Curriculum KS3 Middle Leadership

Redesigning the KS3 Curriculum: Stage One


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How and Why?

I will be going into my new school tomorrow for my first full day. I already know that one of the things I’ll be working on this term is redesigning the KS3 curriculum to help ensure that more students make better progress in English.  I’m very excited to be offered up this blank canvas but there is also a natural anxiety about knowing where to start:  Do I get some colour onto the canvas first in broad sweeping strokes? Do I pencil in my design and then start painting in the details? Or do I start, as the mood takes me, at one corner and then progress to filling in the rest of the picture when I’m ready?

I had to start somewhere. Whilst I am yet to set foot into my new school (as an employee) I thought it best to start redesigning the curriculum by first thinking very carefully, and in some depth, what my values were. How do I think the KS3 curriculum should be taught? Why? I guess, to extend the painting analogy, this is me thinking through my composition before I even touch the canvas. To help me with the thinking process, I put out a Twitter call. Picture1 I had a range of responses (thank you all). I also discussed some ideas in my first #dojochateu about use of gain time on the 20th May. Here were some of the suggestions: @nesswaters@stephanootis@mrclarkeenglish

David Didau suggested that a good place to start was with his blog post, Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum. And so it was, not least because it sparked a whole breadth of reading that has enabled me to decide how I want English to be taught at KS3 and why. Didau’s underlying principles are outlined below and I’ve stolen them as the basis for my redesign because, frankly, I’ve been completely convinced by them.

Principle 1: Education should enrich students’ cultural capital

The English literary canon is made up of a wealth of great works from Austen to Auden; Blake to the Bronte sisters and Chaucer to Conrad. It is a sad indictment of the way English is taught in some schools that there are students out there who would not know who these authors were much less have read their work. And why haven’t they engaged with these great works? Perhaps because they aren’t considered engaging, accessible or relevant enough for our 11-14 year olds. It might be preferable (easier?) to teach year 9s Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ than explore the dystopia of Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’.

Didau argues that, ‘There are those who claim it is elitist and the preserve of posh kids in private schools, and that ‘kids like these’ should be given a diet of transient but appealing modern texts because that is what is most relevant to their foreshortened little lives. This is unbelievably patronising, selfish and short-sighted. If we allow the canon to be the preserve of the elite we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.’ The short-term gain of teaching an ‘appealing modern text’ is to the long-term detriment of our students. They’ll be entering the world without the cultural capital of their more fortunate contemporaries. I can see why students might struggle with Hardy but that isn’t a bad thing (see more about desirable difficulties in another blog post by Didau here). Just because it’s Hard(y) doesn’t mean it isn’t right for ‘our’ kids. I don’t want to patronise my students.

In his blog post, How to Choose Study Texts in English: Part Two, James Theo says that we have the opportunity to, ‘Give pupils access to texts that will be referenced throughout their lives. Texts that have endured and seeped into public consciousness will offer us touchstones and reference points that help us contribute to and understand the conversation of mankind. They supply us with a shorthand to use and understand throughout every stage of our lives.’ As an example he demonstrates the referencing of Golding’s ‘The Lord of the Flies’ in films such as ‘Hook’ and ‘Anchorman’ to the TV series ‘Lost’. Yes students can still engage with popular culture without understanding these literary references but they’re clearly missing out on something. I don’t want my students to be engaging with the ‘conversation of mankind’ with ear plugs in their ears and cotton wool in their mouths.

And it’s not just about ‘getting’ literary references, in his blog post A New English Curriculum, Alex Quigley says that, ‘Knowledge of the literary canon is fundamentally empowering. Just as highly functional literacy is equally as empowering. Those adults among us who read texts, newspapers, social media threads, television documentaries, novels and non-fiction with the ease of an expert are all deploying their canonical knowledge instinctively. Of course, we should not deny this opportunity to any of our students.’ I want my students to be empowered.

Principle 2: Knowledge of grammar is foundational and transformative

Didau argues that having knowledge of grammar is powerful because it’s fundamental to our ability to think and communicate. I, like him, was not taught much explicitly at school with regards to knowledge about grammar. I could make a good judgement implicitly about if a sentence worked or not but I wasn’t informed about why. Thankfully, through teaching explicit grammar skills, I’ve learnt a lot and I agree that it is foundational and transformative.

Didau refers to Daisy Christodoulou’s argument that the best way to teach grammar is through decontextualised drill and his suggestion is that it would be worth having a discrete grammar lesson. This will definitely be something I explore. I’m not a new convert to the idea of decontextualised grammar teaching,  I was lucky enough to work in Geoff Barton’s school for the first 5 years of my teaching career and also ‘happen’ to own a copy of his, ‘Grammar Survival: A Teacher’s Toolkit’. In it, Barton suggests using a series of starters, not linked to the main part of the lesson, to reinforce grammar knowledge and skills.

Principle 3: Study of English should be based on the ‘threshold concepts’ of the subject

Before reading Didau’s Principled curriculum blog post I had never heard of ‘threshold concepts’ but they are, it seems, a bit like stepping through the looking glass. Once you’ve passed through you can never see things quite the same way again. He gives an example, ‘Before you learn to decode writing is just funny squiggles.  But once decoding is learned, you will only be able to see letters.’ In his blog post, Designing a New Curriculum – What Are Your ‘Big Ideas’?, Alex Quigley refers to Meyer and Land’s definition of a ‘threshold concept’ as: transformative, troublesome, irreversible and integrative and he gives some suggestions about ‘threshold concepts’ in English.

I, however, like Didau’s suggestion that, ‘Maybe there aren’t any real threshold concepts in English; maybe there are only ways of thinking and practising’ and he suggests the following for our subject: structure and coherence; spelling, punctuation and grammar; awareness of impact; understanding context; using evidence and analysing technique. He goes on to say that, ‘It makes little sense to divide these concepts into reading and writing – better, I think, to interleave their study so that pupils are unaware where reading blurs into writing and the twin strands of creativity and analysis are experienced holistically.’ In an earlier post, Redesigning a curriculum, Didau includes an image of a learning loop using these concepts to teach reading non-fiction, persuasive writing, analysing poetry and creative writing. It’s certainly given me a lot to think about for my re-design and I’m going to do some more reading about threshold concepts.

Principle 4: Knowledge of literature should be sequentially introduced

This was something I had never considered before. I’ve never questioned why I might teach ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ followed by a Shakespeare play followed by WW1 poetry. Why haven’t I questioned this?

Didau argues that, ‘If every text pupils study related back the text they’ve studied previously then they will be able to make strong relational links between the text and its context. They will have an understanding of what writers would have known and they will begin to be able to piece together the story of literature from its classical roots, through the medieval, renaissance, Victorian and modern periods.’

In his blog post, What makes a great school curriculum?, Joe Kirby asserts that, ‘Powerful chronological and contextual knowledge deepens understanding and accelerates students’ interpretations of texts’. He puts forward a convincing argument for the sequential teaching of texts and suggests students begin in year 7 by studying Epic Greek Myths / ‘The Odyssey’ and move on to study a Greek play, analyse Roman speeches, come back to England with ‘Beowulf’ and ‘The Canterbury Tales’ and end the year with Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’.  It’s clear to see how each subsequent text links back to the previous one and how that would deepen students’ understanding. His suggestions also clearly meet the cultural capital principle.

Principle 5: Sustained progress is preferable to rapid progress

A culture of assessment, accountability and fear of Ofsted has had the opposite effect to the one I presume was intended: it decreases the quality of learning. As teachers we are judged on our ability to ‘perform’ in a single lesson. But ‘perform’ is the right word. We all know teachers who can pull a good lesson out of the bag when they’re being observed but are they a ‘Good’ or better teacher all the time? We can see from this example that performance in a single lesson is not indicative of ability and the same is true for students. They might be able to perform and recall what you’ve just taught them but can they recall it the next lesson, week or month? Several of David Didau’s blog posts are dedicated to this subject – I would definitely suggest having a read of this, this and this – and I’m convinced that when I redesign the KS3 curriculum I need to prioritise long term learning.

What now?

With a half term filled with reading (alongside going to Radio One’s Big Weekend, visiting family, entertaining my boys and camping in the rain) I feel ready to go into my new school tomorrow with a good idea about how I want to approach this redesign and why. The next step will be putting pen to paper (or paintbrush to blank canvas) to start addressing the questions of what, when and who. I will let you know how I get on…  

See how I got on with my post on Stage Two here.


    1. Thank you for the offer – I may just take you up on that :). I’m looking forward to finding out more about how much freedom I’ll have with the redesign (e.g. budget).

      Thanks for the suggestion to start with your post – it really did start a snowball of reading and got me thinking about all sorts of things I’d never even questioned before.


  1. Thanks for linking me to this – as you know I’m only slightly further along in this process and this post has been greatly reassuring! So far we have Hamlet, Blake and the Romantics and a unit on the development of the language alongside others. In terms of sequencing, Skellig references Blake whose Romantic lyricism may be tied to The Tempest in Year 7… some of our current thinking anyway! I will certainly dip back in to some of the linked posts in this blog. Thanks again and good luck in your new school!


    1. Thank you – I’m getting nervous now but will be good to get in there tomorrow. I hope you find the links useful – so much good stuff out there! Let me know how you get on with your redesign. I love Blake!


  2. Great to see your curriculum design taking shape. I have definitely experienced my year 8 and year 9 groups grappling with, enjoying, and understanding texts that many teachers would think were beyond them. It is about the ‘how’ as much as the what. An explicit focus on teaching the more challenging vocabulary of these texts is important and needs to be a thread that runs through the design.

    I’m not so sure about the decontextualised drill as a solution to grammar teaching – not when you select rich texts full of sentence level complexity. I have found a balance of such drilling AND an embedded and consistent focus on ‘grammar for writing’ (Myhill) has worked more in my context. Still, I think it is a complex area worthy of more investigation in your unique context (if the basics of grammar are not secure, then drilling is more important e.g. I do it much more with my SEN group, before then linking it to a ‘grammar for writing’ approach.

    The barriers of money and planning time are real. I went and sourced charity money to fund many of our purchases! Plus, many classics are really cheap. I would say aim for the gold standard, then fight and scrap for everything you can get.

    Best wishes,



    1. I think you’re right about the context being important. I don’t know enough about the ‘who’ yet and I’m keen to design a curriculum that will be best suited to the students in my new school.

      Thank you for the suggestion of aiming for a gold standard and then fighting for what we can get. That’s a great approach. Fingers crossed the school are willing/able to invest.


  3. I’d urge you to include working life examples in your curriculum for KS3. There is much going on behind the scenes in regard to the need for careers inspiration, aspiration and information to be included curriculum wide. There is much evidence to support this model which I can forward to you if you wish. I know a major hurdle is the concern that teachers believe that careers isn’t their job, however, I’d argue that research shows that 77% of pupils approach teachers for careers advice first. So including contextualised work based scenarios in the schemes of work act as a form of CPD for teachers as well as ensuring you’re well placed to improve motivation of those hard to motivate pupils.

    You may like to have a look at ideas such as these in my Pinterest boards for supporting subject teachers which can be found here.


  4. Thanks for sharing. I know KS3 design has been side stepped at our place due to persistent changes in Gsce provider! I’m going to take this article into a hook in September and see where we go from there . Hope you have managed to make a good start with your ‘refit’…


    1. Hi Su. I’m pretty happy with what I came up with (though it isn’t sequential which I think is a shame) and it was pretty well received by the department. I must write an update of how it looks now and I will include my unit overviews. Good luck with your redesign when you get to it 🙂 .


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