What works at Key Stage 4, two or three years of study?

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We know from recent studies that some schools have opted to teach at least some of Key Stage 4 (KS4) over three years, rather than two. For example, last year we found that over half of respondents to the NFER Teacher Voice survey begin teaching GCSE content when pupils are still in Year 9.

The benefits of starting the KS4 curriculum earlier may include improved pupil outcomes at GCSE, although there are concerns that this prioritisation of certain parts of the curriculum is driven primarily by current school accountability measures (Brill et al., 2018).

At present there is an evidence gap around whether a two-or three-year KS4 is better for pupil outcomes and schools, or whether there is no difference. This research will explore the extent and rationale of this practice, and compare attainment outcomes in similar schools offering different lengths of KS4 delivery in some or all subjects. This will be in the context of the Ebacc/Progress 8 policy of encouraging a core curriculum at KS4, with a focus on disadvantaged pupils. The project will also provide contextual information about other factors that schools should consider, such as pupil wellbeing and impacts on timetabling and staffing.

How can schools take part?

The project involves two main periods of fieldwork: a large-scale survey of school senior leaders, followed by follow-up interviews with selected survey respondents. In February/March 2020 a short survey was sent to all secondary schools in England asking them about their KS4 curriculum. Due to the partial school closures caused by the pandemic, the survey was paused, and was then reopened before closing in September 2020.

Follow-up interviews will be conducted with up to 48 survey respondents between June and July 2021. The interviews will explore:

  1. How and why schools selected their chosen length for KS4.
  2. The perceived benefits and challenges of this approach for the school, teachers, and pupils.
  3. Whether respondents’ attitudes towards the structure of KS3/KS4 in their schools has changed due to the impact of Covid-19.

If you are approached for a short interview, we hope you will be able to find time to speak to us.

All research participants will receive a copy of the final report, which is due to be published in late autumn 2021.