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How Oak Grove College and The Sand Project build essential skills
May 14, 2019

Oak Grove College in Worthing provide special education for secondary-age students with a range of additional learning needs. They joined the Skills Builder Partnership to help their students develop the eight essential skills for success, through teacher training and making use of the various teaching and learning resources available on the Skills Builder Hub.

The college provides ‘an inspirational, safe, fun and stimulating learning environment’ for all of its students, with a central focus on ensuring their students are prepared to take an active role in their community. As part of this focus, some students from Oak Grove have been working with The Sand Project – also a member of the Skills Builder Partnership – which aims to train, develop and promote people with additional needs.

To get a sense of how the Skills Builder approach has contributed to essential skills development in school and with the Sand Project, we caught up with Jared and Stevie, two students nearing the end of their journey at Oak Grove. We were also grateful to speak to Carol Noble, 6th Form Curriculum Lead at Oak Grove; and Kate Wilson, Managing Director at The Sand Project.

Oak Grove College and The Sand Project have been working together to prepare students with additional needs for the world of work

How do they implement the Skills Builder principles?

1. Keep it simple

Without good structure, teaching skills like Listening, Creativity and Leadership can be a confusing process – especially when teaching learners with additional needs. It’s crucial to have a clear, accessible set of expectations, along with a grounded plan for mastering skill strategies. That’s where the Skills Builder Framework comes in: it clearly defines eight essential skills and each down into clearly-defined Steps.

The use of a common language and Framework keeps things simple and consistent. ‘A lot of the learning we try to do, particularly in our work-related learning, is to do with Teamwork and Problem Solving,’ says Carol Noble, who is 6th Form Curriculum Lead at Oak Grove. ‘With Skills Builder, it makes things much more explicit because you can see how people go up the Steps.’

What’s more, as the approach spreads among members of the Skills Builder Partnership, there are more and more occasions where students can seamlessly continue their skills education in another context.

Jared and Stevie’s work with The Sand Project is a perfect example of this. In the classroom, staff can refer to specific skill Steps on the Framework as part of their teaching. Then, when they develop their skills in a practical setting, like working in the Stars & Dandelions retail shop run by The Sand Project, they encounter the same Framework, discuss using the same language and work on the same goals.

Jared and Stevie are nearing the transition from school to the workplace
2. Start young, keep going

Across the board, building essential skills from an early age is crucial. The more time students have to develop these skills actively, the more they are able to integrate them into their everyday lives.

Over time, this can have a huge positive impact, especially when working with learners with additional needs. ‘For a lot of our young people, their self esteem can be low,’ explains Carol. ‘For them to know, “this is something I’m working on and making good progress” is a really useful learning conversation for them to have… It’s something we’re trying to do with young people all through the school.’

At younger ages, building essential skills can unlock learning in the classroom, empowering students to make the most of their opportunities and motivating them to improve. But as they grow, Carol can see that the relevance of essential skills to the wider world becomes more immediate: ‘In Sixth Form, we’re able to have that focus on the transition. Because they know they’re moving on to a different destination, it helps the students themselves to focus on it - it’s like they can hear you better.’ Having a solid foundation of essential skills, built up consistently over several years, means they can be developed to a high level appropriate for the working world – far more effective than attempting to cram eight complex skills into a small period of time.

3. Measure it

When building any skill, it’s crucial to track progress. Unfortunately, aptitude with skills like Creativity and Staying Positive has historically been difficult to quantify. That’s where the Skills Builder Framework comes in.

Using the Framework to structure skills learning means that everyone can be on the same page when it comes to assessment. Breaking each skill down into Steps allows teachers to quickly and easily identify areas of strength and weakness, as well as plan next steps. All this is facilitated by resources like our online Assessment Tool and our printable Skill Passports.

To provide even more structure, especially for students with additional needs, we’ve recently released the Expanded Framework. This document breaks progression down by placing three simple Stepping Stones between Steps to give more extensive scaffolding – perfect for SEN contexts.

The Skills Builder Expanded Framework adds three Stepping Stones between each Step for comprehensive scaffolding
4. Focus tightly

When students have dedicated time to develop essential skills, they are more able to take responsibility for their own growth – leading to much more consistent progress than would be made without an explicit focus on skill development.

According to Managing Director Kate Wilson, The Sand Project ‘identifies the interests and aspirations of young people and creates personalised training pathways in real life enterprise and business settings.’ So when Jared and Stevie started to work with her once a week, she was able to use the time to focus on specific targets for improvement: including independent Problem Solving for Jared, and confident Aiming High for Stevie.

For their part, Jared and Stevie are very familiar with the essential skills they are building. Jared has been learning how to deal effectively with practical problems he might face in the workplace: ‘You’ve got to have a strategy,’ he says. ‘Like with a jigsaw – you have to do the corners first.’ Stevie points out that it’s important to be flexible too: ‘If a strategy’s not working and you keep trying to force it, you’re just going to get more frustrated!’

Stevie himself has been learning to set challenging targets for himself, and develop more confidence in his own abilities. ‘After all,’ he says, ‘when you have a job, you want to work well! If you’re a terrible employee, why should they keep you around? Plus, if you work really well, you might get promoted.’

During his time working with Kate at Stars & Dandelions, Stevie also had the chance to meet a tattoo artist, who had developed one of Stevie’s own drawings to show him how he could follow his own interests. ‘He did all the shading and all the little details, and it was – woah! I was really impressed.’

5. Keep practising

‘Practice is really important – especially for learners like ours,’ explains Carol. ‘Some staff have been looking at [the Framework] to work alongside English and Maths, to try and embed the skills across the curriculum. It’ll help people see “Oh, I’m doing this already!”’ This integrative approach, in combination with regular reinforcement in external contexts like The Sand Project, can make all the difference.

Kate points out that ‘learners with additional needs may need greater support and more time at each level of learning, and some work skills assumed to be implicit may need to be made explicit.’ This means that regular opportunities to practise these skills are absolutely crucial for making real progress.

Promoting a culture of ‘practice makes perfect’ means that students understand they are on a journey and are more open to constructive criticism. ‘Sometimes we have to support each other,’ says Jared. ‘Kate supported me for weeks! … She always gives me great feedback – and she’s been my boss, so I need to listen to her!’

‘Most of the feedback I’ve got has been positive,’ observes Stevie, ‘but I’d like more constructive criticism. Like with the drawing, I’d like to move onto shading and other things, but I don’t exactly know how, so I’d like to get some feedback and maybe some advice.'

6. Bring it to life

As part of their skills education, students must be made aware of the links between the skills learned in class and the working world. ‘I’ve been to quite a few employer events,’ says Carol, ‘and it’s been thrown out again and again and again: this is what employers are looking for. If they don’t have these skills, they’re not as appealing.’

This is why Kate’s approach at the Stars & Dandelions retail shop is so effective. Students can build skills in a practical environment, dealing with real customers, organising real items and solving real problems. Oak Grove themselves also place a particular focus on bringing the skills to life. In previous years, both Jared and Stevie have been involved with the school Café, where they learned to work a till, sort orders and serve customers - developing Presenting, Staying Positive and Teamwork skills in the process.

The Skills Builder Framework is a common language that threads right through the work that Jared and Stevie do, both at Oak Grove and at The Sand Project. We’re very excited to see how a consistent, shared approach like ours can help this area of education to expand in the future.

Jared and Stevie have been bringing skills to life working in the school Cafe

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