Fruit from the Skills Trees

An online framework is helping primary pupils to take a systematic approach to developing new branches of learning - and the portfolios they build will keep supporting them beyond their school years

Douglas Blane

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The tree-lined road to Glendaruel winds down between steep banks of bluebells to a fertile-looking valley that is bathed in sunlight. In the background stand the rugged snow-capped tops of the Arrochar Alps.

"You have reached your destination," the satnav confidently announces, beside an isolated row of wooden houses, with not a school in sight and not a soul to ask directions.

A mile along the road an affable Yorkshireman obliges: "Kilmodan Primary School? Drive for another mile and you will see it off down on your right, beside a shinty pitch, a few houses and a little church."

The two teachers, 19 pupils and handful of support staff at the small school beside the manse - where eminent mathematician Colin Maclaurin was born 300 years ago - are equally friendly. But the language in which the kids are rehearsing a play they have been asked to perform in Glasgow, as part of UNESCO's Arts Education Week, is a surprise.

"Bonjour. Je m'appelle Le Petit Chaperon Rouge."

"Bonjour. Je m'appelle le loup."

The quality of French teaching at Kilmodan has been recognised by both the inspection and curriculum arms of Education Scotland, explains headteacher Joyce Hawkins. "[Teacher] Gwen McCrossan does a lot of work with French, and even uses it to teach maths. She's been commended for `innovative delivery of French across the curriculum'," Ms Hawkins explains. It is one of several marks of recognition the school has recently received.

"The tearoom run by pupils is very well supported by the community and has made the shortlist for `enterprise and employability across learning' at the Scottish Education Awards in June. I just heard that it's also won us a Social Enterprise in School Award," the headteacher adds.

The enterprise, communication and presentation skills that win awards are essential for young people everywhere, but even more so in the remote rural areas that make up most of Argyll and Bute. Which is why the education authority has developed an online skills framework, now being trialled in schools such as Kilmodan Primary.

"We took a close look at how we can give our young people skills for life, learning and work," says education development officer, Aileen Goodall. "We want to support them towards the positive destinations that aren't always easy to achieve or sustain. We realised what was needed was a vocabulary and a framework for thinking and talking about skills systematically."

It's a framework the older pupils at Kilmodan have enthusiastically adopted, judging by their descriptions of how they use it to build online skills profiles.

"We've three pages with tons of skills on them, for life, learning and work," says Hazel McNaughton (P7). "You choose which are most suitable for the subject you've just been doing. Like if it was forest schools, you would choose all the skills you were using in the forest."

Listening is an important skill for life, says Sasha Catchpole (P6). "We work together in groups, so we have to talk to each other to decide how to build a den, for instance."

Organisation is another, says Conor Kennedy (P6). "We have to remember to bring cups for hot chocolate and tools to make the den."

So is perseverance, says Archie Lewis (P7). "Last week, I was learning to tie knots and I kept getting them wrong. So I needed plenty of patience - I had to persevere."

Besides choosing which skills they have just learned or used, pupils devise a sentence with more information, says Caladh Walker (P6): "Archie wouldn't just tick the box for `perseverance'. He'd write something about tying knots. Thinking of the right words for that can be harder than thinking of the skills you've been using."

But it does get to the heart of the exercise, explains Mrs Hawkins. "We want them to think about what they can do and realise that skills they are learning are lifelong skills. It means they will be able to sell themselves to an employer by talking about those skills. They will know what they are, because they will have them recorded."

Through Argyll and Bute's computer system, each pupil has access to a personal online space and his or her version of the Skills Tree. These will build into individual records of pupils' skills, documented soon after being acquired or used, that can accompany them right through primary school and beyond.

"They will feed into their e-portfolios at P7 and everything in them will go to the high school," says Mrs Hawkins. "It can be the basis of their CVs, when they leave school and find a job. If they apply for university, they will be able to write about themselves and build a bigger picture.

"We began using the Skills Tree in September, and if you look at what they have done since, you can clearly see the change. Their language has become more eloquent, descriptive and detailed."

A range of regular activities and special events - outdoor education, the tearoom, Burns Night, the market garden - focus the children's minds on skills they learn in school. But that's not all, says Mrs Hawkins.

"If they have been working for badges or going to camp with the Scouts or Brownies, say, they can go on and update their record. They can do it at home. It's about everything in a child's life, not just in school."

At Kilmodan all pupils from P4 on are building their own skills records, using the Skills Tree, she says. "It was originally devised for secondary schools. That means words and language can sometimes be a little challenging, especially for younger pupils."

But it also means, in a school with multi-composite classes, that older pupils get to help younger colleagues.

"Sometimes you're not sure which of skills for life, learning or work you should go into," says Archie. "So we discuss it with each other."

"We all get a laptop and go on at the same time," explains Conor Kennedy (P6). "You sometimes work quietly on your own, if you know exactly what to do. But usually we will be talking to each other."

The P4s, in particular, appreciate hearing what's happening in older pupils' heads, says Hazel. "They often ask us for help. So if we know what we're doing, we tell them. And if we're not sure, we get help from other people. It's basically communication. We're communicating to help us decide."

The seniors all say they don't find the younger pupils a distraction: "I feel happy that I'm helping someone," Hazel says.

The younger pupils do appreciate the help, acknowledges Ellen-Frances Lock (P4). "It is quite hard. But I've been on it a few times and it gets easier. Sometimes the teacher's working with someone else, so Caladh helps me. Last time, I put in listening, teamwork and reflecting."

Young as they are, some of the Kilmodan kids already have post-school plans and can see how the personal records they're building will help achieve these. Hazel, Archie and Caladh all have writing ambitions, Conor wants to be a farmer like his dad, and Joshua Finnie (P7) is aiming for the police force, he says. "You need a lot of patience if you are a policeman and are chasing criminals. Organisation and planning are important, too."

The younger the children begin thinking about skills, the better, says teacher Gwen McCrossan. "We do need to make it simpler for the infants and a working group is looking at that now. It will be great to give them that skills awareness, through the Skills Tree. It means they will be able build on it - right through their time at school."

A root-and-branch approach

Building the Curriculum 4 did not get the same publicity as some Curriculum for Excellence publications, says Argyll and Bute education development officer, Aileen Goodall. "But it is very important. We formed a working group to study it and they came up with the Skills Tree in summer 2010.

"We tried it with a few schools, and this session we have projects in each of our six geographical areas, and have been running training days for staff."

The initial concept was a flower with stem, leaves and petals, she says. "But we talked about the tree of knowledge and how we wanted young people to have firm roots, then move up the stem for the four capacities and enterprising thinking. That gave us the Skills Tree."

Interest grew when educational consultant David Cameron referred to it at the Scottish Learning Festival. "We were inundated with requests for more information and that interest has continued," she says.

"We have been working with Education Scotland, with Angus education authority, who have done a lot on taxonomy, and with Moray, who have been using learning ladders. We have now started making short films and putting them on Glow, for other authorities to see. We are getting good feedback from schools all over Scotland."

Potted skills tree

- Teachers have always aimed to develop skills, but Curriculum for Excellence places greater emphasis on these than ever before.

- Skills include intellectual and physical skills, as well as personal qualities, attitudes and behaviours that promote the development of these.

- Experiences and outcomes define the new curriculum in terms of learning experiences and intended outcomes - the latter being what learners can do as a result of their experiences. So outcomes involve skills.

- The wording of some outcomes reveals their skill content. More often, analysis is required. Argyll and Bute has developed techniques for that analysis.

- Teachers need a vocabulary and framework for thinking and talking about skills systematically and for ensuring progression.

- Acquiring a range of skills is a gradual, organic process, alongside growth in knowledge and understanding.

- The Argyll and Bute Skills Tree has positive attitudes and personal qualities as its roots, basic transferable skills as the main branches and skills for learning, life and work in the canopy.

- Learning activities are planned to enable pupils to develop identified skills, alongside key knowledge and understanding, and opportunities to fulfil success criteria.

- Tasks are planned to assess pupils' range of skills (breadth), how successfully they are used (challenge) and how they are applied to new contexts (application).

Photo credit: David Gordon

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Douglas Blane

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