Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted)
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Too many students let down in early stages of secondary school

A new Ofsted report explores whether students are sufficiently supported and challenged to make the best start to secondary school.

The leadership and quality of education at key stage 3 is often a cause for concern, HM Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said today.

A new Ofsted report, ‘Key stage 3: the wasted years?’ explores whether students are sufficiently supported and challenged to make the best start to secondary school.

Ofsted’s survey included evidence from more than 1,900 inspections, interviews with 100 school leaders, 14 school visits, and almost 11,000 questionnaire responses from pupils. Inspectors also investigated the quality of teaching at key stage 3 in modern foreign languages (MFL), history and geography, to see how this experience influenced pupils’ choices later in secondary school.

The report finds that pupils typically study a broad range of subjects at key stage 3. However, the transition to secondary is too often poorly managed and teaching fails to build on the gains pupils have made in primary school.

Too many school leaders treat key stage 3 as the poor relation of key stages 4 and 5. As a result, the deployment of staff and resources is too often skewed towards the upper age ranges. One in five inspection reports identified key stage 3 as an area for improvement.

Inspectors also found:

  • the progress made by pupils during key stage 3 is often slow, particularly in English and mathematics
  • MFL, history and geography teaching at key stage 3 often fails to challenge and engage pupils. This, in turn, impacts on the take-up of these subjects at GCSE
  • low-level disruption detracts from pupils’ learning, particularly in MFL lessons
  • teachers are not consistently building on pupils’ prior knowledge and skills during key stage 3
  • some schools are not using pupil premium funding effectively at key stage 3
  • the quality of homework in key stage 3 is too variable and does not effectively enable pupils to consolidate or extend their learning

HM Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said:

Today’s report demonstrates that too many secondary schools do not give provision at key stage 3 the priority it deserves.

Inspectors have found that pupils often leave primary school with good literacy and numeracy skills, confident and eager to learn, but their progress then stalls when they start secondary school.

In too many schools, the quality of teaching is not adequately preparing children for their next stage in education. In particular, lessons in modern foreign languages, history and geography often fail to ensure that pupils have the confidence or enthusiasm to get to grips with these important foundation subjects. It is, therefore, no surprise that there is a low take-up of these subjects at GCSE. This is a serious concern, given the Government’s ambition for all pupils starting secondary school this month to enter the EBacc subjects in five years’ time.

The importance of a good start to secondary school education cannot be overstated. School leaders need to have a clear understanding of their pupils’ achievements in primary school and build on them effectively from the day they start secondary school life.

Key stage 4 results will not improve until key stage 3 is given a greater priority by school leaders.

Ofsted recommends that secondary school leaders should:

  • ensure high quality teaching effectively prepares pupils for subsequent study
  • create better partnerships with primary schools so that key stage 3 teachers can successfully maintain pupils’ progress
  • focus on the needs of the more able pupils, especially those facing disadvantage
  • evaluate the quality and effectiveness of homework to ensure it helps pupils to make good progress
  • guarantee that pupils have access to timely and high quality careers advice so they know what they should aim for

For its part, Ofsted will focus more sharply on the progress made by key stage 3 pupils and report on whether schools are ensuring that all pupils make the best possible start to their secondary education.

Notes to editors

  1. Key stage 3 normally covers years 7 to 9, when pupils are aged between 11 and 14 years. However, schools have the flexibility to make this stage longer or shorter.
  2. The survey, ‘Key stage 3: the wasted years?’ and a related good practice report are available online.
  3. The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) regulates and inspects to achieve excellence in the care of children and young people, and in education and skills for learners of all ages. It regulates and inspects childcare and children’s social care, and inspects the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), schools, colleges, initial teacher training, work-based learning and skills training, adult and community learning, and education and training in prisons and other secure establishments. It assesses council children’s services, and inspects services for looked after children, safeguarding and child protection.
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