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How to help struggling pupils hurdle learning barriers

Athletics training inspired this teacher to focus on fundamental skills, in a bid to identify children's learning gaps


Athletics training inspired this teacher to focus on fundamental skills, in a bid to identify children's learning gaps

As a keen distance runner, I’ve recently been focused on beating my personal best over 5 kilometres. It did not go well at the start.

Saturday after Saturday, I would line up at Parkrun, ready to break my record, before finding that I was always coming up short. Deflated, I would return home and kick myself for turning in another underwhelming performance.

After one such disappointment, I was prompted to take stock of what I was doing. My training hadn’t changed, so why did I expect a different outcome on race day? If I wasn’t putting in the effort to improve my physical condition and fitness, then dreams of crossing the line in under 20 minutes would remain just that: dreams.

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I opted to take a break from Parkrun and instead began to research how to improve. I learned that I needed to address several areas of my running if I was to achieve my goal. I put together a two-month plan and began being very specific about the training sessions I was embarking on, each of them with a particular outcome in mind.

Quantity instead became quality and I began to notice significant improvements in my performance almost immediately.

Assessment gains

When reflecting on my running goals, I began to think about some of the challenges that we have recently faced in our school. Namely, the effective assessment, teaching and learning of pre-literacy and pre-maths skills.

We had observed that a number of children across our community special school were experiencing challenges in their maths and literacy learning, and we wanted to get to the root of the problem.

I began with some of my previous experience as a teacher at Frank Wise School in Banbury, and looked closely at its intellectual and reasoning-skills curriculum. This is a unique curriculum area that was designed in-house by the Frank Wise School team.

This subject’s strands include visual perception, auditory discrimination and temporal sequencing, to name just a few. Essentially, they are the building blocks of formal academic learning, with each strand grounded in a thorough understanding of child development.

Missing skills

Many children will acquire these skills through their natural development. However, it is often the case that children with additional needs need them to be explicitly taught.

Building on this, we created our own curriculum, "fundamental skills", and some associated assessments. As a teaching and teaching assistant team, we spent a great deal of time and energy grappling with each of the fundamental-skill strands and working out how they could benefit our students.

Thanks to the hard work of our staff, in a relatively short space of time, we were able to analyse our pupils’ learning in forensic detail. We uncovered the stumbling blocks that some of our pupils were encountering on their learning journeys and could readjust our objectives accordingly.

Learner journey

For example, in our visual-perception strand, if we assessed that a child was unable to match two identical shapes, then it was folly to expect them to be able to name a letter that had been presented to them.

Similarly, if a child was finding it difficult to match a sound to an instrument, then teaching them phonics in a conventional way was unlikely to be a sensible starting point.

Through careful thought, study and analysis, we singled out nuances and idiosyncrasies in our students’ learning, before plotting a carefully considered course to success in small, but very meaningful and challenging steps.

Although I have no hard evidence to suggest this is the case, I firmly believe that the reframing of our children’s learning with such specificity through the prism of fundamental skills has had an effect on the way we approach teaching and learning more broadly.

Applicable to all

As teachers, we all know that our pupils are individuals with their own unique needs, and this has been made abundantly clear to us when scrutinising the minutiae of our pupils’ learning.

I appreciate that our context, a community special school, may differ from your own, but I firmly believe that this curriculum area has a place in all schools.

When delivering workshops to mainstream colleagues, they routinely speak of the need to teach the strands within our fundamental-skills curriculum in their own setting, as well as an adjustment of the pace at which some learners are expected to proceed.

With Ofsted shifting its focus away from exam results, schools are faced with a great opportunity to revamp their curricula in the image of their students’ needs.

Having completed my two-month training plan, I returned to Parkrun and beat my previous personal best by almost 90 seconds. By radically overhauling my approach, I was able to achieve a similarly radical outcome.

Rather than asking our children to keep trudging the same routes with the same predictable results, by taking the time to cast some fresh eyes on their learning, perhaps we can forge new paths for them in their education and help them to achieve their own personal bests.

Craig Clarke is assistant headteacher at Bardwell School in Oxfordshire

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