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Closing the Gap
May 14, 2021
James Tristram
Skills Leader, Shaftesbury Park Primary

I attended a conference with Skills Builder Leaders recently and struck up a conversation with a senior leader from a fellow London-based primary school. Her headteacher had suspended the Skills Builder programme for all but Years 3 and 4 (and even within these years, limited its use) in order to focus on “Closing the Gap.’ I asked myself, do we need to choose between academic core subjects or the social development and civic participation of our pupils - or can we do both?

Last year our school, the nation, the world went into lockdown. What happened next was a reinvention of schooling. Classrooms, hallways, assembly halls, sports fields and dining halls fell silent across the globe. Millions of pupils opened laptops, squinted at phone screens or perhaps began sifting through printed exercises. The experience of education was reinvented. Here at Shaftesbury Park Primary School, this took the form of a live timetable of Zoom lessons coupled with Google Classroom. Perhaps you did the same, perhaps not. For academic instruction and learning, there are a plethora of resources: Khan Academy, White Rose, Conquer Maths to name just a few.

We can be proud of what we achieved; we kept children learning - learning their times tables, grammatical structures, what led to WW1 and perhaps even how longshore drift works - under extraordinary circumstances.

Despite the excellent Home Learning Hub, we realised that it was more than academic study that was silenced by those empty halls - it was the social and character development of pupils that fell silent along with them. As future citizens, pupils do not merely derive academic knowledge from school, they also confer the social and civic lessons and how to apply these for the benefit of themselves and the societies into which they grow. This largely happens naturally, especially when pupils are surrounded by rich and engaging social environments such as a good school or an extended family. Take school away, take away clubs and youth centres too and consider also the disparity of the home life of our pupils and it is clear that this ‘gap’ became wider.

The benefit of being in a room of peers and a school campus with a wide range of contemporaries must not be underestimated. Pupils missed weeks worth of this formative experience. This is a large gap to fill and one that must be done rapidly in the coming weeks before Summer Break when again our campuses will fall silent. For us, Skills Builder’s assessment tool and the links to ready-to-run short lessons are essential for achieving this.

“Ah yes, we must focus on Closing the Gap.” is a phrase I’m sure, we have all heard plenty of, conjuring images of intervention timetables, extra tuition and careful assessment against the National Curriculum. Perhaps even a ‘striped-down curriculum.’ Under this pressure, it can seem like an easy win to cut Skills Builder activities from the timetable. I would urge fellow school leaders to reconsider.

We started our journey using Skills Builder a little over 4 years ago. Since then, Shaftesbury Park Primary has risen from 46th in our borough to within the top 5 for progress. First for attainment in English according to the most recent assessment data. I feel it is no coincidence that we have had Skills Builder and an ethos of developing essential skills to frame this progression.

We have seen that if you push hard for academic achievement only, you can obtain higher than average results. It is tough but you will have pupils leaving Year 6 remembering that comma after a fronted adverbial. We have also seen that if you create a culture of learning and raise self-esteem through the development of the 8 Skills Builder skills, pupils are able to thrive. They will fully utilise their natural instinct and capacity to learn - to absorb and most importantly apply, whatever their teachers present them with. You can then achieve not only extraordinary academic results, you generate an environment of ambition, support and excitement around learning in those formative years of our pupils’ lives. You may even have pupils leaving Year 6 knowing how use that comma for dramatic effect, having set up their main clause with a fronted adverbial so effective that it will have their audience on the edge of their seats!

As we seek to close the gap from lockdown learning, I would argue that we have a duty to focus primarily on getting pupils to re-learn how to learn, re-establish their place within wider social contexts and again open their eyes to the immediate and potential benefits of developing essential skills. Now is the time to utilise the learning made possible by an open school before summer break. This new start is the time to reconsider how we wish to approach schooling for the next generation - fostering skills for learning and skills for life.

As we start to come through a dizzying few terms and start to consider what we have learnt and how to move forward, we have a choice on what to focus on. One direction focuses on core academic lessons often at the expense of the social curriculum. The other, enhances both. We at Shaftesbury Park Primary School will be sticking with both.

by James Tristram, Shaftesbury Park Primary School, SW11 5UW

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