Time for a reality check

6th October 2000 at 01:00
James Kilmartin says the Government's approach to key skills leaves out essential teamwork and flexibility which mean so much to students wanting to join the real world.

RECENTLY I received a large parcel from the Department for Education and Employment. With memories of similar post from aunts at Christmas, I viewed it with anticipation and glee. Imagine my disappointment when inside I found about 30 pocket-sized summaries of the "key facts about key skills". My first reaction was disdain. I wondered just who had the time to produce such rubbish.

Actually, these guides are quite good. Nevertheless, their arrival seemed to show that this latest Government initiative is in trouble. The response to key skills has, to say the least, been mixed. Partly because of the sheer pressure of events - the need to plan new schemes of work, the introduction of performance-related pay - and partly because of the lukewarm reception for key skills from universities, many schools have given these lesser children of Dearing a back seat.

But the problem is deeper than this. In choosing to give priority to communication, application of number and information technology over the other "wider" key skills, policy-makers have missed a chance to make education more relevant. We should be focusing on the development of attitudes, values and practices which will facilitate personal and career development and allow our students to lead the way in a rapidly changing global economy.

The irony is that those skills that will not be tested - working with others, improving our own learning and performance and problem solving - are precisely the ones which we should be concentrating upon and which would raise overall achievement.

These days, industries come and industries go. To prepare students for this we need to give them more than functional skills. One approach we might take is to follow the lead given by Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This has been a highly influential text in the business world. It has also been adapted for the American student market.

Covey's model aims to move people through three stages of personal growth, from a state of dependence to independence and, finally, to an acknowledgement of the need for interdependence. It is based on the premise that public achievements (exam success, sporting triumphs, providing leadership and resisting peer pressure) are based upon private victories. Those victories are won by the accumulation of seven habits.

The first three of these - being proactive, putting firstthings first and beginning with the end in mind - have a clear relevance to sixth-form students. They push them towards a more organised approach to study, including effective time management, prioritisation and target-setting. Not only are these important instruments for successful completion of advanced level courses, they are invaluable aids to lifelong learning and help to prepare sixth-formers for higher education and the workplace.

But the challenge for today's sixth-former is even greater than that. More than ever before, industry requires workers who are able both to work independently, with minimum supervision, and in teams. Team and group work is hard, both for teachers and students. How many of us have witnessed groups break up or go completely off task? Even, perhaps particularly, the brightest sixth-formers find working in groups a challenge. This was confirmed to me recently when Lizzie, perhaps the most articulate, sociable and well organised member of my politics A-level class, admitted that she found the slow pace of the others in her group highly frustrating.

It is to the area of working with others that Covey addresses himself most effectively. In an unusual, but expressive, lapse into business speak he talks about the importance of adopting a "win-win" mentality. Within the classroom there is certainly room for more co-operation and collaboration. We rarely tap into this. The tendency for students and teachers to work in a competitive fashion is heightened by league tables and performance-related pay.

Effective team working relies on good listening skills. "Seek first to understand . then to be understood" is one of the habits which Covey says we need. More empathic listening in schools would certainly be a good thing, not just for relationships between sixth-form students but also for those between teachers and students - perhaps even between colleagues on the staff.

The last of Covey's Seven Habits is perhaps the most important, the one likely to give our students the greatest sense of fulfilment and purpose. Covey calls it "Sharpening the Saw": taking time to renew ourselves socially, mentally and physically, through exercise, recreation and relaxation. In a 247 world, this lesson needs to be learned early. If our students are to make an effective contribution as citizens and employees they need to know where to draw the line and how to live a balanced life.

This is perhaps the very best key skill we can give them.

James Kilmartin is head of sixth form at Bishop Walsh comprehensive,


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