Leora Cruddas: Is it still helpful to think about Key Stages?

We invite Leora Cruddas, CEO of the Confederation of School Trusts, to write about the importance of Key Stages: 

With the implementation of the 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 KS3 and a separate KS4? It feels to me like this is thinking from a previous era of curriculum thought. This thinking 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, The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (B) final performance as deceiver and guide, 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 – not surprising, since 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 and the translation of that framework into a structure and narrative within an institutional context.

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 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 along 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 and provides a framework for thinking about the world and how it could be different.

I think whatever leaders decide, there are some principles that we need to hold dear – and for me, these principles 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.”

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 because they are for most pupils the stepping stones to further study. But qualifications are the logical culmination of the curriculum progression model.

Written by Leora Cruddas, CEO of the Confederation of School Trusts. 

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