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‘The Wasted Years’

It was interesting to read The Chief Inspector of Schools referring to Key Stage 3 as the Wasted Years in his address to the ASCL conference on Friday. For many years, Y8 – usually the second year of secondary education – has been called the dip year; when learners’ initial enthusiasm for their new teachers and varied curriculum has worn off. Having worked in and with secondary schools all my career, I am not wont to criticise schools; they are the product of a system that has a miscued sense of the true purpose of education. Excessive concern by our political masters with simplistic performance measures has meant that examination scores have been seen too readily as the sole indicators of achievement.

Talking with colleagues in St Mary’s Magherafelt, also last Friday, it was clear that here was a school that had started to put things in place to make the early years of secondary education into the foundations of learning years. Fortunately, there are many schools with whom I have worked that have addressed some fundamental issues and built on the primary experience in the early years of secondary education by:

  • Looking beyond primary performance data and paid more attention to understanding their 11 year olds learning habits
  • Ensuring that secondary teachers spend time in primary classrooms as part of their continuing professional development
  • Acknowledging that 11 and 12 year olds have had the opportunity – among other things – to take responsibility for themselves, lead their own learning, think laterally and logically, work effectively with others, plan and review their work and stretch their learning habits in primary classrooms
  • Shifting the focus away from exclusive concern for examination performance as the sole measure of educational outcomes and given as much attention to teaching in the early years as to key stage 4 and post-16.
  • Not just placing high profile and effective teachers with examination classes but allowing them to impact – alongside less experienced teachers – with lower school classes
  • Staging induction events in Y7 that focus on exploring learning habits in addition to securing functional procedures
  • Developing induction programmes that build their new students’ learning capacity progressively within tutorial sessions as well as by infusion across the curriculum
  • Recognising that the move from one teacher in primary to as many as 14 in secondary may lead to variety but doesn’t lend itself to coherence
  • Bringing areas of the curriculum together – since allowing for some subjects to be taught for only one or two lessons a week gives little time for the kind of learning that allows students or teachers to delve beneath subject content
  • Breaking the mould of separate subject disciplines in order to make room for inter-related and joined-up learning
  • Using cross-curricular project work that is committed to the development of curiosity, enquiry-mindedness and the ability to see the links and connections between topics and ideas
In these schools enthusiasm, motivation and progress in learning habits continues long after the fresh uniforms, new pencil cases and shiny tablets have got a little worn. For many years now, Macmillan Academy in Middlesbrough has been committed to its own Year 8 Baccalaureate that ensures that all students are exposed to the kind of learning that builds habits of mind within and beyond the curriculum.

It doesn’t take a massive shift to change learning and motivation in these transitional years. Headteachers with a vision and passion for education – like Deirdre Gillespie in Magherafelt – keep their eye on learning and are prepared to provide the kind of education that builds open-minded, enthusiastic, curious and responsible citizens for the 21st century.

Headteachers should encourage students and parents to engage with the debate in favour of Character Education – and the mandate provided by the Demos report, Character Nation. They need – like the students at Landau Forte, Derby in June 2014 – to debate What’s the Point of School? in order to broaden thinking and enhance practice.


Further actions

  • Take a look at this inspiring video made by Landau Forte.

  •  Demos’ Character Nation report can be found here
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