‘Teaching KS3 pupils GCSE skills is useless and dangerous.’ To what extent to do you agree with this statement?

By Jon Palmer, Teacher of English & Head of H&SC

***remember to write witty, engaging and relatable intro to grab reader’s attention***  so the question was: how could I possibly teach a high level GCSE skill such as evaluation to my KS3 classes?

But if you’ll allow me a moment to step on my soapbox, I’d like to consider not just whether we can teach these skills, but whether we should.  And my answer, appropriately enough, is sort of. There seems to be a hierarchy of skills in Secondary Teaching, imposed by tradition and teachers’ own experiences of learning and reinforced by exam criteria that goes something like this:


While I agree that the skills on the right are generally more sophisticated than those on the left, I would argue that it doesn’t stand to reason that we need to master, or even show aptitude on the lesser skills before moving on.  To use a musical analogy, all four Beatles were famously unable to read sheet music but were still able to produce Abbey Road and from an analytical point of view I could write reams on the relative superiority of their first four albums without having to accurately label the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night.

 Imagine you were required to transfer at least 50ml of water from a watering can to a smaller container.  Which container would you choose?


Hopefully you went for the obvious choice; the 100ml beaker would give you the opportunity to both fulfil and exceed your target.  The smaller beakers would either actively prevent you from being able to meet the target preclude any achievement above the bare minimum.

We need to provide pupils with the best chance to fulfil and exceed the targets that we impose on them. Teaching complex skills, and establishing high expectations early maximises their chances of mastering these skills successfully and transferably in the future.  Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow Penguin, 2012) suggests that human behaviour is controlled by two different thought processes that he labels ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ thinking.  Fast thinking skills are so embedded we complete them without consciously approaching them as problems; walking and talking are examples but so is solving the sum 2+2 or completing the quotation ‘To be or not to be that is the …’.  These are all skills that at some point needed to be learnt (as opposed to natural reflexes such as breathing) but that once mastered our brains create shortcuts to allow us to complete them without any physical or mental exertion.

If we teach our KS3 pupils to evaluate early and reinforce the skill throughout their education then they stand a better chance of hitting those marks in their summative GCSE grade.  A pupil who struggles with comprehension or summary is still able to evaluate with the right support – and helping them embed this in their fast brain rather than concentrating solely on the lower level skills will help to decrease the gap between them and other pupils once they have caught up.

What follows is an approach to evaluation that I trailed on three classes – a very high ability Year 7 classes, a mixed ability Year 7 and a low ability Year 8.  This was not taught as a GCSE specific skill and I made no reference to the exam; it was just another lesson where the class learnt another skill – one that I would later call on them to do in a piece of assessed work.  The learning is pupil and conversation led and relies on discovery and inquisitiveness rather than didactic method.  Although these lessons took place within the English curriculum the methods are applicable in any subject.

As pupils entered the room I displayed a contentious comment based on some work we had been doing as a class with the instruction to write at least one sentence explaining agreement or disagreement. The statement gave pupils the chance to respond with reference to the text – but there was no instruction to do this.

I drew a simple set of scales on the board:


For each child I added a dot to either side depending on whether they agreed or disagreed. Brief summaries of responses were noted on each side as appropriate, but after a while it was only necessary for pupils to add to these if they had a new reason.  I was encouraged to see that a few braver pupils starting to quantify their answers – ‘I sort of agree but not entirely’, ‘I’m in the middle’ so my final graph looked something like this:


We then discussed the word ‘evaluation’ as a class to work out a definition.  Many pupils made reference to evaluating their performance in Art, Drama or PE while another noticed that it must share a root with the word ‘value’ so we were quickly able to determine that to evaluate the statement we would need to weigh up the evidence to form a conclusion –  the visual cue of the scale on the board helped with this.  Interestingly, only the very highest ability class thought of running to a dictionary for the definition – I’d guess as a combination of resourcefulness (knowing about dictionaries and how to use them) and laziness (not wanting to work it out for themselves).

All that was left now was to gather evidence and use our previously taught comparison paragraphs to write responses – which my class did in groups with peer assessment at the end of the lesson. All pupils produced evaluative responses and I never had to utter the dread letters ‘GCSE’.

Some other ideas for teaching evaluation in an interactive manner:

Sweet Jars

Two at the front of the room, fill with ping pong balls (or sweets if you’re feeling generous) as each justification is given.

Opinion Line

Pupils can physical move up and down the line as and when they change their mind (hopefully converging toward the centre)

Tug of War

Not literal – but moving something physical (e.g toy car) toward and away from an object representing the statement as the class debates.


Arranged into teams, pupils try to score tries against the other team by justifying their side of the argument.  Tries can be converted by providing appropriate quotations.

The Vicky Pollard technique

‘Yeah, but no, but yeah, but no….’


Thanks to Jon for this interesting piece. If you are keen to contribute to our learning blog then please get in contact with me: cellison@kennetschool.co.uk

One thought on “‘Teaching KS3 pupils GCSE skills is useless and dangerous.’ To what extent to do you agree with this statement?

  1. I’m not sure I even agree with the idea of GCSE SKills. there are certainly skills that are currently required at GCSE but as these change at the whim, of the government/OFQAL/Exam boards then identifying which skills will be the GSCE skills for a Y7 pupil is an inherently risky process.

    Teaching skills to pupils is a good thing, particularly in an age where information is easily accessible to them. So lets teach skills, as many and as complex as the pupils can make use of at any given point in time. Lets do this not because they might be on the GCSEs but because they are useful.



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