Curriculum change as an opportunity: tailoring a KS3 PoS to the needs of the pupils

Recent changes to GCSE have pretty much sounded the death knell for the traditional KS3 science programme of study. Many exam boards have published their own 5 year programmes of study, essentially making preparation for GCSE the goal from the outset in Year 7. When I started teaching there was the checkpoint of KS3 national curriculum tests in science so even if we did start a bit of GCSE work in y9 with top sets we were still teaching the same as everyone else in y7 and y8 and the first part of y9. When those were abolished we still mostly taught what we always had though GCSE began to creep earlier and earlier into y9.

So, no KS3 NC tests and no GCSE module tests gives a clear timeline from y7 to y11 for schools to design as they like. That can be quite daunting and the temptation can be to stick to what is familiar or what other schools are doing or maybe choose a published scheme of work from an exam board or large resource provider (these may of course be the same organisation eg, Pearson/Edexcel).

In the independent sector many of us have always chosen linear qualifications (such as iGCSE) and we haven’t had KS3 NC tests so have had the potential to design our own curriculum across y7-11. I will illustrate here a few changes we have recently made to our curriculum which have arisen from the needs of the boys we teach.

Year 8:
Previously, both basic skills of balancing equations and writing the formulae of ionic salts were taught in this year. The salt formulae mainly because it fit in with the rest of the chemistry of acids/alkalis/neutralisation/salt formation.
We began to see that these two basic skills were conflicting with each other. Because boys were constructing them in the salt formation, they were seeing chemical formulae as something that could be changed to fit the needs of an equation to be balanced. So if boys were given the equation
Mg + HCl –> MgCl2 + H2 then they would change the salt to MgCl and hydrogen to H because it fit their balancing.
Additionally we were getting boys doing quite involved work with ions without them having any real idea about what an ion is, having no understanding of subatomic particles.
So, we took constructing ionic formulae out of y8 and moved it to y9 (more in the next paragraph on how it fit there) and placed more emphasis on the law of conservation of mass and balancing equations. We moved calculation of relative formula mass down from y10 to y8 to support this focus.
In addition to this we introduced more extended writing into year 8 to try and prevent the boys forming the idea that they didn’t have to do much writing in chemistry which would hinder their ability to articulate concepts in longer questions at GCSE as well as undermine their overall education.

Year 9:
Boys were able to determine the numbers of subatomic particles but their understanding of why atoms were overall charge neutral was insecure and poorly articulated.
Previously we had atomic structure as the first y9 topic and this stopped at neutral atoms with bonding covered in y10. To tackle our issue and coinciding well with the changes in y8 we brought ion formation from y10 into the y9 atomic structure topic so the idea of charge neutral atoms was further reinforced by studying ions (charge imbalanced). We then taught formulae of ionic salts here where it made more sense following them being introduced to the concept of an ion.

Year 7: skills to big ideas
We had for a number of years run a transition skills based curriculum in year 7 through pre prepared booklets. Although easy for the teachers to plan for, it felt a little like a practical nearly every lesson without a coherent thread of understanding woven into it and also we didn’t feel the boys skills were much better by the end of it anyway.
So from this year we have a much shorter (6 lesson) transition unit called ‘in the lab’ and all of Year 7 is now designed around the ‘big idea’ of the particle model covering solids, liquids and gases, solutions, mixtures, separations, elements and compounds.

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