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Key Stage 3: a structural idea for the future

When you look at KS3 it’s remarkable how much has changed since I was at secondary school in the 1960s – and how little. Way back then my KS3 lessons began with the Romans and trundled through British history to somewhere in the 1700s. We stopped there because we studied 19th century history (some British, some European) at O level. We did not do any 20th century history – hardly anyone did until the 1970s. My concentration has been on the content we covered because that’s what history was – content. I didn’t knowingly see a source until I was at university.

Of course I still enjoyed history lessons – my teachers were good men who enjoyed talking about history (and football and cricket when successfully diverted) but memory suggests 75% of lesson-time was spent writing down dictated notes. I loved history despite, not because, of the lessons.

Compare that with everything that teachers try to cram into three, or for many, two years of KS3 today. Here’s a quick list:

• the Normans to now – with plenty of 20th century history
• coverage of other cultures
• understanding of concepts such as evidence, causation etc
• how to undertake enquiries
• a sense of the overview of key themes over time
• develop a sense of chronology explicitly (instead of implicitly)
• the opportunity to study some topics in depth for several weeks
• a sense of period (again explicitly instead of implicitly)
• how to use knowledge effectively to develop arguments.

And then there’s assessment (too often the tail wagging the dog) and preparing for GCSE, doing all this so we enthuse students with our love of history and making sure their brains are engaged and active and not just their writing muscles. The range of activities taking place in classrooms is phenomenal – a huge toll on teachers’ energies (though sometimes I wonder if there’s too much variety and not enough repetition of activities so students tackle them better with experience).

All told it’s a recipe for dissatisfaction – no matter how much you do you are just as aware of what you can’t do. One of the continually frustrating elements is the clash between the desire for depth and introducing students to famous events and cultural landmarks which may not take long individually but add up hugely. You don’t have to be a bullet-point prone Tory minister to want students to have heard of a whole host of events and people that often get squeezed out of KS3 by lack of time, from the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Roses to Peterloo and the Amritsar Massacre.

What’s changed hugely is the nature of the material we try to cram into KS3 and how it’s taught. What has not changed is the structure most departments follow – begin way back, probably in 1066 at the beginning of Y7 and work through to somewhere in the vicinity of the present by the end of Y8 or Y9. Nowadays it’s less one step at a time as it was in the 60s than a series of hops, pausing to study in depth, followed by a skip and a mighty leap, to another resting place, bypassing many topics without time for a glance.

When I presented a plenary at last year’s SHP London Conference I came up with a weird analogy to describe this situation – it’s a bit as if you are giving your child a book, a hockey stick and a live kangaroo for Christmas but decide to wrap them up in one piece of wrapping paper. Not everything fits, bits get left out, no matter how you try it never feels like a satisfactory present.

So here the main point of this ramble – what if we use more than one piece of wrapping paper? By which I mean come up with a different structure for KS3 courses. Abandon the single start to finish chronological structure – but without ditching chronology (I have to say that quickly or some will leap to the conclusion that I don’t care about chronology).

How might you do this?

Have different objectives for different parts of the year. Nowadays many schemes of work are divided into half-term units, individual enquiries that tackle a topic and at the same time work on understanding of a concept such as causation or significance. What if we ignore enquiry, concepts etc until after Christmas and spend the autumn doing ‘Historical Headlines’. You’ve got 10 weeks to do a tour of the main events of 1066-1500, maybe 1650 or 1700 – forget stopping to analyse sources etc etc. Just focus on the ‘content’. What were the main events? What do they tell us about the period? How could you group them into themes? Which five are most worth remembering? Can you tell this story and make it lively and interesting for the rest of the class?

Now that’s just a very hazy outline – intention rather than plan – but it would be pacy, interesting, develop explicitly a sense of period and chronology and allow you to introduce children to lots of different events, both British and elsewhere.

And then tackle 4 enquiries in the rest of the year, maybe three depth, one overview, work on conceptual understanding, etc etc. That’s plenty of time to help students develop a sense of enquiry and conceptual understanding – I suspect we’ve been overdoing them at KS3 because driven by the needs of assessment and, at the same time and for the same reason, have spent too long on isolated activities on evidence, cause etc without students gaining a strong sense of the overall process of how to learn more about a topic, how to move from knowing very little to understanding a lot. See What Is History on this website

You’d use the same structure again in Y8 and Y9 – divide the year up so that you achieve different objectives in different parts of the year. Use three sheets of wrapping paper, not one.

That’s as far as I’m going. I don’t have time for more so I’ll just offer this in case someone wants to take it up. As we catapult into new A levels and GCSEs the structure of KS3 is not on anyone’s immediate ‘to do’ list but it’ll get there, not least because KS3 is going to get a lot more complicated with the backwash from GCSE as more schools study topics such as the Norman Conquest at GCSE and more do a 2 year KS3. I think we’ve missed a trick in the last few years in not focussing more on 2 year KS3 schemes – it’s far easier to build up from 2 years to 3 than down from 3 years to 2.

That’s it – a long term idea.


Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.