Headteacher Peter Kent and deputy Annabel Kay describe how introducing a condensed KS3 programme in their school has created the opportunity for personalised learning

Sometimes I feel that we live in an upside-down world. Looking at the way we organise our school curriculum, it would be hard to guess the importance that we attach to different parts of it. Take, for example, our system of secondary key stages. At a glance it would appear that we value KS3 more than any other. Why else would we attach three years to it, giving KS4 and 5 a mere two years each?

Yet we know that the reality is the opposite. As far as employers and universities are concerned, the only things that matter are GCSEs and A-levels. When was the last time that a university admissions tutor declared that he or she could not offer a student a place because they had a disappointing set of KS3 levels or an employer showed the remotest interest in the KS3 levels that a student gained?

The surprising truth is that we devote the most time to the section of our children’s school career that matters least, leaving many students feeling bored or disaffected. When KS4 does come along it is often too late to shift the feeling of ‘just marking time’.

Within our own school we felt that the time had come to do something about this imbalance. We wanted to establish a new curricular structure that gave greater time to those things that mattered most.

We also wanted to develop a structure that allowed scope for genuine personalisation – allowing students to access courses that they wanted to take when they felt ready to take them. This would sweep away the mentality dictating that students could not touch GCSEs until they were in Year 10 or AS-levels until they entered Year 12. So we began the process of readjustment.

What we are doing
In September 2005, all curriculum areas embarked on a condensed KS3 programme of two-year coverage. To ensure total curriculum coverage has required a fresh look at programmes of study and any ‘fat’ being trimmed out. In doing this there is a risk that the more ‘interesting’ bits are lost but we have not found this to be the case. Instead, the resultant schemes are slicker and the pace of delivery more focused than before. We have decided that students will still sit their SATs exams in Year 9 after having had the benefit of their new Year 9 curriculum.

Having established what is hopefully a robust and stimulating programme for Years 7 and 8, we were then faced with what would be done in the ‘freed-up’ Year 9. Curriculum areas have all approached this time from the perspective of what most suited the students and the specific needs of their subject. Science, for example, has been able to take advantage of the changes to the curriculum and will cover the core material in Year 9, additional in Year 10 and separate science in Year 11.

This means that all students will attain three GCSEs within the time previously allocated to the double award. They also have an additional GCSE option, as separate science no longer takes up one of their allocation.

We have been adamant, however, that the additional year does not purely become an opportunity for students to ‘collect’ more examinations. Some subject areas are looking to undertake cross-curricular projects that lie outside the scope of the specification, with the aim to engender nothing more than a passion for the subject. We also recognise that for subjects where students need a certain degree of maturity, such as English, they will continue to sit their GCSE in Year 11.

How we have got there
The path we have trodden has by no means been easy. There have been more rough patches along the way than we care to remember. We can be a proud, however, of the fact that we went from conception to implementation in one academic year.

Key to this has been giving staff the opportunity to air all their concerns and not trying for a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. We have had regular meetings at which faculty leaders have worked together to agree the principles of our approach. They than acted as ambassadors to sell the changes to the rest of the staff and provided a communication conduit back to SLT. Negotiation and compromise have been necessary on both sides but the resultant output is certainly not second best.

Whilst we are still in the early days of implementing this new curriculum structure, it has been interesting to notice the reaction from both parents and students. When we wrote an article in the school newsletter explaining the philosophy behind the changes, the only reaction that we got from parents was a complaint that we had not introduced the new system sooner. ‘Wish you had done this when my son was in KS3’ was a common piece of feedback from parents with older children.

Early experiments with a new and more personalised curriculum have also attracted an enthusiastic response from students. A group of pupils from Years 8, 9, 10 and 11 are now pursuing an AS course in music technology. Eighty Year 11 students have volunteered to take a lunchtime AS course in general studies ‘because we thought it would be interesting’.

We suspect that these reactions will become more and more common as the process of revising and personalising the curriculum continues to roll out. As with several other aspects of education, the moment that we begin to question the current structure we find ourselves asking why on earth we have been doing things this way for so long. Our experience to date leaves us in no doubt that it is time for a change, time to turn our upside-down curriculum the right way up.