Boundaries in the KS3 debate

The secondary school sector is alive with discussion about shortening of key stage 3, not least because Ofsted’s new framework requires inspectors to take a closer look at this practice than they had previously. However, if we park Ofsted inspection for a moment, this debate is interesting because it gives us a good example of how we might use the work of Bernstein to reflect on the issue of what we include and, by extension, exclude from the curriculum.

As Bernstein explained, “Curriculum defines what counts as valid knowledge.” Furthermore, he said, “how a society selects, classifies, distributes, transmits and evaluates the educational knowledge it considers to be public, reflects both the distribution of power and the principles of social control.”

Bernstein’s analysis was centred on two key elements of power and control: ‘classification’ and ‘framing’. The concept of classification is concerned with boundaries between curriculum contents, for example the extent to which contents might be restricted to particular subjects on the timetable. “Where classification is strong,” Bernstein said, “contents are well insulated from each other by strong boundaries.” Where classification is weak boundaries between contents are blurred.

Framing is about the nature of control of the way knowledge is transmitted, essentially the pedagogy. For example, in some education systems the way knowledge is transmitted is more up for grabs than in others.

An argument you sometimes hear in relation to the key stage 3 debate is that shortening it allows for extra time at GCSE and, therefore, affords more time for pupils to focus on the content they need to learn in order to achieve well in the exam.

As Bernstein noted, debates in education tend to focus on the ‘approach’ rather than on the underlying principles of the problem. I wonder if we might yield insight into something more fundamental if we thought about it slightly differently and use a little theory to help .

In Bernstein’s ‘Class, Codes and Control’ (volume 3) his examples of classification in the school curriculum tend to refer to boundaries between subjects. But I wonder if we might apply the same notion of boundary to explore the demarcation of content within a subject: in this case the boundary between key stages 3 and 4.

For example, it would make sense for the boundary between key stages 3 and 4 to be weak. After all, in most subjects the content in key stage 4 represents some sort of deepening and/or broadening exploration of the same subject studied at key stage 3. However, our system incentivises us to view the contents of each key stage as being bounded in some way. This is interesting because it tends not to flow from the nature of the subject itself but rather from the structure imposed by our macro curriculum and management structures and the exam system.

So, in one sense those people who conclude the notion of key stages is arbitrary are absolutely right. In which case, you might argue, that shortening key stage 3 is of no consequence – it’s the same stuff, right? Only, it’s not quite as simple as that.

The nature of our exam system tends to mean that the pacing and pedagogy at key stage 4 are strongly determined by the course itself. This means that what Bernstein terms ‘framing’ is often stronger at key stage 4 – teachers and pupils have less options available to them in terms of the pace, detailed content and means of transmission. Framing tends to be weaker at key stage 3. So, there is a difference in framing between key stage 3 and key stage 4. This makes key stages 3 and 4 feel rather different from the perspective of pupils.

What I think is particularly interesting here is that many teachers I’ve spoken to have tended to bemoan the highly controlled pacing and prescription at key stage 4 when compared to what feels like the relatively weaker framing of key stage 3.

Moreover, I suggest (admittedly with no evidence) that this difference has become even more marked with growth of what Christine Counsell refers to as the language of ‘markscheme-ese’ at key stage 4, unfortunately reducing the taught and learned experience in some classrooms to a relentless focus on exam question types etc. This is not to say that stronger framing is inherently a bad thing, but in the context of content and pedagogy that has often seemed to be driven by exam practice questions rather than the beauty of the subject, I think the factors that shape framing at key stage 4 can be problematic.

Given this it might, therefore, be expected that the teaching profession would jump at the chance to return to a full and rich key stage 3 where framing is weaker and less driven by external evaluation criteria. But this is not necessarily the case. And that’s interesting, I think.

Is this a reflection of the belief that key stage 4 curriculum content is deemed to be superior in some way? Maybe. But I don’t often hear that argument. The argument I most often hear is the one I mentioned above: that more time at key stage 4 is likely to lead to better GCSE outcomes.

Let’s think about that again, though. What we’ve just done is, to some degree, to draw a boundary and insulate key stage 4 from key stage 3. Is this helpful? I wonder if it’s the imposition of these sorts of boundaries within subjects that sits behind some of the barriers pupils face in the classroom, because they form a disconnect in the logic and narrative flow of the subject (for example, between KS2 and KS3 too).

As an alternative, might it be possible that a full rich key stage 3, which is not strongly bounded from key stage 4, is exactly what pupils need in order to be successful at key stage 4? This is worth thinking about on a subject-by-subject basis. See @MrMountstevens recent twitter thread on this in relation to history.

There’s something else interesting going on too – the implicit assumption that curriculum value is derived from exam results. In our system, content classified as being GCSE is often seen as being of much higher status that that at key stage 3. This is an understandable position for people to take, but it is not without problem. Firstly, until such time as the national reference test dictates otherwise, at pupil level comparable outcomes means that, even if there was a sudden improvement in pupils’ overall standards next year in a given subject, the distribution of GCSE grades would remain broadly the same nationally. Secondly, school level progress 8 is a zero-sum game. For some schools to gain others have to decline. As it stands there is no end-game in which all pupils and schools leave with the top grades.

None of this is to say that results don’t matter – of course they do. But the question we might ask is what else matters too? What about those pupils who don’t leave with the top grades, or those who do not continue with the subject into KS4? Is it all for nought? That’s not to say for a moment that schools or teachers should lower their expectations of pupils.

Rather, it is a collective challenge for us to grapple with what we consider to be the aim(s) of our curriculum. In part this has already been decided by our representatives in government via the national curriculum. And as such we should take seriously what our curriculum choices say about the value we ascribe to those curricular standards. With what degree of reverence do/should we hold the content outlined in the national curriculum?

Whatever the curriculum issue we are grappling with (eg whether or not to shorten key stage 3, how many subjects pupils should study, or how many lessons we allocate to particular subjects in Year 7) we need to unearth and understand the principles that are at play.

The curriculum decisions we make are both structured and structuring. They are shaped by a range of factors, such as the pressures of our accountability and exam systems but in turn the decisions we make can feed back into this system and sustain it. The choices we make say something about the validity of that content. We need to think carefully about the message we want to convey back to the system, back to our pupils.

Bernstein’s notions of classification and framing give us the tools and language to think more deeply about how we structure the curriculum, particularly in terms of how we create boundaries between content.

A theoretical consideration of the boundary between KS3 and KS4 may unlock more meaningful insight than the sometimes superficial approach-based arguments about whether or not a full or short KS3 is preferable. This blog is not so much a pitch for either side of the debate, but a plea to make explicit the underlying principles.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s