Why a skills-based curriculum doesn’t work in primary schools

As you know by now, I trained to become a secondary English teacher. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, I left university and began work in a fairly large school in a small, rural part of Scotland. For personal reasons, I didn’t take the job I was offered in Ayrshire; in Scotland, probationer teachers are given a guaranteed one-year post. Instead, I decided that my first role would be in a Behaviour Support department (hereafter named BD), which was attached to a mainstream school.

In the beginning, my role was split; I taught some English lessons in the main school, and then I worked as part of a team where the priorities were to help improve social skills, keep the teens out of trouble and liaise with a number of other agencies. I taught them maths and English and any other subject I could get resources for. Honestly, I loved it. The other teachers loved it. It meant that they didn’t have those students in their classes causing inevitable disruption.

I ran the Eco-school group, and when we decided to have a plant sale all of the budding shrubs were tended to in the BD. One boy, who was on the cusp of being sent to a residential school, diligently watered the plants every morning, and complained if the task was not completed due to his absence. He wasn’t even part of the Eco-group. We conducted photosynthesis experiments; I didn’t foresee his annoyance when some of the control plants didn’t sprout- he called it a waste. But the day I watched him leave, armed with a four-foot sunflower for his mum, I felt for the first time that I had made some difference to a young mind.

The area in which I worked was deprived. The school had a bad reputation, but unlike in England, children went to whatever school was nearest- and frankly, most parents didn’t want to bus their kids to the school one town along for it was a good 30 miles away. None of this fazed me. I came from a poor family. In today’s terms, we were Pupil Premium for our whole school career, and I got a generous bursary to stay in 6th form. I knew how important school was for those kids. My brother, only 14 months younger than me, and two years below in school, would have been in that department if our small school had one. As it was, he ended up excluded on numerous occasions, and left school at 16 with few qualifications.

We couldn’t have been more opposite. I loved learning and books; he loved taking apart bikes and computer games. I wanted to go to university; he wanted to have a labouring job. And each of us followed our chosen path without looking back.

I think about those students at least once a month even though I taught them 8 years ago. I think about how much I enjoyed teaching scientific content, designing experiments, creating masks, putting planets on the ceiling at measured distances apart when we studied space. I think about how now we would be told to teach those kids skills. Skills they could use in a job. But for them, a knowledge based curriculum was inspiring. They liked learning about scientists and artists and the effect each of them had on the world. It wasn’t about cramming their heads full of knowledge they would use in an exam. It was about giving them people to look up to, about learning in context.

That was one of the last times I got to teach a range of subjects in the secondary sector. I went back to teaching English to a range of students aged 11-18. A colleague and I started a gardening club in another school. The students donated produce to the local food kitchen. It felt like we were making a difference, but ironically, I felt the life-lessons came from outside the classroom.

When I was appointed to teach Year 6, I was so excited about teaching topic. I had fond memories of learning about Victorians and visiting Beamish. I think it is clear from the title of the blog how I ended up feeling about topic. So much time went into planning maths and English that topic seemed to be lost. All we were doing was a nod to a subject. There was no in depth learning. One school I worked at allowed students to “research” topics without the children having any real idea what they were learning. Posters and leaflets were “designed”, and I recoiled at the number of hours wasted on such tasks. Resources were downloaded from sites the school had subscribed to, and the skills-based lessons would teach children how to use colons in a list.

I struggled with how little the students were actually learning. The KS2 results were below the average because what the school was doing just wasn’t working. But nobody discussed how that was going to change.

In Year 5, we studied WW2. Our class text was Rose Blanche, our history lessons were actual HISTORY lessons and not topic, we analysed propaganda posters and the learning finally became meaningful. Writing tasks were based on diary entries and 1st person narratives- just like the famous stories we discussed. The children were so engaged. They loved learning about the reasons the war happened, the persecution of the Jews and the way in which Britain coped. They would come into class each morning desperate to tell me something else they had found out. Finally, I felt as though I was back to teaching the way it felt right to teach.

In my career, I have never had a student come in with an example of a colon correctly introducing a list. I have never had an informative poster about modal verbs presented to me. And who would feel that was a win to education? Certainly not me.

I used to think that a skills-based curriculum was the right approach. Obviously, a knowledge-based approach will not always work. But if you ask me whether collaboration and creativity will lose out if we get rid of a skills-based approach, my answer will be clear. No.

Don’t you teach skills, you may ask. The reason I decided to start my business was that teachers were telling me themselves that they didn’t have the knowledge to teach some aspects of English well. I knew then that it was important to empower teachers with content and active approaches. As for grammar sessions and English lessons based only on learning one minute objective at a time- such a narrow approach only hinders children’s natural creativity and enthusiasm over time.


About the author: Now an English consultant, Jill formerly worked as both a secondary Head of English and a primary teacher.

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