Definition of KS3
Officially KS3 is supposed to be the first three years of secondary school – called Y7 to Y9 in all state schools and most independent schools. There used to be an exam in the core subjects of English, Maths and Science at the end of KS3 but that was abandoned in 2008 – leaving the GCSE, which is taken a couple of years after KS3 to be the first and only major examination that teenagers take. Since there is no longer a major examination at the end of KS3, schools deem it wise to begin preparing their students for GCSE as early as possible. Although it is only recently that schools have started to do GCSE in Y9, for some time, it has been the case that in good schools, young people actually start GCSE as early as Y8.
Why is KS3 so important?
Most high performing schools put their students in sets based on academic ability. The setting in core subjects such as Maths and Sciences, start at KS3 level and, in fact, some schools even set in English and other subjects as well in there early years of secondary school. Also, all schools set students at KS4 – GCSE Y10 and Y11. It is the case that students who are in the lower set at KS3 usually end up being in the lower set at KS4. If a child is able but for some reason finds himself or herself in the lower set at KS3, the chances of moving up to the higher set at KS4 is quite remote. From KS3 years, teachers begin to observe young people and make judgements about which set they will be at KS4.
Consequences of poor performance at KS3
At GCSE level, examinations are in two tiers – higher and foundation. Students are usually put into sets and the ones with good academic performance are put into the higher set, where they are taught material that will allow them to sit the higher tier examination. For those with poor academic performance, they are put into a lower set, where they cover material that only equips them to do the foundation tier.
The higher papers are for young people who are likely to achieve grade 5 or higher (grade C under the outgoing letter grading system). For a student who is entered for the higher tier, they can achieve anything between grade 5 and grade 9 (C to A* Grade). For young people who are entered for the foundation tier, the most they can achieve at GCSE is a Grade 5 and not higher.
The new grading system
The problem is that for a reasonably bright young person, it is easier to achieve grade 5 or 6 with the higher paper than it is to achieve grade 5 with the foundation tier paper. This is because one needs to score a very high mark – like 90% to achieve Grade 5 in the foundation, whereas in the higher tier only about 50% or so is required to achieve Grade 5. A bright young person, who ended up taking the foundation tier paper misses out on the opportunity to access the top grades of 6 to 9 (B to A*) as the teachers judge it that there is a chance of them failing to secure Grade 5 if they are entered for the higher paper.
There is one main issue with a young person who does the foundation tier GCSE and ends up with a Grade 4 or Grade 5. The main issue is the inability to do an A-level in the subjects they have achieved less than a Grade 6 or 7, or worse – being put to do BTEC instead of A-level. The BTEC is a vocational qualification and the top universities do not like it. This is unlike the A-level or the IB (International Baccalaureate) that are more academic and are strongly preferred by the elite universities. It is the case that many top universities list BTEC as one of the qualifications they accept. They have to do this to pander to political correctness and pressure from the government. In reality, there are not many students at those institutions who got there via BTEC qualifications. In cases where a student with a BTEC, as opposed to A-level gains admission to a top university, they usually drop out of the course as university courses are designed for students with A-level background and not BTEC.
The above are reasons why children at KS3 must be well focussed and ensure that they are working to the best of their ability so an able young person does not end up sitting the foundation tier when they do GCSE.
The EBacc – the English Baccalaureate – requires a student to secure a good pass grade at GCSE in English, Maths, two Sciences, either History or Geography and one language such as French, German, Latin and so on. Under the old letter grading system, the minimum requirement in each of these subject is a C Grade. Under the new system, it is Grade 5 that is acceptable as the lowest for EBacc.
Consequences of being in the lower set at KS3
a. The possibility of not being able to do the higher but only the foundation tier at GCSE. This will lead to only being able to achieve Grade 4 or 5 at the most at GCSE
b. Possibility of being put to do BTEC instead of A-level
c. Many schools structure their timetable in a way that prevents those in the lower sets from taking enough GCSE subjects to enable them qualify for the EBacc.
The first two of the above options pretty much rule out the ability to do A-level subjects – which are required to gain admission into the top elite universities.
Parents whose children are in Y7 or perhaps Y8 ought to be aware that some grammar schools open up a few places for students to do a common entrance for admission in Y9.
This particular article is aimed at informing parents with students at KS3; however, I would strongly advise those parents to read the blog post that is for GCSE and perhaps that for A-level as well. This is because it helps to plan ahead and see the requirements and the potential benefits and challenges that lay ahead for your child in the next one to four years.
General Advice – no matter the age of your child
Your child’s school should always be the first point of contact and it is only after you have exhausted that avenue that you should look for additional support from an external source. I guess that the level of support provided varies from one subject to another, even within the same school. Also, your child’s strength, motivation, interest and work ethic, vary from subject to subject. He or she may, in the end, only need additional support in just a few core subjects and it is useful to identify those as early as you can so he or she can start receiving the additional support that may be required.
Dialogue with your child is important
I know that for many families, trying to have a constructive dialogue with a teenager is not always the easiest thing. However, there is no alternative to speaking to your child regularly about the progress he or she is making in core subject areas. What is at stake is huge and has very wide ramifications so it has to be done. It may be difficult to start with, but if you persist and make him or her understand the importance of doing well in the examinations and the potential consequences of poor exam grade, he or she will come on board with you in the end.
You need not worry at all that the subject that your child requires help in, is not the one that you are familiar or good at yourself. For most parents at this level, it’s not about teaching your son or daughter but trying to explore where issues and concern lie and talking to them to both offer moral support and try to encourage them along and identify the sort of additional help they may require.
One key point that I’ll like to remind you once again is that in achieving high exam grades or in fact any successful endeavour in life, nurture matters more than nature. It is not just how bright your child is, it’s how much they apply themselves and the specific actions they actually take. I’m not just going to say it’s all about hard work. Surely, hard work comes into it but is mainly what they actually do with the time they put into their work.
Some perhaps not-so-cool words come to my mind: discipline, habits, perseverance, focus and working smartly to get more out of the study time.
I’m not going to go too much into specifics here but what I’ll say first is that reparation for examinations is not in isolation to other aspects of life. I have written extensively and offered suggestions and advice on how parents can support their children to ensure they get the most out of the education system in general and also specifically about achieving high exam grades.
Two key things I’ll mention, which if not done carefully will lead to poor results are how the young person thinks and how they use their time. The two concepts are related really. The young person must be very clear in their mind, which subjects they need to do well in including their desired grade and what they will do to achieve those grades. They should be ambitious but at the same time realistic and ensure that they adopt behaviours that are congruent to the assertion. The second is how they use their time.
The blessing and curse of electronics
Electronic gadgets have revolutionised our world as they help us to gain access to useful and valuable information and also to entertain ourselves. However, they are also a huge distraction and an enemy of productivity. Too many of us are enslaved to them and we have allowed them to control us, instead of using them to improve productivity and for entertainment at the appropriate time. We adults are perhaps just as guilty as the young people! With regards to students, who are studying for their GCSEs and A-level, which are academic qualifications and require a good degree of concentration. There is too much distraction about and too many young people are not able to focus for any given length of time without being distracted by text messages, Facebook, Instagram, TV, e-mail, phone calls and all sorts of electronic blips and messages.
The smartphone and tablets must be turned off whilst studying or at the very least put on aircraft mode so no distractions. In addition to when they are studying, there are other two key times of the day when all these devices must be off and those are before they go to sleep in the night and upon waking up in the morning. Too many people, including children and adults, use electronic devices in a way that takes away value, instead of adding value to their lives and it is something so seriously think about. Do you really need to respond to that text message now or to update your Facebook now or can it be left till later?
The final point on the issue of revision for young people is to do less online or revision by computers. It can be useful at times, as finding a good website to use for revision or download study material can be a smart move. However, a limited amount of online revision using a computer should be done. Printing out real-life question papers, attempting those questions by writing on the scripts and getting a teacher to mark, if only a selected few of those papers, is very powerful. It means that the student has done a lot of practice in actually writing and articulating their answers and with some of the work marked and meaningful feedback provided, it really helps to improve. Many young people do not bother to print out questions and write on it, they just look at the question on the screen, think about what they think is the answer and check the mark scheme to see if their thoughts are correct. That is an awful practice and should constitute, if at all 10% of the questions-practice. Most of it should be done by writing on the printed scrips as this is more of a reflection of the real exams.