Education Endowment Foundation:What works at Key Stage 4, two or three years of study?

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

Project info

Independent Evaluator

NFER logo
Comparing the impact of a two-year and a three-year Key Stage 4
Pupils: 54000 Schools: 300 Grant: £142,629
Participating settings: 300

This project and its evaluation were affected by the 2020 school closures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The latest evaluation study plan describes the changes to the study resulting from the pandemic.

Traditionally the five years of secondary school have been split into a three-year Key Stage 3 (KS3) and a two-year Key Stage 4 (KS4). KS3 typically involves a broader curriculum and prepares pupils for KS4 study, but does not focus on content in the GCSE syllabus; KS4 would then cover a narrower curriculum of the subjects a pupil has chosen for GCSE.

Many schools are now starting KS4 in Year 9 so they operate a three-year KS4. This might allow more time for pupils to cover GCSE content, but there is a concern that it narrows the curriculum too early

This project would seek to understand the impact of these different choices on GCSE outcomes and the breadth of curriculum offered by schools

There is a lot of variation in how schools approach this decision. 56% of schools start teaching the GCSE curriculum for most or all subjects in Year 9 compared to 40% that start in Year 10 (NFER omnibus survey, 2019). There is a lack of evidence regarding the effectiveness of either approach. The benefits of a three-year KS4 might include increased GCSE attainment, but there are concerns that it could lead to a restrictive and narrow curriculum particularly for low attaining pupils and pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds (Ofsted, 2017). A large number of pupils will be experiencing only 2 years of secondary-level study before dropping history, geography or a language. For most children, the end of KS3 is the last time they will study art, music, or drama.

How are we evaluating it?

This project will explore the extent and rationale for the adoption of different lengths of KS4 in English schools, and how different decisions about the length of KS4affect GCSE attainment and curriculum breadth. It will look at the impact of these decisions on all pupils as well as for a sub-group of pupilswho are eligible for free school meals. The project will aim to identify groups of schools with different approaches to KS4, for example those

  • starting in Year 9 for all pupils in all subjects, 
  • starting in Year 10 for all pupils in all subjects, and 
  • starting in Year 9 for all pupils in some subjects only.

NFER propose to send a short survey to all English secondary schools to identify which schools adopt which approach, with the aim of identifying a sample of at least 300 schools. They will then match the respondent schools with National Pupil Database (NPD) data, comparing GCSE attainment and curriculum breadth at KS4 in schools that have experienced three-year and two-year KS4, allowing analysis to look at the trend in performance before and after the practice changed.

The evaluation report will be published in Spring 2022