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‘To pierce the clouds, first lay the foundation’: How KS3 History can be a solid foundation for success at KS4
By Tim Jenner and Dan Townsend
08 Mar
Faced by the challenges of GCSE almost every history department seems to be introducing GCSE question types into their KS3 lessons – the question is whether that is a good thing, and if it is how best to do it, and if it isn’t, what do to instead - how best to revise your KS3 schemes of work so that you actually build the underlying GCSE skills with or without question drilling.

That is the subject of this blog and also the focus of our new Key Stage 3 workbooks which are published at the end of March (Workbook 1) and end of April (Workbook 2). 


It is too early to say what the legacy of the reformed History GCSE will be. However, one impact of the content demands of the new specification was felt almost immediately in the rush of schools to adopt a 3-year KS4 programme of study, thus effecting a second major shift in the organisation of the History curriculum in schools. Other schools have clung doggedly to their existing 3-year KS3 course.

Unlikely as it, in time we might come to see one of these approaches as demonstrably more successful than the other, at least in terms of final outcomes in external examinations, but whether these benefits will outweigh the loss of cuts elsewhere will always come down to the particular persuasions of departments (or more likely senior managers) faced with this decision.

Ultimately, alongside our other educational responsibilities, we are all engaged in preparing students for terminal exams over 5 years of study. Here are our suggestions for how to use the early stages of this process to lay the best foundation for students’ success in their formal study of their examined topics at GCSE.
Foundation stone 1: Secure students’ broad chronology

The GCSE courses on offer at most schools are now, with the addition of medieval History, much broader than their predecessors. Both because of, and despite, this trend, it is imperative that our KS3 gives all students a secure and coherent chronological understanding of the second millennium AD.

This, perhaps more than any other knowledge imparted through a History KS3, is what will most enable students to maintain a lifelong interest in studying History, and allow them to contextualise new understanding in a wide range of fields. More prosaically, it will support those students who opt to continue to GCSE in building a secure and meaningful picture of the past – reinforcing their depth studies with wider contextual understanding and providing a bedrock for coherence in their thematic studies.
  • How many students complete KS3 with a secure understanding of chronological frameworks such as ‘the Enlightenment’?
  • How much can we really give students a sense of the 19th Century in a standalone KS4 lesson before we race into voting reform and unionism?
By blending rich depth studies with meaningful thematic studies, our KS3 can save us time at KS4 and fill our classes with confident GCSE students ready to build new layers of meaning on top of a solid foundation.
Foundation stone 2: Let students make meaningful judgements about the past

Students need to engage with a huge range and depth of substantive knowledge. This is entirely apt. But our job is also to support students to make meaning from this knowledge. This focus on developing a broad base of substantive knowledge should empower students to form more complex judgements about the past.

It is too often the case that students provide only simplistic conclusions on questions of causation, impact, change and significance. As the bar rises at KS4 we should aim to push our students further at KS3 in developing clear lines of argument in their answers which are based on a more solid bedrock of historical understanding. For that to happen we need to raise our expectations of our students and think carefully about how we nurture those skills over time.

A good KS3 should give students regular opportunities to use a rich and broad knowledge of the past to make their own meaningful conclusions.
Foundation stone 3: Engage fully with interpretations and evidence

The reformed GCSE also places a new emphasis on students critically engaging with interpretations. Hopefully this will encourage schools to promote a more regular use of academic history with KS3 classes. The ability to synthesise complex arguments, evaluate their accuracy and see beyond the text to the author behind them is central to a historian’s work.

Alongside this, departments will need to continue to develop their work with historical evidence. Both of these crucial aspects of students’ growing disciplinary understanding will be greatly served by a curriculum which achieves the two points above, and this will in turn radically develop students’ historical literacy – another essential building block for success at KS4.
Foundation stone 4: Develop students’ historical literacy

In reforming our KS3 curriculum we also hold an obligation to develop and broaden the literacy of our students. This should be fundamental to our planning. Building subject-specific vocabulary enables students to access complex historical content and advances the tools of conceptual analysis. Effective departments should be looking to identify fundamental substantive concepts and vocabulary within the new KS4 topics they have chosen and find opportunities at KS3 to build them up in all of the richness and complexity which words like ‘protest’ or ‘justice’ deserve. If we fail to provide this support from Year 7 we are in danger of losing students before the more demanding GCSE course has even begun.
Building on these foundations

It is unsurprising, yet still disheartening, that so much of the early discourse about implementation of the new KS4 has been essentially mechanistic – dealing with the length of KS4, the use of GCSE questions at KS3, the place of knowledge organisers or testing. Fundamentally, the question is one of what students need to know at the start of Y10. We believe that students who are well prepared in each of the four areas above are ready for GCSE, prepared not just for success but for genuine confidence and enjoyment.
How can the AQA GCSE History Skills for KS3 series help?

If your course has the four foundations above then it is appropriate to also tackle the more specific skills required for particular examinations.

Our KS3 workbooks are designed to support students who will go on to study AQA GCSE History. (There is a parallel series for Edexcel schools). They can be used with any length or type of KS3 curriculum.

Our aim in these books was to build on the four foundations above by:
  • building students’ understanding of the requirements of the AQA GCSE
  • developing their thinking and writing in line with the Assessment Objectives
  • familiarising them with GCSE-style questions
  • provide assessments opportunities which were congruent with GCSE question types if this is aligned with your departmental assessment system.

However, the books go far beyond simple examination preparation; they are a preparation for KS4 as a whole. They can be used as lesson materials, homework or even cover work, to consolidate and secure students’ knowledge and understanding of topics which have been carefully chosen to feed into, both directly and indirectly, the chronological frameworks and substantive knowledge which will prepare students to get the most out of KS4.
Tim Jenner teaches History at Cambourne Village College
Dan Townsend teaches History at The Charter School, Dulwich


AQA GCSE History skills for Key Stage 3: Workbook 1 1066–1700 publishes March 2018 and Workbook 2 1700–2000 publishes April 2018. You can find out more and order the books here.

Samples pages from Workbook 1 are available here.

Tim Jenner is also running a teacher training workshop on 27 June 2018: ‘Building a KS3 curriculum that fully prepares students for AQA GCSE (9–1) History’. You can find out more and book your place here.

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