How broad should schools’ curriculum be? Most schools’ goal of raising education standards is limited to students’ academic grades. However, when we consider the personality and ‘life skills’ that employers look for, shouldn’t schools also be developing the whole character of their students?
Helen Keevil, assistant headteacher, in charge of pupil welfare and e-safety officer at Epsom College is also a board member of the Votes For Schools PSHE company and PSHE Association. Here she explains how and why the Victorian values of excellence, benevolence and generosity of spirit provide the founding principles of the College and its teaching.
Pressure from the Government, parents and many other influencers means that it is natural for all schools to want to see their students leave with top grades. But what many fail to consider is that to secure good places within further education or jobs, students have to have the personal skills that universities or employers look for.
Many young adults today struggle with the basic skills such as looking adults in the eye and holding a twoway conversation; for some their main form of communication is dominated by digital devices and screens. Their life revolves around their family and friends and it can be easy not to consider people with different challenges and hardships. Putting the needs of others before their own may be something they are aware of, but for many these things easily get lost in their busy daily lives.
Since its founding in 1855 as a school designed to improve the lives of those who had fallen on hard times, Epsom College has always believed in the importance of developing the whole character of its students. It is this, in addition to its focus on high academic standards that led the school to be graded as one of the Telegraph’s Top 100 UK Independent Schools for both its GCSE and A-level results.
More recently we introduced a pilot scheme for life-skills learning in a more structured way. Each theme is introduced through an app called the Big Life Project. Our IT team push the app out to each student’s iPad from where the content can be controlled from a learning management and safe-guarding perspective.
Once or twice a week, ten teachers supporting between 65 and 70 students on the pilot scheme run a session focusing on well-being. There are many modules to follow and it’s up to each teacher to decide which one is best aligned to the work they are currently doing. This could be a topic they are working on or a news item that day. For example, Mental Health Awareness Week in October will see our teachers working on mental health activities.
Taking the ‘communication’ theme as an example, a key skill to establish when starting a new school in September, the students have loved reflecting on active listening, and non-verbal cues with body language; these are skills that many simply hadn’t previously considered. The concept that your body says more than your mouth is introduced in the Big Life Project app through a two-minute clip from the American sitcom Friends. As you can imagine, the students were immediately engaged; there was a lot of lively discussion, followed by group practice.
The beauty of the app is that it is designed with time-pressed teachers in mind. The fully prepared activities require no forward planning and can be cherry picked depending on available time; the activities range from five minutes or an hour.
After the lesson, the app asks the student some questions for feedback on the activity and what they learned. From a teacher’s, parent’s and inspector’s point of view, this forms an ideal reporting tool, collating valuable evidence-based feedback.
Another informal assessment tool that we regularly use at the College is parental feedback. If the parents don’t agree with something that we do, we will always receive constructive comments. The fact that we haven’t had any negative feedback on the inclusion of the Big Life Project in our curriculum is very positive; clearly our parents also recognise the importance of developing the whole character of their children.
As we rollout the Big Life Project across the whole school, we are continually assured that our students will leave here being better prepared for the skills that today’s employers demand, helping them to stand out from their peers.
Helen Keevil – Assistant Head Teacher Epsom College
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