Liam Edgeley, Student at Furness College
Peter Davison, Senior Leader, Victoria Academy
Caroline Vernon, Senior Leader, Victoria Academy
This case study considers the long-term impact of teaching primary-aged students to be socially active (Step Up To Serve, 2018).
‘Young people aren’t just the leaders of tomorrow. They have the energy, skills and ideas to change society and environment for the better today. We must support and empower them to be active citizens, both now and in the future.’
Much evidence suggests that primary-age children are too young to have the interpersonal skills and independence of thought required to carry out impactful social action. However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that this might not be the case, and government thinking may well be changing. The The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services... school inspection handbook (2019) now explicitly refers to a school’s curriculum being rooted in the knowledge and skills that pupils need in order to take advantage of opportunities, responsibilities and experiences in later life. With this in mind, it can be argued that social action is a powerful tool in addressing social disadvantage from an early age.
Victoria Academy, a junior school of 200 pupils, is situated in Barrow-in-Furness, an industrial town on a Cumbrian peninsula. The school is located in a ward ranked as highly deprived, and the demise of the town’s major industry had resulted in a loss of confidence and aspiration. As the economic picture began to improve, we recognised that rather than having a new reason to achieve highly, our students remained passive in their learning, with little awareness of the improving picture of opportunities or their potential place within it. Providing young people with the confidence, skills and experience to make positive choices and act upon them needed to become a priority for learning and teaching. Senior leaders decided to give precedence to the explicit teaching of skills across our curriculum, placing learning, wherever possible, into a real context within our wider community.
The methodology we introduced, across all year groups, is based upon the Critical Skills Program, introduced to the UK in 2004. Designed at Antioch University, the programme responds to concerns in the workplace regarding the effectiveness – or not – of education in preparing students for today’s working world. At the heart of this approach is the creation of a classroom community where all members work and learn together within boundaries, following guidelines agreed by their group (Antioch University, 2020).
Learning is delivered through stimulating, purposeful challenges, carefully planned to meet the requirements of the curriculum whilst developing critical life skills. Learning is given real purpose as children use their own skills and their team’s abilities to develop knowledge and solve problems through live briefs set by teachers or external partners. For example, Year 3 teachers work with managers at Marks & Spencer to design annual projects that require the children to pitch and deliver a marketing campaign in store to increase product sales. The success of the campaign is debriefed by managers with the students, modelling the importance of evaluation in a professional context. Through this process, children learn to work in varied teams, recognising their own and each other’s skills, strengths and natural roles. They learn to take on other, less familiar roles to strengthen a team, learning to identify which key attributes are required in any given task for their team to be successful (timekeepers, facilitators, designers, accountants, etc.). The curriculum objectives and critical life skills that will be developed and assessed during the challenge are explicitly stated, success criteria are agreed by the group and a tight time deadline is set.
‘Plan – do – review’ is the format for working. Very often, review would include teams presenting their work to an audience to receive feedback. Teams are taught to be self-evaluative with regard to their product and their teamwork. Which things would you do again? Which would you bin? Why? Which strategies worked for your team? Which would you need to rethink next time? Were you successful/effective as a team and team member? All children see that they can succeed, that they all have skills to offer their team and that the end product is enhanced by varied ideas, strengths and approaches. Self-esteem and confidence are built as children receive positive feedback from peers, teachers and professional partners. Solving community issues gives purpose to the children’s learning as they see the impact of the positive changes they make. Working with partner organisations, they must act professionally and they rise to this.
Our work since has shown us that those skills required to carry out effective social action are interchangeable with higher-order learning skills. In fact, social action is, in our opinion, the vehicle through which these skills are most effectively learned and internalised by young children. We believe that, by working in this way, our students are given the greatest chance of long-term success as their learning is memorable and their awareness of career opportunities increases. We know, from our work, that this approach to purposeful and relevant learning engages even the most disaffected youngsters and has a very real impact on attainment outcomes. As a Key Stage 2 school, progress rates are now consistently above national average. This is not easily achieved in our context.
In our most recent Ofsted inspection, our approach was highly rated by HMI (Ofsted, 2018, pp. 1–2):
‘You have a clear philosophy on how to best educate the pupils that attend Victoria Academy. You believe that broadening pupils’ experiences inside and outside the classroom improves their learning and promotes their personal development. You say this is because pupils can more easily understand what they need to learn and why. Additionally, you say that having opportunities to apply their learning will further engage pupils, raising their achievement. The impact of your philosophy is clearly seen in pupils’ attitudes and behaviour. Pupils love coming to this school. They are happy, feel secure and are keen to learn. These broadening opportunities are extensive and diverse… [and] ensure that all pupils get opportunities to develop their leadership skills… The accumulation of all the pupils’ school experiences results in outstanding spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Their respectful and tolerant attitudes towards each other and towards adults are outstanding. Pupils attend well and grasp the opportunities that you ensure are provided for them.’
‘Normal’ teaching methods tend to tell children what they should think and do; this model teaches them how to think for themselves and act upon their beliefs. As an outcome of this approach, I see children who are excited about learning, who are organised and efficient learners individually and in teams, and who can’t wait to get into school. I see children who can see where they sit in modern society. They recognise that they have a role to play in local, national and world communities and see that their actions, positive and negative, have consequences for these communities. They see that they can change adult opinion, and therefore the practices that they experience in school and outside, and are motivated by this realisation. I would ask the questions: Why would you not want children to think like this as early as possible? Why are these methods not more widespread? From my many years of experience teaching in this way, I have certainly seen no disadvantages to the children themselves – only benefits to both them and society as a whole. It is more to do with educational policy. It was a risk to pursue this methodology, with increasing pressure over the years to ensure that test results meet expectations. However, not only have our test results not suffered, but we have actually experienced a rise in standards. Our most recent Ofsted inspection highly rated our educational philosophy and its positive impact on our pupils’ attitudes and behaviour. The report also recognised the opportunities that we give children to develop leadership skills and how this approach helps pupils to become thoughtful, considerate and active young citizens. Government policy now recognises the need for and the merits of this approach to teaching and learning. Finally, I feel that I can teach in a way that really works for our children long term, without feeling that I’m fighting the system.
I know from first-hand experience how this method enables leadership qualities, democratic values, empathy, teamwork and cooperation in the students taught at Victoria Academy. They inspire and empower. Since developing these skills at an early age, I have been involved with multiple community projects and youth services, from Scouting through to National Citizen Service, through to Furness College Students’ Union, with each experience complementing and building on those skills I learnt by the age of 10. Learning experiences that gave me a professional voice also gave me the confidence to step up and get involved locally. However, I know that it’s not just me experiencing the benefits of this method: I see people I once played ‘tig’ with at break-times sitting, at the age of 18, as student governors to colleges; people who I was once learning my six-times-tables with working at specialist schools helping to support and teach vulnerable children; people who all learnt the key skills needed at Victoria Academy at an early age.
From our experience, we would challenge the belief that explicit skills-based learning and social action should begin at secondary school. Through this case study, we have demonstrated some of the impact that ‘starting young’ can have in helping young people to become aspirational citizens and highly effective learners. Many of our professional partners would cite evidence of far-reaching impact: enhanced mental health and wellbeing, an increased sense of personal responsibility and long- lasting, improved self-efficacy. Therefore, we would indeed suggest that this approach to teaching and learning may be relevant at a time when young people feel very uncertain about what their futures may bring, where they may need to have a strong voice politically and where, to thrive, they must be more resilient and solution-focused than ever.
Antioch University (2020) Critical Skills Classroom. Available at: www.antioch.edu/new-england/resources/centers-institutes/antioch-center-school-renewal/critical-skills-program/ Critical Skills Program (accessed 3 September 2020).
Ofsted (2018) Victoria Academy: Short inspection report. Available at: https://files.ofsted.gov.uk/v1/file/2773333 (accessed 3 September 2020).
Ofsted (2019) School inspection handbook. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/843108/School_inspection_handbook_-_section_5.pdf (accessed 3 September 2020).
Step Up To Serve (2018) #iWill: About us. Available at: www.iwill.org.uk/about-us (accessed 3 September 2020).