing schools fall steadily. Of course, Nick Davies' point that schools alone can't solve all our problems is right. That's why the Government's anti-poverty strategy and social exclusion initiatives are so important. To give just one example, tax and benefit changes already in place, will invest an extra pound;6 billion per year in children and families.

But there are problems, most notably at key stage 3. There is increasing evidence of expectations that are too low in Year 7, of a loss of pace in Year 8 and, in comparison to other key stages, a lack of value-added. Chief inspector Chris Woodhead's annual report also shows the highest proportion of poor teaching in KS3. This year's test results strongly emphasise the point. Whereas there is real progress at KS2, at KS3 there is stagnation. There is more room for improvement here than anywhere else.

A variety of policies should begin to make a difference. The 1,200 summer literacy and numeracy schools for 11- year-olds have greatly improved transition to the participating schools. These are now linked to the schools' KS3 programmes.

The training for secondary heads and teachers in literacy (this summer) and numeracy (next summer) emphasises the importance of every pupil getting either a "fast start" or, if necessary, a "catch up" in their first secondary year.

Finally, the KS3 optional schemes of work, prepared in collaboration with excellent teachers, related to the new national curriculum and available from next April, will show how secondary schools can build on the rising standards at primary level to set higher expectations. In the Excellence in Cities conurbations improvement will be accelerated by provision for gifted pupils, as well as the learning mentors who will help remove barriers to learning for many.

All these initiatives will help but the chief drive for change must come from within schools. Raising standards at KS3 is about the leadership and the priorities set; it's about treating Years 7 to 9 as critical steps on the way to achievement; it's about ensuring pupils in KS3 learn how to think both rigorously and creatively and it's about ensuring no pupil becomes anonymous. The best practice I've seen in KS3 involves setting targets for each pupil and combining the academic and pastoral strands to unlock aspiration and motivation.

I've heard it said that performance tables inevitably mean priority will be given to KS4. It all depends on whether heads focus on the short term or whether they think strategically. Those who do the latter - and there are many of them - know that, in the medium and long term, meeting ambitious targets for performance at GCSE or A-level, depends on making the most of KS3.

Michael Barber is head of the Government's Standards and Effectiveness Unit

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