Failing better at KS3 Curriculum Design

It’s four years since the introduction of the new GCSE specification caused us to have a long hard look at what we were doing at KS3.  Looking back now, it’s pretty hard to imagine returning to some of the things we thought were appropriate at KS3 then. I remember happily spending weeks facilitating Y7 to design their own village with a theme park Hours of colouring and bubble writing overshadowed the few pieces of transactional writing – a letter of complaint, a speech, a brochure – that were supposed to be the object of the exercise. Challenging it was not.

Looking at the new GCSEs, it was obvious that radical changes needed to be made to our KS3 curriculum. We made some changes in the first year, introducing some new texts and dropping some of the most egregious offenders, but it because quickly clear that more needed to be done.

The following year, I organized an English department planning session that focused on trying to form a picture of what our ideal KS4 ready pupil would know and be able to do and then examining how to build this in to the KS3 curriculum. For this I used this excellent blog post from Rebecca Foster to provide a starting point for our thinking. Once everyone had read and discussed it, each group made notes on what they felt a KS4-ready pupil really looked like. I then typed these to provide guidance for us in updating the schemes of work. I’ve reproduced those notes below to show how we were thinking.

What does a KS4 ready pupil look like?

What do they know?

  • Knowledge of form eg poetry, plays, newspapers and genres eg comedy, tragedy
  • An overview of key cultural capital including Biblical allusions, Victorian and Elizabethan/Jacobean context, Greek and Roman mythology, Romanticism and the Age of Enlightenment
  • Definitions and application of key subject terminology – grammar, syntax, rhetoric and literary devices


What qualities do they have as a learner?

  • Takes responsibility for notes and homelearning
  • Capable of working independently
  • Capable of writing in silence for extended periods of time
  • Resilent to set backs and able to work within the ‘struggle zone’
  • Has viewpoints and is able to support, explain and discuss them
  • Takes risks and actively seeks to improve
  • Open-minded and empathetic


How can we build this into our KS3 curriculum?


Our next question was then how we could build this into our KS3 curriculum. We looked at the existing curriculum to see where we could improve the way we provided opportunities to develop KS4-ready learners. We asked ourselves a series of questins to estabilish if we were giving pupils opportunities to:

Read really worthwhile texts and build vocabulary and contextual knowledge

  • Gain exposure to a range of 19th century texts and their contexts
  • Build cultural capital vital to an understanding of 19th century texts
  • Develop a language around literature?
  • Build an extensive vocabulary?
  • Continually revisit subject terminology so it is embedded in longterm memory
  • Closely examine the literary and cultural value of texts that we choose

Establish a sophisticated writing style

  • Assemble a toolbox of analytical techniques?
  • Able to use a range of analytical verbs in their writing
  • Able to compare texts
  • Able to select and expand on suitable quotations
  • Awareness of the writer as crafter of the story

Remember and apply what they have learnt in different contexts

  • Practice memory and retrieval skills?
  • Work within the struggle zone?


At this point, we divided the department into pairs who were able to use subject coplanning time and gained time to take responsibility for a scheme of work. The following list of bullet points was agreed as a starting point for designing the SOWs.

  • Scrutiny of each text for its literary and/or cultural value
  • A minimum of 10 minutes silent writing in every lesson
  • Regular drilling on subject terminology alongside opportunities to apply it
  • Regular opportunities to memorise and retrieve key facts and quotations
  • Structured vocabulary instruction
  • Structured teaching of analytical language and sentence stems for writing
  • Opportunities to build and develop a line of argument


Going too fast, going too far

In our haste to make KSE GCSE ready we initially overegged it, going rather too far in the opposite direction and cramming our new rigorous KS3 curriculum with way too much content (and far too many assessments, but that’s another blogpost). Teachers were galloping frantically from 19th century texts to drama to poetry with no time to spare. If it’s Thursday we must be reading chapter 11 of Silas Marner. Keep up at the back. Pupils would come in and look at you suspiciously. Are we doing another assessment? We had started to lose the joy.

In the summer term (two years after the initial curriculum revamp) I had a lot of gained time which I was able to use to take another look at what we were doing. Again, a department meeting was given over to looking at what was working and what was not. Working with KS3 colleagues, I came up with a slimmed down version of the curriculum. From the new term, we will be teaching one big unit per term. Most of these are focused around one key text, although a few are focused on a theme or genre (eg Literary Villains in Y7 Term 2). Units are a mix of specified texts and teacher choice and there will be one assessment per term.

Our curriculum map now looks like this:


Term One: Oliver Twist

Term Two: Literary Villains ( teacher choice though a Shakespeare villain and a literary heritage villain must be included

Term Three: Teacher choice of novel (from a specified list) taught through the theme of Journeys.

Year 8

Term One: Teacher choice of novel (from a specified list) taught through the theme of Relationships.

Term Two: Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest

Term Three: The Gothic: teacher’s choice of texts

Year 9

Term One: Literature from outside the UK: Teacher choice of novel from a selection

Term Two: Shakespeare: Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It

Term Three: Poetry: Love, Nature and Society.


The focus on one core text or theme in each term leaves a lot of room for teachers to teach what their classes need. Resources are shared on a central drive so teachers do not need to reinvent the wheel but are free to customise and develop their schemes of work in their own way to suit their own classes. Assessments are set centrally and are sat in an hour in class time. The rest of the time we will be getting on with the job of teaching quality lessons and putting some of the joy back into English.

I’m not claiming this is the definitive version (is there ever such a thing) but I am looking forward to starting to teach it next week in a way that I simply wasn’t last year. My hope is that colleagues and pupils will feel the same way.

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