I had no idea that Ofsted was preparing such a report, and when I first commented on its existence, I’d not even seen the full document, so I was aware that it would be unpopular, if not exactly how and why.
As it is, I think a good many more schools than I originally imagined would have reason to be disappointed – including primary schools. And I’m not convinced that the report has done much to improve the landscape.
The reality is that Key Stage 3 is patchy. There are some schools that use it well, work well on transition and should probably be praised for it. There are some where it is neglected, undervalued and wasted. The vast majority of schools probably fall in that middle ground, so it is unhelpful to tar all with the “wasted years” brush.
Moreover, the report is such a wasted opportunity, as it could have offered so much more clarity, direction and purpose, without rubbishing the entire sector.
But first, let’s face facts: in too many schools, transition is weak and KS3 is the poor relation. For too many school leaders, transition is a synonym for promotion: events and activities are organised to attract an increasing roll, rather than to support the progression of learning; too much energy is invested in the months around the admissions submission date, while the key early weeks in Year 7 are neglected; too much focus is on engaging enthusiastic parents, rather than dealing with the professionals who have been working with the new students for some years.
And in Key Stage 3, there can be a perception that any teacher will do; that Year 7 English or Year 7 Maths can’t be that hard to teach. That opinion still holds water in too many schools, and leaves unqualified and incapable teachers, delivering lessons rather than teaching for learning.
But what Ofsted neglected to note was the pressures and challenges that secondary schools face: increasingly – as a result of parental choice among other things – schools are dealing with tens rather than a handful of feeder schools; increasingly – as a result of a whole host of external factors – schools are struggling to recruit sufficient teachers for those vital KS3 classes; increasingly, intervention and effort is necessarily focussed on KS4 and KS5 as government change after change affects courses, modules, curriculums and punitive accountability structures.
None of that negates the issues, but they are all factors which ought to borne in mind.
I’m the first to say that transition is rarely as effective as it ought to be. The improvements in pastoral arrangements are tangible; the issue of trust between primary and secondary sectors is still significant. But the solution cannot simply be to say “do it better”. What’s more, on this occasion the report seems to acknowledge the issue of a lack of faith in KS2 results, but then does little to suggest any solution or explanation.
Let me state again, as I have done many times in the past, that as a Key Stage 3 teacher of many years, I had no issue with KS2 test results in Mathematics. I found them a very reliable indicator of broad ability, and a good predictor of future outcomes. They don’t tell you the ins-and-outs of what a child can do, but they’re a good starting point. Reading test data, on the other hand, was hopeless for anything other than a broad indication of those falling well below standard. Level 5 Reading results in KS2 were close to meaningless for a secondary teacher, and this long-standing problem was never addressed. And I have no doubts that too many schools have worked in ‘mysterious ways’ to achieve the best possible writing levels in Year 6, without much regard to the reliability of the data. But nor will the scrapping of levels resolves those problems.
In fact, the current shambles of KS2 assessment arrangements will only make things worse in the short term. And crushing financial settlements will do nothing to enable secondary schools to improve the work they do in liaison with primaries, any more than slating them all will. Too many teachers will be irritated by the tone, will continue to blame unreliable KS2 data, and little will change.
The truth is that effective transition that encompasses academic information takes time and people, both of which cost school budgets dear, and neither of which is in easy supply. So while it’s true that transition isn’t yet good enough, and progress in KS3 could be better, slating schools without acknowledging the myriad external factors only serves to make Ofsted appear as a bogeyman once again.
There are some creditable strategies in the accompanying good practice guide – and some very dubious ones too – but what schools really need is guidance on what is really needed, and the time and money to get it right. And I’m pretty sure that Ofsted can provide neither.