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School and college spotlight: Building a whole-school approach
April 16, 2021
Hannah Senior
Education Associate

Spotlight on Principle 2: Start early and keep going

In a series of spotlights, we’re exploring how some of our schools and colleges across mainstream and specialist settings are embedding the Skills Builder Principles. Along the way, we’ll share some examples, top tips and quick wins which have inspired us and hopefully will inspire you too!

For more success stories click here.

The Principles

Of the 6 Principles schools and colleges are following to develop essential skills effectively, we are going to focus on the second principle in this post: Start early and keep going. According to this principle, essential skills need to be continually and actively developed from the outset of education. 

It is too often the case that we start to focus on essential skills when students are preparing for life beyond school, and even then, the focus tends to be on supporting students to evidence skills rather than build them. At this stage, it soon becomes clear that it is difficult for students to find examples when they have had little chance to develop their essential skills in a meaningful way. 

Why start young? (Ravenscroft, 2017)

  • Younger brains are more adaptable than adult brains, which makes it easier to build some of the skills from a young age (Ericsson, 2016) 
  • Essential skills support classroom learning, including numeracy and literacy (read more about academic outcomes here). The earlier students start to build their skills, the earlier they can start achieving their full academic potential. 

Why keep going? (Ravenscroft, 2017)

  • Building a high level of competence in essential skills takes time. If we start early and keep going, we are giving students the best chance to achieve mastery.
  • When we stop actively developing skills, our level of competency reduces. 
  • It is widely accepted that improvement in performance requires deliberate practice.

Schools and colleges that are excelling in this area ensure that all year groups or classes have regular and planned opportunities for the learning and practising of essential skills. In what follows, we will consider some of the ways our schools and colleges are implementing principle two through:

  • Embedding a whole-school approach to building essential skills
  • Encouraging students to take the lead in skills development

Embedding a whole-school approach to building essential skills

To establish a whole-school approach to building essential skills, it’s important to consider how the teaching and learning of essential skills can be effectively embedded within each Key Stage; careful planning and structure and a clear purpose and vision are crucial.

Implementation across different Key Stages

At Mablethorpe Primary School, Lincolnshire, the Skills Leader has appointed a Skills Champion for each Key Stage who leads on supporting all members of staff to explicitly teach three focus skills based on the needs of the learners. Champions have integrated the essential skills into schemes of work for each year group by linking the essential skills to each subject area through questioning.

Whilst empowering each Key Stage Champion to determine where the opportunities to practice applying different skills lie in their respective curriculum areas, some actions are implemented consistently at a whole-school level. For example, all classrooms display the essential skills icons to support teachers’ and students’ language and vocabulary, and all skills champions reward learners who demonstrate their essential skills with certificates.

Careful planning and structure 

William Tyndale Primary School, London, has structured a whole-school programme so that all students - from Nursery to Year 6 - are taught the eight skills explicitly and their progress is measured year on year. This means that all students can articulate their strengths and focus tightly on what they need to learn.

The school has built the approach into various aspects of school life, making sure students see the relevance of essential skills across the curriculum. For example, the skills are incorporated into debating and oracy, and are referenced regularly in assemblies.

Windy Arbor Primary School, Birmingham, is also embedding skills education from Nursery to Year 6. To build the essential skills with their youngest learners, younger students are introduced to the language and learning is scaffolded through modelling and practice. Early Years have also trialled using stickers to celebrate skill use.

A clear purpose and vision

Great Western Academy, Swindon, wrote skills development into its development plan from the very beginning. It sought to make essential skills education central to its mission and curriculum intent. All departments then included the teaching of essential skills in their Schemes of Learning and Curriculum Statements. 

The Academy linked this focus to the Ofsted Education Inspection Framework’s Quality of Education judgement and identified a governor who was responsible for ensuring that there was a focus on essential skills during lesson observations, book reviews and student panel discussion groups. 

When it came to implementation, necessary support systems were put in place. Before the Academy opened, Skills Builder training and resources were provided to teachers to ensure the language was being used from the start.

Encouraging students to take lead in skills development

Essential skills development is a life-long process. It is therefore important to foster motivation and engagement in self-driven learning and to provide students with the tools to build their own skills.

Students at Grantham College use Skills Builder Benchmark to track their own progress in skills and target areas for development through conversation with their tutors and teachers.

At Newcastle College, learners and tutors also have regular opportunities to reflect on skills, considering areas of strength and development while linking them to work experience and employer engagement. Students log their progress over the year to build up a comprehensive record of examples, clearly demonstrating their skill development.

It isn’t just older students that can take ownership of their own learning. At Windy Arbor Primary School, Birmingham, displays feature across the school. Children take ownership of the displays, using them to track their own progress. By encouraging and supporting learners to take ownership of their skill development from a young age, these schools and colleges are providing students with the ability to continue to develop and master their essential skills beyond the classroom.

By following the principle of Start Early and Keep Going, these schools and colleges are facilitating mastery of essential skills and enabling students to achieve their potential.

To find out about how the development of essential skills can support students in terms of their academic, employment and social and emotional outcomes, take a look at our latest series of research:

  • This literature review showed that building essential skills boosts academic outcomes, employability outcomes, and well-being.
  • Our analysis of the British Cohort Study showed that essential skills were linked to improved literacy and numeracy at age 10, and careers aspirations and academic achievement at 16.
  • Our latest research showed that there is a wage premium to building essential skills for young people, as well as positive effects around self-efficacy and perseverance.

To hear more from our schools and colleges, look out for our next spotlight on measuring progress, or browse our success stories at skillsbuilder.org/educators.

Referenced in this blog: 

Ericsson, A. & Pool, R. (2016) Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Boston: Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Ravenscroft, T. (2017) The Missing Piece: The Essential Skills that Education Forgot. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.

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