A Case For Skills Learning In The Curriculum

This is Lewis Simms on the left of the photo, a finance apprentice within the organisation that I work in. This was an image of Ann (his line manager) and I presenting Lewis with a certificate for his achievement on completing a Careers and Experiencing Work Short Course gained during his apprenticeship. I had the opportunity to be his tutor through this accreditation. The opportunity for us to work together has been hugely valuable to us both. I will try and explain why…


Firstly; I am so pleased that Lewis has given me permission to write this blog about his experience as an apprentice so far. The  reason that I am writing about Lewis’s story is that a very big part of education that he is entitled to has been totally missed out. What was that part? Some of the important skills he required to be an effective employee in the workplace. Lewis wanted this to be written to highlight the need for skills based learning in education.

Lewis joined the organisation after gaining 11 GCSE A*-C grades and 3 A Levels including a Maths grade C. At A Level gaining a Maths grade C is not an easy task! He made the decision not to go to University and so he joined us with all the credentials to be an effective Finance Apprentice.

Employers have said for a long time now that young people entering the workplace do not have the soft skills to be an effective employee, usually only finding this out after interview. Unfortunately Lewis also found this to be the case.

Lewis joined as a very confident individual who could create great relationships with all around him. He could sell himself well (he got the job after all) and is one of the nicest and most giving people you could hope to meet. It was very early on in his employment that there were some issues however. He struggled with managing a workload, making regular and similar mistakes in his administration and struggled to work independently without considerable direction. Lewis soon lost confidence. It was at this point that I was asked to help out and mentor Lewis, build his confidence and help him develop his skills for the workplace. It was decided that a short course based on developing skills for the workplace could be used as a programme for his new learning.

After meeting a couple of times with Lewis it became obvious what the problem was. Lewis identified it himself! He had been to a good school which had really motivated teachers. They taught Lewis all he needed to know to pass the exams that he had to sit. That was the problem! Teaching young people to an exam specification. He said to me once “I was just told to do a question, I might get it wrong. I would be told again how to answer it. I would do it again until I got it right. That was how I passed an exam, that was the teaching I got!” Where was the ‘learning to learn’ that Lewis should have received? I don’t blame the teachers or the leadership team at the school he went to.

Government policy has created an educational system where only the result matters. It is a sad indictment that education in the UK is set up like this! I firmly believe that if a curriculum was broad enough to include skills for learning, then academic success would follow. We just have to look at Finland to see how that works well.

This is a direct quote written by Lewis;

With the exception of English, my GCSE’s weren’t a struggle, I was in top set Science and English and I was one of the strongest in second set maths. School wasn’t hard at all for me and I was very confident about my academic skills. When I came into a working environment however it took me far too long to grow accustomed to working life. This initial serious struggle made me almost doubt my own intellect. It was almost like I had been lying to myself about how smart I thought that I was, which in turn added to the cause of my confidence crash.

Fortunately Lewis joined a very supportive organisation that specialise in skills based learning programmes and accreditation for life and the workplace. Since these initial development needs were identified, Lewis’s skills in time management, task completion and being able to work independently have improved. He has also built his confidence back up. ASDAN have made that difference to Lewis and enabled him to make that giant stride forward in developing his employability skills. Lewis is lucky, other organisations may not have been this supportive!

THIS is therefore the reason why skills learning MUST take place in the classroom and government policy MUST allow the curriculum to be broad enough to develop this type of learning. Lewis’s story goes to prove that passing exams are only a part of being fully prepared for life and work in the 21st Century.

Mastery Overload.

THIS is why educational policy needs to change. Learning has to become more active and the curriculum has to make time for skills based learning. Although this is only one group of young people’s view point, it still highlights a critical issue with the UK education system.

Love Learning....

In what my youngest son calls the “olden days” I used to teach English Language A Level. One of the units we covered was gender and language and we’d look at the different words used to describe men and women and their connotations. Master and mistress was always a classic example. I’ve been minded of this as the idea of a ‘mastery’ curriculum has burst onto the educational landscape with all the momentum and enthusiasm of VAK.

Drawing from what is often an overly simplified idea of practices in Asian countries like Singapore, mastery models, particularly in Maths, are now all the rage. And like any fashion, there are both couture and cheap copies available. Last week I was asked by a Maths teacher to hold a focus group session with a class of Year 7s. He didn’t want them to be swayed by his presence, so he prepared the…

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A National Baccalaureate

I am so pleased to read that a group of grass-roots educationalists, led by Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher), are getting together to create a new type of Baccalaureate (Bacc). This new Bacc is called the ‘National Baccalaureate’ and aims to ‘break down the technical-academic divide’. This is brilliant news and I hope that they manage to push educational policy enough to make this Bacc happen.

It would be a progressive Bacc that offers young people the opportunity to access a mixture of ‘valued’ academic, vocational and personal development studies. More importantly this type of Bacc would be fully inclusive and have levels that would suit all abilities, from Entry through to Level 3. This will give learners an opportunity to have a broad curriculum rather than through the VERY narrow EBacc. The full Schools Week supplement can be found here (page 4&5).


I am particularly pleased with this new venture as this is exactly what I have been calling for policy development on through THIS Education Blog. I published a blog on the 30th January which follows a similar theme to the call for the National Baccalaureate. My blog was about how to incorporate skills development learning into a Bacc. In the blog I highlighted the Welsh Bacc as a way forward. The Welsh Bacc was also highlighted in the Schools Week Supplement by Editor Laura McInerney (@miss_mcinerney) as part of the same article.

I am just so pleased that other more influential people are singing to a similar, if not the very same, tune as me regarding education in this country.

My most recent blog about what I would do if I were the Education Secretary follows similar themes again and can be found here.

If I Could Be The Education Secretary…

With the General Election just around the corner I thought this would be a good time to remind the future Education Secretary (Ed Sec) about what is important in education up to the age of 16. More importantly the type of curriculum that I believe would lead to academically and vocationally skilled learners for the 21st Century.

THIS particular journey will start in KS2 with project style learning which will engage and promote enquiry in learners. KS2 will be joined up with KS3 as a transitional stage which will develop the young person for their choices at KS4.


The diagram (above) shows what a learner focused learning environment would look like. This would be followed throughout KS2 and into KS3 to further develop skills and allow a smoother transition from primary to secondary education. This will develop the learner to become more effective as an independent learner, in making choices and in their personal development. They would become better at academic learning i.e. knowledge, vocational learning and for their future workplace through skills learning being started at a much earlier stage in their development. Ultimately this would mean that a young person would be a better learner and so, long term, would gain better grades in their academic or vocational subjects at KS4.

I know that this works with young people. I have developed project learning through KS2 to KS3 transition programmes and also into KS4. I have done this throughout 11 years while working as an Assistant Headteacher and then National Development Co-ordinator (ASDAN) creating curriculum programmes across a very wide ability range. The key focus is that a leader of learning (teacher) sets the scene for young people which encourages engagement and personal enquiry through the project they are working on. It is important that the leader of learning facilitates the project and allows the young person to make their own decisions about learning which would engage them in the project. It is also about making learning fun and active for the young person, while relating it to a real world context. To enhance this real world context, I would encourage schools to create lasting partnerships with local communities and employers to encourage entrepreneurship and life skills development.

A few quotes which may show that this method of learning works;

“The most important thing about education is appetite” Winston S Churchill

“I am always ready to learn, but I do not always like being taught” Winston S Churchill

“The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives” Robert Maynard Hutchins

If I were the Ed Sec I would create educational policy around project and skills development learning in KS2 and KS3. This would be about having cross-curricular projects where the young person has the opportunity to take more responsibility for decision making and their own learning.

In KS4 students would be given optional pathways that they could pursue. This would allow them to access an academic ‘EBacc’ type pathway, a more vocational ‘Tech Bacc’ type pathway or even a mixture of the two. We must not forget a small cohort who may not be able to access either type of pathway. This could be due to other specific needs that they may have. For these students ‘Life skills’ would be a focus for their learning (if appropriate). I would seriously consider the benefits of having a mandatory Extended Project (EPQ) for ALL young people within KS4 education. This would be designed, and be flexible enough, to be adapted for different learner abilities. Personal Development learning would also be featured as an integral part of the KS4 curriculum whichever pathway is chosen.

School leadership and teachers would be trusted to make these decisions for the benefit of their own schools, community and cohort of learners that they serve. The decision for which type of pathway a specific student should follow would be decided through a collaborative decision made by teachers, parents and most importantly the child. Thorough guidance must be sought from outside bodies to ensure that these decisions would be made in the best interest of each individual young person. The funding that is made available to schools should be used to ensure that the curriculum could be tailored to the varying needs of students. After all every child has different needs and interests, and a ‘one size fits all curriculum’ is a recipe for disaster.

As an ED Sec I would listen to what the professionals are telling me. I would enforce OFSTED to become an organisation that truly supports, rather than judges, schools with a new value that they are a ‘critical friend’. This would be a shift away from being the ‘all high and mighty’ they are perceived as now. OFSTED would work in true collaboration with the government and schools to aid self-improvement of each school.

As an ED Sec I would also take the focus away from data and exceeding expected target grades which has turned our education system into a test and exam driven factory. I would use the data that is collected on each child to guide leadership thinking for curriculum planning for each child. I would not share this data with children, as this in many cases will lower expectations. For example; The target grade for a young person is X, they then achieve this in a test and take their foot of the pedal. In effect lowering expectation as they will have achieved what they should have done.

Why not have the starting point as the top grade achievable for EVERY learner in the APPROPRIATE courses they have chosen? That is truly aspirational! Then if they fall shorter then so be it… the chances are that they will have over achieved anyway on their target.

As an Ed Sec, and using the formula that I outlined, I would certainly be ‘Aiming for the stars‘. Every young person would be ‘aiming for the stars‘ and so what, one or two may not make it to a truly aspirational outcome but I bet you one thing, that they ‘land on the moon‘! Now that would be a truly great aspirational outcome wouldn’t it?


Reflections on ‘THIS Education Blog’


I have been blogging on THIS Education for nearly three months and I have written 21 blogs. By my calculations that is just short of 20,000 words. It dawned on me that I have written the equivalent of at least one book. Over the past few weeks I have started asking questions which I would like to answer;

Why am I writing a blog and how can it be developed?

An easy one to answer. I want to make a difference in education in this country. I want to ensure that teaching young people involves the learning of skills that are important to their lives and gaining employment. I have lost count of the number of employers who complain (myself included) about the need for people to be able to show that they have transferable skills or soft skills when coming to an interview. I have lost count of the amount of people you see getting themselves into debt by not having the simple skills to budget their income v outgoings. Whether its Skills for the workplace or skills for life we owe it to our young people to provide this education as a high priority in schools and colleges. THIS is a good reason for continuing my blog. I will therefore develop my blog further by providing more help advice and support to ‘Leaders of Learning‘ inside and outside the classroom (Please see ‘MIND SHIFT: Leaders of Learning Creating Independent Learners‘)

Do I make a difference with my blog?

This is a much tougher one to answer. It brings into my mind a whole host of forces that I cannot influence alone, educational policy certainly needs to change. Many people from business, to careers support, to education itself have started to voice concern over the focus on tests and exams without much concern for developing the whole learner. This is again a very good reason to keep my blog going and influence policy, while continuing to provide advice to others.

Does anyone read it?

The stats provided by wordpress.com suggest I am getting readers. Many people comment on my blogs via twitter and I have been asked to write guest blogs for www.irisconnect.co.uk and www.showmyhomework.co.uk which means that some of the things that I say strike a chord with other educators. I also get various other organisations inquiring about working with them on other educational projects.

Am I maintaining the vision of my blog?

I have to say this is highly important for me as some people have commented that I am against traditional styles of teaching. I want to stress that I am not anti traditional teaching but I do think that other skills based learning opportunities are just as important. Then, at the right time, young people should be given the opportunity and have the options for academic or skills based pathways. A young person should also be able to choose a mixture of pathways without the institution or individual being penalised. I also want there to be less focus on the exam driven curriculum which I believe is damaging our young people. I do want to promote skills learning, including being able to display characteristics in soft skills, transferable skills, essential skills, digital skills and life skills. I am passionate that this must have an equal focus in a curriculum that prepares a young person fully for life and work in the 21st century.

Do I help people and is my blog supporting my career and interests?

I posted my first blog on the 16th January 2015 and I stated that the reason for doing this was to promote skills in education and to help, advise and share ideas about how schools and teachers can carry this out in their classroom. In truth I had a lot going on in my head (some people may find that hard to believe) and I needed get my thoughts and ideas down on paper (virtually speaking). I have found my blog to be the perfect outlet for this. My head now feels uncluttered and I have also managed to direct certain frustrations in a positive manner. I have also found that I have become slightly better in the skill of producing the written word (I did say slightly!). For me however, what I have really enjoyed about my blog is the opportunity it has given me to write down learning ideas and strategies for the classroom. I KNOW that this strategy can help improve and better develop young people, both in their skills for learning and in their long term academic progression. Several of these ideas I have already written about in blogs.

To bring the journey of THIS Education together (so far); I will continue to blog and focus on the issues that are important in education, and what we still need to get right in this country. I passionately believe that every young person has a right to a more balanced skills and academic based education as part of a drive to fully develop our young people for life and work in the 21st century.

I dearly hope that whichever party (or parties) form a government after the May 2015 election will have the strength to do the right thing for OUR young people and their education! Well I can hope anyway…

Mediocre Failures

This is a brilliant piece by a passionate father and educator. If anyone has any interest at all in how we educate OUR young people then this provides the best argument I have read for a long time, and yes it is very emotive, and yes it should be!
Please read very closely and keep this blog in mind when voting in the 2015 Election.
This is exactly the arguments that THIS Education blog has been set up to change policy on.
Well done to @disidealist!

Testing without Brains.

A great piece of writing which brings up many pertinent points about exams and testing. A lovely quote from the piece is right at the end:

‘Teach children to love the English language. Read books with them, talk to them. Let them talk to you and to each other. Make writing the great, imaginative, wonderful adventure it should be. Forget the tests’

Very thought provoking!

Love Learning....

When SATs were first introduced it was with the aim that a Level 4b would be an ‘average’ level of achievement. Very quickly this became an expected level of achievement for the majority of pupils and now it would seem that anyone falling below this (or its point score equivalent) is a failure. In order to address this failure, children will now be expected to resit the tests in Year 7. It’s a policy of such bum numbing stupidity I can barely be arsed to write.

1. Year 6 teachers bust a gut to get kids through these tests. Sometimes in order to do it, they compromise the rest of the curriculum, pass out endless practice papers and teach to the test to the extent that they dream the test (in the rare moments they get to escape from their marking). They have their class all day every day. If…

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