The new key stage 3 trials have shown little improvement in pupil standards and may favour more privileged children, reports Warwick Mansell.
DOUBT was this week cast over the Government's scheme to raise standards among younger secondary pupils after new research showed it did little to improve results.
A government-commissioned evaluation of the pilot of the key stage 3 strategy suggested the prescribed teaching methods did more to improve the results of pupils from affluent homes than of those from poor backgrounds.
And it did little to close the gap between boys and girls.
However, the study by academics at two universities found that most schools had welcomed the strategy's focus on teaching and learning, and believed it would eventually lead to improvements.
Some 205 schools in 17 local authorities took part in the pilot, which lays down teaching methods in English, maths, science, information and communications technology and foundation subjects, from 2000-2002. It was extended nationwide from 2001.
Academics from the University of Bath and London University's Institute of Education analysed the performance of thousands of Year 7 pupils in English and maths.
Some 40 per cent of pupils in the pilot schools who achieved level 3 in English key stage tests at the end of primary school had progressed to level 4 in tests taken at the end of Year 7. In maths, the figure was 21 per cent.
The study described these gains as "limited". Among pupils achieving level 4 or above in English in primary school, 33 per cent had moved up a level by the time they took optional tests in Year 7. In maths, the figure was 61 per cent.
This final figure was "substantial", but the study did not have a comparable rate for non-pilot schools.
The study also found that in the pilot schools girls moved further ahead of boys in English in Year 7. In maths, low-achieving boys outperformed girls but there was little difference among brighter children.
Pupils in deprived areas made less progress than those in affluent districts. Most schools welcomed the strategy's focus on teaching and learning.
There was some evidence that teachers' expectations of pupils were raised, that they used more varied methods and talked more about teaching and learning.
But many teachers were found to be "tweaking" their teaching techniques, rather than radically changing their practice.
John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said no one should expect instant results from a pilot scheme, which needed time to bed down. But he was concerned that increased resources for the pilot schools had not been offered to all secondaries when the scheme went national.
A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman admitted KS3 results in the pilot schools in 2001 and 2002 were roughly the same as for all schools. But in 2002, results across all schools were the best on record.
Ministers were now focusing their efforts on supporting "specific groups of underachieving pupils" to build on these gains.
"Preparing for change: evaluation of the implementation of the key stage three strategy pilot" www.dfes.gov.ukkeystage3updates