In a week when primary tests are dominating the headlines, Ed Cadwallader asks what happens to the “wasted years” of key stage 3

National curriculum levels have been scrapped following the recognition that the thinking behind them was flawed. The argument is that we should not consider progress to be a series of ordered steps from a known start point to a pre-determined end point. Breaking that habit presents a huge opportunity for school improvement, particularly in what have been termed the “wasted years” of key stage 3.

Sadly, too few secondary schools are taking this opportunity to change their approaches to assessment. The overwhelming focus remains the high-stake tests at 16 as these are the results that are published. In the meantime, many schools are simply taking a child’s key stage 2 result, predicting a GCSE outcome, and then mapping termly steps of where the child should be at each point in the intervening five-year period. In other words, they are replacing levels with the same system by a different name.

High-stake tests at 16 remain the focus

This quick and dirty fix is a doubly missed opportunity. First, investing heavily in the end of secondary education gives little time for the investment to pay off, whereas earlier investments can snowball into higher achievement each year. Second, the key to raising a child’s performance above the grade suggested by their prior attainment is his or her effort and motivation. Framing key stage 3 as a path to a GCSE grade means telling most children “work really hard and you’ll be average”. This is hardly an inspiring cry. For those most in need the picture is worse. They are told: “work hard and you’ll still be below average”.

Schools may be missing the chance to reinvent key stage 3 assessment because they, like their students, are responding to incentives. Schools need to avoid censure by Ofsted. The inspectorate will argue they made extensive revisions to the 2015 handbook to describe a raft of areas in which they don’t mandate a specific approach. But this paradoxically forces schools back to the one thing Ofsted does very much mandate ­­— that you must demonstrate year on year progress for students internally and that your judgments are confirmed by external exam results.

Imagine a man walks into an office with a gun. He might say “don’t mind me, do what you think is best”, but the behaviour of that office would still be governed by what the office workers think the man with the gun wants to see.

If schools were to shift their focus from year 11 to year 7, then one or two cohorts would find themselves deprioritised at key stage 4 having already been a low priority at key stage 3. This is a raw deal for that group. However, a school has a responsibility to be the best it can to all its students, present and future. It would be a mean-spirited fairness to deny future generations an approach better geared to tackling disadvantage, in order to provide the same, relatively ineffective, exam year interventions to future generations that past ones received.

It’s easy to take an exam specification and turn it into a five-year scheme of work with a tracking system to tick off the stages as you go. It is much harder to design a system that encourages and enables students to transcend what previous experience suggests they are capable of. Schools can rise to this challenge but to do so they need permission from Ofsted to stop the exam coaching and focus instead on the long term. The man with the gun needs to point them in the right direction.