Reality lessons give pupils taste of the future

15th August 2008 at 01:00
Traditionalists will say they have been vindicated: teachers trialling a skills-based key stage 3 curriculum have been disappointed by the standard of pupils' work.

"My group had some pretty poor outcomes," says Martin Phillips, head of history at Four Dwellings High School in Birmingham.

His colleague Rachel McCarthy, head of Year 7, agrees: "I'm quite a perfectionist, and I was sometimes quite frustrated with the poor quality of the final outcomes."

So, is this a "fail" for skills-based teaching even before the new curriculum is introduced next month?

Absolutely not. In fact, these teachers are convinced that skills-based teaching is the way forward. For behind their seemingly damning condemnation of pupils' work is an understanding that these 11- and 12- year olds are learning how to learn, how to work, how to think in a way that will stand them in good stead in secondary school.

They may not be able to recite the kings and queens of England, but by learning how to work in a team, they come to understand what constitutes good leadership. Eventually, this will enable them - all being well - to analyse the leadership qualities of England's monarchs in a far more sophisticated way than with traditional teaching.

There is something reminiscent of reality television shows about the fortnightly skills days that the Four Dwellings' Year 7s have enjoyed for the past year. When pupil groups put together ideas for a school trip, phoning coach companies to get the best value out of their Pounds 2,000 budget, it could have been an episode of The Apprentice. When they pitched their proposals to the school leadership team, it was like something out of Dragons' Den.

The winning group, which proposed a day at Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire, squeezed a better deal out of a coach firm than their teachers had ever managed, and sorted out food, scheduling and health and safety assessments.

Ela McSorley, the assistant head leading the curriculum changes, says the teachers barely had anything to do: they just sat back and the pupils organised the trip.

On another day, small groups of pupils had to work together to survive on a "desert island" within the school. Teachers stood back and resisted the temptation to intervene as Shipwrecked degenerated, in some cases, into Lord of the Flies.

But the skills curriculum also pervades the other nine days of subject classes: in each lesson, the children know which of six skill sets - learning to become reflective learners, teamworkers, independent enquirers, creative thinkers, effective participators or self- managers - they are developing.

This coming year, the school will extend the skills curriculum to Year 8 and the pupils will work on longer-term projects such as running an allotment.

Despite some public perceptions that the skills curriculum is fluffy liberal waffle, these projects - conducted in the real world - do not shield children from the possibility of failure. If they do a poor job in their allotment, says Mr Phillips, they will get to the end of the season and have no fruit and vegetables to harvest from their garden.

"Each group will look after one piece of land," he says. "They'll be responsible for managing it, planning it and deciding what - if anything - they're going to grow."

In this sense, the skills curriculum is far more real than reality TV could ever be.

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