Why we need to rethink pupil ‘flight paths’

In most secondary schools, it’s standard practice to create flight paths to GCSE for students using data from key stage 2. 

In my opinion, this is a problem: so much happens between the ages of 11 and 16, and basing a GCSE grade on data from primary school is never going to be truly representative. 

I am not alone in feeling this way. Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman has called on schools to focus on individual progress through the curriculum rather than on whether pupils are hitting a set target grade. 

Yet flight paths remain a stubborn fixture in schools – largely because they offer a clear way to track progress. 

So, what’s the answer? Perhaps rather than ditching flight paths outright, we need to find a way to make them more accurate. This means doing more work at KS3 to inform our predictions about where students are heading. 

There are three key things I think need to be in place to ensure this is done effectively.

1. A strong and coherent curriculum

The KS3 curriculum must be coherent and challenging. It must be clear exactly what students need to master by the end of Year 11, including the skills required for exams – and this needs to inform curriculum planning throughout the key stage.

When mapping content across year groups, do not base this on what the “average” student should be able to achieve but what the “best” student should be able to do, as that’s where you want all students to get to. This approach to mapping content may be dictated by the GCSE specification, the national curriculum or A-level requirements. 

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For example, in a subject such as maths, students need strong knowledge of concepts and procedures to build upon in later years. In a subject like history or English, however, it may be more important for students to develop crucial interpretive skills, without which they will struggle with challenging texts at GCSE.

The focus should always be on working backwards from Year 11. Take time to consider where students ought to be by the end of Year 10, then Year 9, 8 and 7. A student who is thriving in Year 7 should continue to thrive until the end of Year 11, if the stepping stones are correctly spaced.

2. Banding

While there is a noticeable difference between grades 7, 8 and 9 at GCSE, it’s not one that can be judged in Years 7, 8 and 9. Therefore, it makes sense to group students with similar levels for teaching but to do so using broad bands rather than narrow sets.

I currently utilise four bands: the first includes students working towards grades 1 and 2, the second students working towards grades 3 and 4, the third working towards grades 5 and 6, and the fourth working towards 7, 8 and 9.

Through banding, you remove concerns around the absolute accuracy of assessments (for example, is a student a high 8, or a low 9?) and instead can focus on assessing students more loosely, based on their understanding of the content and skills taught.

3. Robust summative assessment 

It doesn’t matter what type of assessments you currently use to measure progress. If you do end of topic tests, end of half-term or end of term tests, these are all fine, as long as they give you a good idea of the level of understanding a student has developed.

If your current system works for you, your students and your context, nothing needs to change in how you conduct these.

The key difference will be in the evaluation of results. You will need to determine if each student has shown a strong, good, fair or weak understanding through comparison with the key skills and knowledge you have identified as needing to be mastered by the end of each year of KS3. 

Doing this for each topic will allow you to average scores out by the end of the year, and determine the track that students are heading on. Knowing this in KS3 allows for interventions and support to be put in place, but also allows students to be stretched and pushed further.

Flight paths based on KS2 data alone can often result in a lower minimum target, which may mean that students are not pushed as far as possible. But if we make those paths more dynamic, informed by effective assessment at KS3, we can push all students to achieve their best.

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