Teaching essential skills

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Is it possible for schools to adopt a whole-school approach to essential skills while still meeting curriculum demands? Tom Ravenscroft says it is

In 2017, the Sutton Trust released some remarkable statistics: 97 per cent of teachers said that essential skills like team work, leadership, presenting and listening were as important for future success as academic achievement, with 35 per cent saying they saw these skills as being more important for future success.

I frequently ask primary school teachers why they started to teach. There are some themes that come out regularly: the joy of working with children, the immediacy of seeing them understand a concept and the thrill of seeing them retrieve and connect knowledge.

But there is something else that always comes out too: the opportunity that primary school teaching really presents to support the development of well-rounded, happy children. That means emotional wellbeing but also a broader set of eight underpinning skills that are cited regularly – team-work, leadership, listening, presenting, creativity, aiming high and staying positive.

When children are building these skills we see the transformation: these skills manifest themselves as confidence, resilience, effective communication and enhanced social skills. These skills are critical to thrive in the classroom – but they also support happy childhoods.

The challenge is finding time to build these skills when the primary curriculum is packed and there is an increasing emphasis on the most measurable. We are very comfortable with the notion of building foundational skills in the early years, but sometimes we expect children to snap out of that mode of learning very quickly in year 1 and by the time SATs arrive in year 6, building these skills almost seem a distraction.

What is exciting, though, is that I have seen hundreds of primary schools where these essential skills are much more than a sideshow or an after-thought.

These primary schools span the whole country, but in them we see teachers who are building the essential skills of their students with focus – while having a lot of fun. Below, we have pulled together some tips from the teachers in these schools.

Be clear and consistent

Before anything else, it is vital to know exactly what it is that you want to build in the children in your classroom. The language in this area can all too often be confusing, particularly for young children who struggle to join together collaboration with team-work or group work.

Particularly, it is important to separate the character strengths you want to build from the most teachable parts of skills. We have seen teachers who are doing this well focus on the eight highly tangible skills listed above.

This list is long enough to cover the key ground, while being short enough to be able to fit it on a wall, be remembered by teachers and students, and to be understood by parents.

Teach directly

Too often, I’ve seen teachers shy away from directly teaching essential skills. They create some brilliant scenarios or projects where the children are certainly using those skills, but the problem with only doing that is that this is quite an inefficient way of building skills.

For example, group work might help to improve team work – but there is also a risk that students continue to make the same mistakes, becoming increasingly hostile to the idea of working with their peers. Far better to teach a specific aspect of team work, like roles that can be helpful in a team meeting, and then practise that.

Take a fresh look

Sometimes as teachers we can slip into making quick judgements about our students. This is particularly the case when it comes to essential skills. For example, it is easy to assume that the extrovert child is the most natural leader, while the introverts are the “team players”. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that introverts can be more effective leaders than extroverts – but only if they are given equal opportunities to build those skills.

Trying to take a more objective view is easier with something like the Skills Builder Framework, where the skills are broken down into steps, created around “I can” statements. The view of where pupils are becomes clearer – as do the next steps. For example, the child who can take turns should next focus on how to make a contribution in a group discussion.

Constant reinforcement

Where we have seen teachers really transform their students’ essential skills, they have gone far beyond just seeing these as an occasional bit of direct teaching. There are clear visual reminders up in their classrooms – often the eight skills prominently on the wall, and one is often the focus of the week.
These teachers use reward schemes to identify and celebrate great uses of the skills across other learning. Others give certificates to students who are working particularly hard at developing those skills, or who have made real progress.

Some schools like William Tyndale Primary in London go even further by using the skills as a route to engage parents more. They invite them in to see their children in action in a challenge, or to view the output of a project – whether that be a performance, an exhibition or a presentation. They also identify a “skill of the month” in their newsletters to parents, with suggestions of activities at home that can reinforce what is being done in school.

Bring it to life

It is a long way from the primary classroom to the world of employment, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any value in making those connections between building skills in the classroom and the wider world.

There might well be opportunities to bring in parents or volunteers from business to share how these same essential skills transfer from the classroom into so many different settings. Similarly, creating exciting projects for students to apply their skills to can help to also reinforce the links with the working world. I’ve seen a huge range of such projects – from creating a radio show, to fundraising to making improvements to a local area.

  • Tom Ravenscroft is founder and CEO of Enabling Enterprise and the Skills Builder Partnership.

Further information

The Skills Builder Partnership consists of more than 60 leading skills-building organisations as well as 130 employers and 330 schools who have come together to develop a comprehensive approach to ensure every students builds eight essential skills. The Skills Builder Framework is designed to break down these eight skills into teachable chunks, setting age-related expectations and allowing assessment of progress. You can find tools and resources to support implementing these principles at www.skillsbuilder.org


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