Core skills? What the 'f***' are they?

20th June 2008 at 01:00
This is the question a Glasgow depute head was asked by a pupil writing her CV for a job interview. Since he was unable to give her a definitive answer, Govan High set in motion the development of its own skills curriculum. Douglas Blane reports
This is the question a Glasgow depute head was asked by a pupil writing her CV for a job interview. Since he was unable to give her a definitive answer, Govan High set in motion the development of its own skills curriculum. Douglas Blane reports

A headteacher, a depute and a librarian with 60 years' experience betwen them are an unlikely group of iconoclasts. "We don't think what we're doing is revolutionary," says depute Philip Graham. "We think it's sensible."

What they're doing - have done - at Govan High in Glasgow, is to tackle a simple question. What should a 21st-century school curriculum contain? Their answer, the fruit of four years' efforts, is also deceptively simple: skills.

But the skills curriculum at Govan High, which pupils have been following since the start of this session, isn't all about cutting hair, sawing wood and fixing cars. These are useful skills, especially in a part of Glasgow where the decline of shipbuilding has left high unemployment, and in a school with a free-meal entitlement of 43 per cent. But they are very specific. They are not transferable. They won't equip young people for uncertain times and lifelong learning. They are not, in a word, future skills.

"The worst thing is when people think you don't get skills from every subject. That you get them from a special skills course on a Thursday afternoon," says Mr Graham. "And that's exactly what many people do believe."

Govan High is convinced that skills should permeate all subjects and every activity, which is fine as a philosophy, but it is still a statement of intent, a skeleton that needs some flesh on its bones. A key concept in giving it substance is transferable skills, says Ian McCracken, resources manager. "If you read the Government's skills strategy, it defines these as skills learnt in one situation that could be used in another. It goes on: 'The term normally implies that the individual is aware of the transferability of the skills they have developed.'"

This is precisely the point at which school skills initiatives often fail, says Mr Graham. "One of our pupils had reached the end of her school career and came in to school to work on her CV for a job interview the next morning. She was getting on fine, had listed all her SQA qualifications, and then turned to where it asked for her core skills. She took one look at this and said, with her voice rising in panic: 'Core skills?' What the f*** are they?'"

The incident happened a year-and-a-half into Govan High's four-year development of a skills curriculum, says Mr Graham. "That girl's experience summed up a serious problem. Young people need skills. But they need to know what those are and how to talk about them. There has to be a common vocabulary."

An important example is groups and groupwork, which are widespread terminology, says headteacher Iain White - but only within education. "If they go to an employer and say they've got great groupwork skills, they'll get blank looks. Out there, nobody works in groups. They work in teams."

But the issue goes deeper than terminology. For skills to be truly transferable, young people need to be aware of those they possess, ready to talk confidently about them and primed to see opportunities to use them in different settings. All of which assumes that a complete list of skills exists.

But it doesn't - or at least it didn't until now. "There's a lot of talk about skills in education and employment," says Mr McCracken. "But nobody says exactly what skills they mean. Or if they do, we couldn't find it - and we looked long and hard."

The Government's Skills Strategy for Scotland, for instance, talks about "overlapping clusters" of skills - which include vocational, personal, learning, employability, core and essential skills. It also itemises some soft skills, but says there is no definitive list of these: "It is important to understand what we mean when we talk about skills, but it is also important that the definition we use should not be exclusive," the strategy states.

This is of limited value to a busy teacher wondering what to teach or to an anxious pupil preparing for a first interview, he says. "I attended a Determined to Succeed conference at which everybody talked about fantastic skills they'd observed in young people around the country. I wanted to know what skills they meant. I spent hours rigorously looking through every part of their website for a list of the skills they'd been talking about. There was no sign of one."

There is a hint of emperor's new clothes in many discussions about skills, says Mr Graham. "We are letting people talk about skills without nailing them down. Which skills? What do you mean by skills?"

A Curriculum for Excellence is educationally liberating and provides welcome scope for cross-curricular inventiveness. "But we read so much about people saying they can see kids becoming confident individuals," he says. "By whose criteria? What standards?

"Then there's HMIE. Skills are important, they say, but again, there are no specifics. They don't say skills are more important than this, but less important than that. So schools have to make their own judgments."

That is exactly what Govan High has done. Since the start of this session, teachers and pupils have been following a skills curriculum that specifies precisely which skills are included. "When we first tried to devise a list of skills, we came up with hundreds," says Mr Graham. "So we got an external consultant to help us pare it down." He smiles. "Unfortunately, he gave us a few more we hadn't thought of."

A great deal of review, research and analysis of previous work - particularly in the field of information literacy - underpinned these efforts. But the team could find no comprehensive skills set suitable for a whole-school curriculum anywhere in the literature. "Essentially, we worked it out ourselves, from first principles," says Mr McCracken.

Over a series of discussions, the original list was slimmed down, but not to any handy postcard size. Govan's definitive list of future skills, which is prominently displayed around the school and used in every subject, comprises 71 separate skills.

No one can hold all this in his head - not even school managers and librarians. So a higher-level classification provides learners with the structure they need, to think constructively about what skills they possess and which they need to work on (see panel).

Awareness-raising and continuing professional development brought teachers on board. Skills booklets were devised so pupils could self-assess the skills they gained and used in lessons and extra-curricular activities. Skills cards let teachers nominate pupils who make progress in a particular skill.

Detailed analyses of the skills mentioned in A Curriculum for Excellence and the Skills Strategy for Scotland have shown that the Govan High approach is consistent with national policies. A similar matching exercise on skills demanded by a range of employers has raised confidence in the value of the approach and the contents of the list.

Representative school lessons in every subject have been examined to bring to the fore the skills that feature in each of them, and to establish that skills are part of every lesson, every day, in every subject.

Further evolution is likely, says Mr Graham. But Govan High now has a definitive list of skills that permeate the curriculum - something that he believes exists nowhere else in Scotland. "We have gone out on a limb and defined a complete set of skills. The details might change as time goes on, but maybe not by much. It's an approach that gives us something to work on in every subject at school."

The whole point about future skills - transferable skills - is that they are not limited to particular subjects, says Iain White, or even to school itself. "Every activity is a learning experience. So if they're going to the Science Centre, for example, they'll think about skills, before, during and after the experience.

"They'll complete a skills booklet and the details will be fed into our computer database. We are building a skills profile of every child."

One of the most satisfying features of the skills curriculum is the way the pupils have responded, says Mr White. "One comment sticks in my mind. A girl was talking to her teacher about leaving school and looking for work. 'My qualifications will get me the interview,' she said, 'but it's skills that will get me the job.'"


The learner is at the centre of the skills curriculum, which comprises seven individual aspects or groups of skills. These are classified as: the communicator, the contributor, the doer, the sorter, the originator, the connector and the decider.

Each group is further broken down into named skills and explanations. The communicator, for instance, contains 14 separate skills, including creative writing, e-literacy, presentation skills and objective reporting ("being able to describe something that happened, without including how you felt about it or any of its effects on you".)

The contributor has team skills, participation, being environmentally friendly and four others. The connector has gathering facts, image modelling, big picture connections and 15 others. The doer has 13 skills including perseverance, pushing boundaries and following instructions.

These skills are used and developed right across the curriculum, says depute head Philip Graham. "It would defeat the purpose if departments chose particular skills - English for the communicator, PE for the doer.

"That would miss the point entirely. These are skills that young people learn, develop and use right across the curriculum."

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