An English (Department’s) Journey PART 1: Prioritising KS3

Two months after I joined Kings College (Guildford) in September 2016, Ofsted came in and judged the school to be ‘Inadequate’. It wasn’t long before the school (43% PP, largely white working class) was voted by one local, very widely read, newspaper, ‘The Worst School in Surrey’, and a national tabloid published our name on a list of the worst schools in England. By December 2018 the school became one of the first schools in England to jump two Ofsted ratings, from ‘Inadequate’ to ‘Good’ in such a short space of time. That August, English results in the school had risen from 43% to 53%. A year later, in August 2019, the English department- a rag-tag group of five, made up of two specialists, two non-specialists, and a trainee, found out that they had helped students secure the best results the English department had ever had, with 76% of students achieving a pass in either Lit or Lang and 53% achieving a good pass (5+). This achievement, combined with other departments’ sterling efforts meant that this year, 3 years after being declared the worst school in Surrey, Kings College secured it’s best ever GCSE results.

On results day, despite me moaning about teachers doing this in the past,I couldn’t help but show off about the English department’s achievements. 43 to 76% in just two years. I know there will be people reading this right now, saying that it’s remiss for us, as teachers, to take any credit for the results achieved by our students. If you think this, you are wrong. Of course students are hugely responsible for their success- and failure. But to deny or ignore teacher’s impact would be folly. After all, a class doesn’t get a 100% pass rate if the teacher doesn’t teach them what they’re meant to learn.

In this series of blogs, I’m going to do my best to explain, with the help of my colleagues at Kings, to explain how we helped the students to do what they did. As Head of Department, I recognise 6 factors (listed in no particular order):

  1. Prioritising KS3 over KS4
  2. A supportive headteacher
  3. Teaching hard stuff
  4. Making curriculum the thing
  5. Great teaching
  6. Relentless Modelling.

The first part of this series is written by English Teacher extraordinaire, @MissJMulligan and looks at the way greater focus on KS3 leads to greater success at KS4.

1. Prioritising KS3 over KS4

Our Key Stage Three curriculum is relentlessly challenging. We teach each core text over a term, with other key areas woven in. The texts are highly challenging not only in content, but in the discussions their themes provoke. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ ‘The Speckled Band’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ all feature in Year 8, and The Iliad is Year 7’s first introduction to English at Kings. In year 9 kids read either Frankenstein (yes- the full, unabridged version) or The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Shakespeare, too, features highly, with ‘The Tempest’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ all studied during the three year course. 

Grammar, Vocabulary, Creative Writing, Poetry, Rhetoric and Non-Fiction are all interspersed with these literary works. This is coupled with the use of Direct Instruction; the overt teaching of four words a week designed to give students a better general vocabulary. 

Knowledge is power. Power breeds confidence. Teachers in our department have two or three core literary concepts/terms only that students must understand by the end of each text or topic. This has two advantages, but the first is that students build up thorough knowledge of core literary terms and their usage. A typical Year 7, for example, will be able to explain and identify simile, metaphor, verse, prose and soliloquy by Christmas.

Students are empowered by this knowledge. They communicate with big brothers about why “solitary as an oyster” is a simile and not a metaphor. They explain with nonchalance to guardians why verse indicates higher status than prose. They question the ordering of classical rhetoric and move the refutation where they fancy, because they speak with authority.

Put simply – they know they know stuff.

The second advantage of this knowledge-rich curriculum is that, without warning, feeling powerful starts feeling fun. Competence breeds a thirst for further competence and as confidence improves, students seek more for themselves.

This curiosity filters upwards. By GCSE, students have already grappled with key terms and texts others may first encounter only partway through Year 10 and have the confidence to articulate what they feel and know about a text.  They believe in their teachers and value their knowledge, and understand that sometimes, you need to just listen. They fear pen-to-paper less, because they have the words to show themselves.

But there’s a secret here. The best thing about KS3 in our school is that I love teaching it. I love that once I spent a month of our creative writing lessons slow-writing a short story with a class because the kids wanted to, and that’s OK with the boss. I love that I will never againdrag an eleven-year-old through a GCSE language paper as if that’s somehow useful. I love that when others cover my classes, they’re pulled up for misspelling learned vocabulary.

We give our students voices of their own so they do not shy away from challenge. By the time they reach GCSE, they have the words – and the love – they need to succeed.