Why it's time to abandon key stages

Instead of thinking of education as five distinct phases, we should see it as a process of progression, says Leora Cruddas

Leora Cruddas

Four pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, being joined together

With the implementation of Ofsted's new education inspection framework, comes a big and sometimes heated debate about the balance of key stage 3 and key stage 4.

I wonder, though, if it is helpful to think of secondary education in terms of key stage 3 and a separate key stage 4? Or, indeed, to think of primary education as key stage 1 and key stage 2. 

It feels to me like this comes from a previous era of curriculum thought.

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A progression model

This idea of a break between key stages mitigates against an understanding of what Christine Counsell calls the curriculum as the progression model.

In her excellent blog on senior curriculum leadership, she says: “But the curriculum itself is the progression model. Its mastery is progress. That is what it is for. 

“When it comes to progress, the burden of proof is on the curriculum. And that includes knowledge itself, for it is not just a setting in which to practise skills; it is a curricular property with an agency all of its own.”

The concept of the curriculum as a progression model is also found in Ofsted’s curriculum research report – which is not surprising, given that Counsell sat on Ofsted’s curriculum advisory group.

If we think in this way, then we free ourselves to look at the breadth and depth of the curriculum framework across the whole of secondary education. 

Early specialisation

There is the issue of the point of specialisation or subject choice. This is significant because, in England, we already ask pupils to specialise or choose subjects earlier than in most other countries.

There are different views on this within the sector. Some leaders believe that it is more helpful to pupils to create stronger, deeper disciplinary knowledge earlier on. 

Others believe that it is important to retain curriculum breadth for as long as possible, as pupils experience a wider curriculum that prepares them well for the next stage of learning.

In this argument, pupils’ increased maturity and knowledge help them to make well-reasoned decisions about their future studies. It also provides a framework for thinking about the world and how it could be different.

Principles we need to hold dear

Whatever leaders decide, I think there are some principles that we need to hold dear. For me, these do not include the protection of an arcane notion of key stages.

Rather, I think the principles may actually be those articulated in the curriculum research:

  • The curriculum is ambitious.
  • Subject disciplines are understood as unique and disciplinary knowledge is carefully sequenced.
  • The curriculum in each subject area is understood as the progression model.
  • There is equitable delivery and impact.

It will never be good enough to simply teach to the test.

As Counsell says: “Teaching to the test can mean different things across subjects.

"At its most extreme, it could mean teaching the [GCSE] specification content for five years. Or it could just mean not taking seriously any content taught beyond the specification. 

“Most commonly, it means structuring learning around the surface features of the test, rather than the layers of knowledge or the smaller component skills that sit underneath successful performance.”

Reversing the proper order of things

The mindset of teaching to the qualification reverses the proper order of things.

Curriculum does not follow from qualifications. Curriculum comes first. Then teaching. Then assessment, which provides the feedback loop. And, finally, qualifications. 

Of course, qualifications are important, as the evaluation of what knowledge and skills pupils have gained against such expectations. And they are important because they are, for most pupils, the stepping stones to further study.

But qualifications are the logical culmination of the curriculum progression model.

So, let’s work together to create a new curriculum lexicon that embraces the best evidence we have.

Leora Cruddas is chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts. She tweets @LeoraCruddas

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