The importance of blending life skills and academia

Helen Keevil, assistant headteacher and e-safety officer at Epsom College, says for students to succeed in life it is important for schools to develop their whole character

In a Telegraph newspaper article ‘Private school parents think they are ‘buying’ exam success for their children’, Dr Mary Bousted, president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: “As fees became higher and higher, parents increasingly believed that they had effectively ‘bought’ their children good grades and a place at a top university and expected the school to ‘deliver’ this.”

She went on to stress her appreciation of the pressure that independent school teachers are under: “You are probably less likely to have children who come into school hungry and cold and with very, very fundamental problems with their home life, which makes the job of a teacher in a state school more challenging. But teachers in the independent sector often tell me ‘we don’t have that, but what we do have is a sense of entitlement among parents’.”

This is nothing new or surprising to most independent schools; it is perfectly natural that parents want the best for their children and expect a return on their investment.

In many ways, at Epsom College we are no different. But while we want to see our students achieve the best grades, what many schools fail to consider is that to secure good places within higher education or in their careers, students have to have the personal skills that universities or employers seek.

The college’s founding Victorian values of benevolence and excellence guide our present-day generosity of spirit and inspire our approach to teaching.

Like most schools, our key objective is to support our students to achieve their life goals. However, it is our firm belief that to succeed in life it is equally important for schools to develop the whole character of their students, their personality and life skills.

Many young adults today struggle with basic skills such as looking adults in the eye and holding a two-way 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.

It is our firm belief that to succeed in life it is equally important for schools to develop the whole character of their students, their personality and life skills

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.

Learning through technology

More recently we introduced a pilot scheme for learning life skills 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; in this way, the content can be controlled from a learning management and safeguarding perspective.

Once or twice a week, 10 teachers supporting between 65 and 70 students run a session focusing on wellbeing. 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 witnessed our teachers working on mental health activities.

Taking the communication theme as an example, 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.

Other modules focus on skills including negotiation, asking for what you want, your personal presence, presentation skills, team-building and leadership, managing, mastering and maximising your time and the importance of goal-setting.

These are all skills that don’t come under the ‘core academic’ skill banner and yet, in our view, they are fundamental to our students’ development and success.

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 are prioritised depending on available time; the activities range from five minutes to 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.

In terms of parental perception, it has been interesting to gauge their responses. An 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 illuminating; clearly our parents also recognise the importance of developing the whole character of their children.

As we roll-out the Big Life Project across the whole school, we are continually assured that our students will leave here better prepared for the skills that today’s employers demand, helping them to stand out from their peers.

Helen Keevil
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