Key Stage 3 – the lost years?

by Kevin Hiatt 

Alongside the many other events of 2020, we also released our new core English, Maths and Science courses for learners aged 11-14.
Inspire English International, Maths Progress International and Exploring Science International are designed to support an age group we all too often overlook – and a school stage that some educationalists have called ‘the lost years’.

When researching and developing these programmes, we spoke to a range of school leaders, teachers and learners from around the world about what they were looking for in resources at this age.

Four key drivers emerged from this:

  1. Improved engagement with school and the curriculum
  2. Improved development of and support for transferable ‘soft-skills’
  3. Effective and ‘sticky’ teaching – i.e. appropriate knowledge and skills that remain over time
  4. Improved International GCSE results

Which of these is the most important? That’s a question that we can argue over – but there’s no doubt which of these is the most visible and the most pressured.

Schools are under enormous pressure to secure good results for all ages – but especially at those ages that ‘show’. International GCSE (IG) and International A level (IAL) results place a school in the ‘shop window’ – and this is especially true for international schools who are often reliant upon fees to survive and to thrive.

In this kind of climate it can be understandable that the first reaction to the question “How do we improve our International GCSE results?” is to simply teach that specification for longer. Schools stretching their IG teaching over three, or even four years is not that uncommon. When researching the years preceding IG, I even came across one incidence of a five-year teaching programme for IG! I’d argue that there’s a world of difference between preparing students for IG (and beyond) and this approach – even if it does seem a simple solution to improving those results.Research (our own Pearson research and that of others) suggests very clearly that if you get drivers 1, 2 and 3 correct then 4 takes care of itself. It may be tempting to teach to the IG specification for an extended period but research shows a clear link between this and disengagement with the subject and with education in general. It also shows no impact on improved IAL or other later stage qualifications. So how do we get 1, 2 and 3 right?

1. Improved engagement with school and the curriculum

Not all students are as self-motivated as we’d like – indeed not all adults are! As publishers, we can support this through helping with two main things.

Firstly, by producing materials that are interesting, up-to-date and relevant to that learner. For international students this means not just recycling UK resources and materials that have no relevance to them. It means making examples, texts, stories, and activities engaging – rather than simple ‘read this fact and remember later’. And it means talking to learners – after all, tastes have definitely changed in the many years since I was 12 years old…

Secondly, it means supporting teachers by providing them with those interesting materials, but also with detailed, enjoyable lesson planning and professional development. It means talking to those teachers about what works, what they like and what would help.

2. Improved development of and support for transferable ‘soft-skills’

Teachers, higher education institutions and employers have consistently talked about the need for an increased emphasis on transferable soft skills. Broadly these fall into three categories: cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal. In essence, they’re all about helping to create confident and robust learners, who are able to engage with any problem and meet challenges and have an awareness of how they learn and how to relate to others.Development of these skills does not happen on its own. Instead we have to ensure that we embed their development throughout our resources – from the earliest stages but certainly throughout the lower secondary years.

3. Effective and ‘sticky’ teaching

We need to ensure students are gaining the appropriate knowledge and skills that remain over time – at the right time. Part of creating any good programme is identifying the end point – in the case of Key Stage 3 it’s ensuring that students are prepared for IG. And, as previously stated, there’s a world of difference between this – and simply teaching the specification for longer!

In developing Inspire English International, we worked with subject experts to identify the vital prerequisite skills and knowledge so that they can be properly taught through an engaging curriculum, that also helps embed those important soft-skills. This ensures learners really understand what they’re learning, where they’ve come from – and, importantly, where they’re going. Embedding assessment, matched to a clear learning progression ensures teachers and learners are also confident identifying areas where further support is needed and understand how to access this support.

By doing all of this – aimed specifically towards that starting point of International GCSE – we know that learners will achieve those all-important grades and gain an enduring understanding of the subject and of learning itself that will benefit them hugely moving forwards.

4. Improved International GCSE results

The proof here will be in the results – but a wide range of research suggests that it’s those schools who hold their nerve and properly embed drivers 1, 2 and 3 who truly see the benefits. Not just in improved IG results, but in improved IAL results, improved attitudes and engagement – and in improved progression to Higher Education as well.

Ultimately we have to decide what to do with lower secondary. Is it just a holding pen, waiting for those IG results? Or is it a chance to truly embed important skills and knowledge – and help foster a love of learning that will last a learner a lifetime and vastly improve later results?

Our research suggests the vast majority of teachers and learners do see the potential here and this is what we’re confident we’re able to support.

Kevin Hiatt is a Publisher at Pearson, leading the development of the teaching resources and courseware for iPrimary and iLowerSecondary. Prior to entering the world of publishing, Kevin was a primary school teacher in the UK and has kept up a passion for helping students and teachers learn and develop.