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Word is out - the KS3 strategy is a winner

Since September 2000 the national key stage 3 strategy has been piloted in 205 secondary schools in 17 local education authorities.

Early implementation could have been smoother and there were some teething problems. But since Christmas, the whisper in the pilots has been getting louder by the week - it's beginning to work, and where it matters most - in classrooms.

In both English and maths, teachers are talking with increased confidence about the pace and impact of the three-part lesson at the core of the pedagogy. They welcome the clarity of the frameworks.

The catch-up classes have not always been easy to timetable but they make a rapid impact on pupil progress. The encouragement of language and mathematics has been widely welcomed.

Teachers and heads in the pilot authorities speak with increasing confidence about the change happening in their schools. A few comments from staff in the Nottinghamshire pilot make the point. "I would never have believed it if someone had told me that our staffroom would buzz with conversation about teaching," said one teacher.

Changing practice is also being discussed. "The sense of purpose in lessons is striking. If OFSTED came now it would find these lessons good and often excellent."

Moreover, because the expectations are clear and the training of increasing quality, teachers find they have a common language about standards and pedagogy. "There is a real sense that we are in this together, determined to succeed."

Overall, the feeling seems to be that the strategy is helping schools to reinforce what they wanted to do anyway. "We already had a strong commitment to improving the school. The KS3 strategy is helping us to progress more quickly."

Pupils have also noticed the difference: "Friends told us we would find Year 7 easier than Year 6 but they were wrong.

These views are shared across the pilots. "There is a high level of engagement among staff and a high commitment because they can see that it will make a difference in classrooms," said one head from Greenwich.

But there are problems. Training needs to be provided more flexibly and at different times so that staff are not taken out of classrooms, thus exacerbating recruitment and retention problems. The process of change is hard work. The three-part lesson format doesn't work easily in the minority of schools that have 35 or 40-minute periods; 50 or 60-minute lessons work better.

In schools with sixth forms, heads of department are still rightly focused on the post-16 reforms and the KS3 programme needs to be phased in steadily.

The investment to solve these problems will be there: more than pound;420 million spread over the next three years.

When the strategy becomes national in September, it won't be perfect straight away but, if implemented well, it will work. It's rooted in good practice and builds on the progress at secondary and primary level in recent years; and it's based on the research into teacher effectiveness.

We've drawn up a checklist of what the proposed KS3 strategy is and is not.

It is not:

* complete change;

* tinkering at the margins;

* boring, reductive and out-of-context basic skills;

* just like primary;

* just about targets;

* just about level 3s;

* just about Year 7.

It is:

* for all pupils, including the gifted;

* direct action for under-achievers;

* leading-edge training;

* effective consultancy support;

* networking and dissemination of good practice;

* active and engaging lessons;

* a strategy for the long term.

Michael Barber is head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit

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