Form-filling is a core skill

17th March 2006 at 00:00
Some of us are never satisfied. We want someone to give us a complete scheme of work which we can use, and then, when we get it, we don't want it. We can't see the logic of it, we wouldn't teach it in that order, those handouts won't be suitable for our students, etc. Prescription doesn't actually suit many teachers. We don't like to feel hemmed in.

Although Basic Skills was renamed Skills for Life, there seems to be even more emphasis on getting qualifications for literacy, numeracy and IT.

There's more to life than that, but, in the Government's terms of reference, Skills for Life seems to mean Skills for Work. For some of the students who come along to literacy classes, just maintaining the skills they have is a priority, and having to route their progress through the core curriculum is a real challenge to the teacher's creativity.

Take students like Pat. She has been coming to the same class at the day centre for years and she has made some progress. She can now write two letters of her name. Approximately. To be brutally honest, the "a" and the "t" look more like a ball and stick, and she will write them over and over again until she reaches the edge of the page, so it looks more like a wallpaper frieze than a signature. She knows it starts with "P", but forgets to write it unless someone sits with her and reminds her.

I don't say that learning to write her name is a waste of time. It's a skill Pat needs because sometimes she has to sign forms. I don't argue that she should not be entitled to join an appropriate class. I'm just unconvinced that two hours of the core curriculum is the best way to improve her skills for life.

However, I am funded to teach literacy, and I do my best, endlessly making new and ingenious resources for Pat and her fellow students. For each of them I have negotiated targets. I have written a weekly lesson plan and cross-referenced the activities to the core curriculum with differentiation for every student. There are six students, each with a different profile, and none able to concentrate on one thing for more than 15 minutes. So I need to go in prepared, with about 20 different activities for each session. After each session, I fill in their individual learning plans to show what they achieved. I write: "This week, Pat practised writing her name." Only the date changes.

Ron had a stroke which robbed him of his speech. It's a cruel irony that Ron can't find the words he wants, but sometimes the words he doesn't want are too readily available. When frustration gets too much for Ron, he shouts "Oh, fuck it!" - and I know how he feels. But hang on a minute, doesn't that meet the target "Speak clearly to be heard and understood, using appropriate clarity, speed and phrasing"? On his individual learning plan, I can write: "This week Ron has gone some of the distance for Speaking to Communicate at entry level 3.1."

James has decided his long-term target is to write cheques. Since he can't write today's date, there is some way to go, but it gives us something to aim for, and he really enjoys practising with a mocked-up cheque book.

Every week he gleefully writes himself a cheque for pound;100. I suggest he might make it out to me for a change, but he just laughs and says I wouldn't know what to do with it. He may have difficulty writing, but he's not daft!

Of course, I've got students for whom the core curriculum does work. Topics like managing your money and completing forms are highly appropriate. In fact, a bit of extra training in form-filling for myself wouldn't come amiss. I know how it is supposed to be tackled, but somehow I still get the right answers in the wrong boxes, and end up with a mess of rubbed-out and inked-over pencil.

When one of my students sells his car and asks for my help in registering the change of ownership, I explain what he needs to do with more outward confidence than I really feel. I don't let on that my last self-assessment tax form brought a polite request for more than double my gross annual salary in unpaid tax, until a kind official agreed to ignore my original submission and start again.

The teaching manual reminds me that skills need to be learned in context and that students bring a wealth of experience to their learning, so I use the opportunity to offer the rest of the class some practice in the black art of form-filling. They respond with good-humoured derision, and ask if I have ever applied for housing benefit. With such expertise on hand, I'll know who to turn to when my next tax self-assessment forms arrive.

Gill Moore is a basic-skills lecturer

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