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Six principles for building skills at SS John and Monica Primary
January 8, 2019

SS John and Monica Catholic Primary School in Birmingham has been working with Enabling Enterprise since 2015 to help their students build the essential skills to succeed. Over time, they have integrated skills into the school culture and curriculum, exemplifying the six principles of effective skills education.

Melanie Elliott, Headteacher at SS John and Monica, is a strong advocate for the importance of actively teaching skills. ‘I’m so passionate about being involved,’ says Ms. Elliott. ‘We prepare our children according to academic standards, but how far are we preparing them with skills for the wider world?’

We know it’s important to keep it simple when teaching essential skills. Everyone should have a shared understanding of what skills are being built and how – that’s why we developed the Skills Builder Framework as a common language to underpin all our work.

Students at SS John and Monica have a strong, consistent understanding of the skills, which are referenced explicitly throughout the school. All the classrooms have the skills prominently displayed, and at different times of year, classes are assigned an essential skill to become the ‘focus’ – no matter what subject is actually being taught. This way, students are constantly aware of the skills and their development is always an explicit aim.

While essential skills are a crucial part of success in employment, it’s unwise to try to cram in skills education in the final years of school. Instead, schools should start young and keep going, giving students the chance to build these skills from as early as possible, so they have ample time to develop and master each aspect.

At SS John and Monica, this means talking about skills from day one when students arrive, referencing skills in the everyday school work of even the youngest students.  ‘The earlier they start, the better – for all the skills,’ says Ms. Elliott. ‘There are elements from all the skills that you can start teaching even in reception, without a doubt.’

Like anything else, essential skills education is most effective when you measure it. Taking time to reflect on progress gives a balanced understanding of strengths and weaknesses, allowing teachers to decide next steps.

Staff at SS John and Monica make a point of keeping track of students’ progress in the skills through a Skills Builder assessment that happens when they move up into a new class. Then, at the end of the academic year, teachers make an exit assessment to see how students’ skills have developed during the year. This allows staff to focus on the skills most in need of development in their class, as well as providing evidence of the educational journey students have made. It also allows our staff to give practical advice to address wider gaps in students’ essential skills in the school at large.

It’s great to weave the language of essential skills into other subjects and everyday school life, but to be effective schools must focus tightly, making dedicated time to teach skills. This way students get extended time to properly learn new aspects of each skill.

For SS John and Monica, this takes several forms: students from across the school take part in Challenge Days and Trips to local Employers, where they get the opportunity to build specific skills as part of a larger, themed challenge.

Meanwhile, in the summer, staff block out time to run Classroom Projects with their students, giving them the chance to develop essential skills over multiple sessions culminating in a student-led event. To school leaders, dedicated events like Challenge Days, Trips and Projects have huge benefits:

‘The format is so good, you can see children’s confidence growing. They really get so much out of it in every single aspect – I just wish we could devote even more time to it!’ - Ms Elliott, Headteacher

Of course, to solidify progress, you’ve got to keep practising. At SS John and Monica, this happens as a matter of course. Staff find opportunities to practice the skills across every subject, from Presenting in English to Staying Positive techniques in PSHE.

On top of that, the unique events students have access to, like Challenge Days and Trips, reinforce the skills they develop in class. To Ms. Elliott, this effect is profound: ‘Looking at Key Stage 2 children, many of them will have been on a trip in Year 4, Year 5 and Year 6, so those skills are very, very embedded.’

The final piece of the puzzle is to bring it to life. It’s vital that students see the relevance of these skills by linking them with the real world. All our work, from Challenge Days to Projects to Trips, frames essential skills as useful for life beyond the school gates. By getting students to apply skills in a wide variety of contexts, and by connecting them with working professionals who can demonstrate how crucial skills are in everyday work, SS John and Monica ensure that these skills will serve students for the rest of their lives.

Ms. Elliott says the school is looking forward to extending the program even further in the future, as the school continues to make essential skills a core part of the school culture.

‘Schools are absolutely missing out so much by not taking up this sort of partnership. It’s exactly what our children need.’

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