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Learning beyond the classroom: An insight from Children's University
September 2, 2021
Helen O'Donnell
CEO and Director of Partnerships - Children's University

Our education system is disproportionately focussed on what goes on within the classroom. The success markers along the way — the tests, key stage milestones and exams — are all constantly reinforcing an emphasis on what happens in classrooms and the academic knowledge that children accrue. Yet by the time a child turns 18 they will have only spent 9% of their waking life in a classroom. Considering school closures during the pandemic equate to an average loss of 5% of a child’s full statutory education – that’s even less time in a classroom for those currently in school!

While the classroom curriculum is heavily focussed on knowledge, there is a strong case that the broader essential skills that children need to succeed are not always catered for. Evidence from The Sutton Trust and the CBI show that both teachers and employers believe this to be the case!

My organisation, Children’s University, encourages, tracks, and celebrates children’s participation in learning beyond the classroom. We do this because we know it makes a difference; participation in this kind of learning is good for mental health and well-being, supports social mobility, and gives children and young people the opportunity to develop skills in new and innovative ways that aren’t always prioritised by the curriculum.

As a member of the Skills Builder Partnership, we make use of its framework of essential skills when validating the learning activities that we promote to children. All activities that are entered on our digital platform, Children’s University Online (CUO), are tagged with up to three skills from the framework.

Back in January 2021, with the support of the University of Sussex and Nesta, we published the results of a research project that showed a direct link between participation in Children’s University and the use and improvement of the essential skills of the Skills Builder framework. We evaluated the skills used and improved as reported by young people aged 11 and over. Results showed that 92%of those surveyed used the skills we said they would, while 94% of them said that their skills had improved.

More recently, Children’s University launched its first ever State of the Nation Report. Two years after launching CUO we have been able to share a picture of learning beyond the classroom painted by data from over  taking part in more than 8,000 activities for more than 51,000 hours. Our State of the Nation report illustrates both provision of, and participation in, activities for children and young people and the skills they are taggedwith. This is important information that we are keen to see used to improve and expand provision for children.

Given that 91% of a child’s time holds all this potential, there is a disproportionately low focus of policy and funding that’s given to learning beyond the classroom. When you consider the skills that this kind of learning helps children develop, this is something that needs to change. The disproportionate focus on knowledge over skills means that successes and achievements outside the classroom are often overlooked and not a priority for schools and policymakers. Just look back at the press and debate around education over the past few months; you’ll see talk of “lost learning” and the need for “catch up”. I don’t want to dismiss the importance of this, but there’s been very little made of the positive skills development that children have made during lockdowns. The resilience of children (aiming high), their creativity with the limited resources to hand, the additional listening skills they’ve had to develop learning via Zoom. I could go on.

The data from our State of the Nation Report contains insights into the skills that have been developed during the pandemic. Do check it out.

·      Summary report:

·      Full report:

·      Find out more about Children’s University:

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