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Rank critical skills, HMI told

A call has come from Learning Unlimited, Scotland's most successful independent teacher development agency, for the inspectorate to put its weight behind the "grass-roots" critical skills initiative in schools.

But another significant voice at a conference on the programme last week, from the Hunter Foundation, cautioned that it was "extraordinarily expensive" as presently delivered, and one solution might be to embed it in initial teacher education (see panel).

The critical skills programme, based on co-operative learning, has built up an almost evangelical following in Scotland since it began nearly 20 years ago in the United States.

However, according to Ian Smith, founder of Learning Unlimited, "there has been very little national recognition or support for co-operative learning generally and critical skills in particular" - despite its huge impact in schools.

Teachers had embraced critical skills thinking in their classrooms precisely because it was not a "top down" initiative, Mr Smith said. "But it would be good to see critical skills at least being recognised a bit more nationally. For instance, HMI might consider mentioning the programme by name when it finds it has had a positive effect on a school."

The Ofsted inspectorate in England already did so, Mr Smith pointed out.

He went on to list a string of official documents, including those on the national education priorities and HMI's own How Good Is Our School? evaluation programme, to support his case for the contribution - and recognition - of critical skills.

The second version of the inspectorate's How Good Is Our School?, for example, defines an effective school as one where "teachers successfully develop pupils' independent learning skills", where "pupils are motivated to work well without close supervision" and where "pupils show independence of mind and co-operate well with others".

Mr Smith said that these attributes had been further reinforced by the Scottish Executive's proposals in A Curriculum for Excellence. He said that Learning Unlimited would be happy to "hang all our work" on trying to develop the four capacities in young people that they should be "successful, confident, responsible and effective".

Mr Smith said there were signs the inspectorate was beginning to put greater emphasis on pupil autonomy, in which young people were encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning - a key ingredient in the critical skills approach.

But, he continued, staffrooms have proved hard to win over to the new methods. "I think teachers and schools would welcome more upfront statements on where the inspectorate stand on a number of issues concerning classroom methodology, a critical one being how they see the balance between assessment for learning and assessment for measurement operating in practice".

The key for the future, now that systems were in place to measure achievement and attainment, should be to help young people to achieve as lifelong learners, Mr Smith declared.

Critical skills was a crucial part of that jigsaw, he said, but "at the moment the most harmful side-effect of a school system obsessed with performance is to turn far too many young people off learning for life".

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