During this term we are focusing on aspects of school improvement that can be improved with a ‘spring clean’ (see Issue 10). In this edition it’s time for a spring clean of the indoor and outdoor environments to promote life skills

Why focus on life skills and the environment?
As educators we need to be sure that we are supporting children for the next stage. We can do this by placing enough emphasis on children’s development so that they grow to be young people ready to take their place in Further or Higher Education or the workplace. We know that skill development doesn’t just happen. Children have to access a range of experiences on a daily basis which allow them to progressively build up skill expertise. The environment, be it indoors or outdoors, is the canvas against which we offer learning experiences and it is therefore one of the most effective ways to support life skills development for children of all ages.

I want to get us thinking about the impact of what we do here and now to promote the life chances for children. Recently I have been prompted to revisit my views on why we need to make better use of the environment to support children’s acquisition of life skills. The first trigger was in March when a guest on GMTV speaking about the percentage of teenage pregnancies in this county said, ‘the most effective contraception is aspiration.’ Secondly, just last week when listening to a colleague talk about the 14-19 agenda two facts brought home to me the importance of our work in developing life skills. Fact one: many thousands of young people will leave full-time education this summer, competing to enter the workplace. Fact two: our young people currently in Year 5 will not be able to leave school until they are 18, meaning more young people staying in education for longer. These facts have led me to ask two questions:

1. If school is the universal offer for all children what are we doing with the indoor and outdoor environments to support skill development in children of all ages?

2. What else do we need to do to ensure that children have opportunities that will help them to acquire the necessary skills, aspirations and self-belief to motivate them to seek work and gain employment when they leave school?

Preparation for a new world of work
Colleagues reading this article will teach in a range of schools, from those where families are in permanent employment to those where third and fourth generation unemployment is the norm. Many of you will be in schools somewhere in between. The expectation for some of you will be that of course children will go to university; for others this aspiration is not the case. But we do know that what the majority of parents want for their children is for them to grow to be independent adults who are able get a job which provides a regular income. It is getting increasingly difficult to predict what the workplace will be like in 10 or 20 years’ time. We are trying to prepare children for a workplace which is possibly outside of our experience. Already an increasing number of employers are encouraging working from home. Sounds ideal doesn’t it? No commute, organising your own time, no need to deal with the day-to-day workplace annoyances; but in reality people working in isolation require a set of skills which need to be developed from a child’s earliest days in a setting or school. Independence, organisation and self-motivation are just three of the life skills required by home-workers. The current economic climate has already shown that those of us in the workplace need to be adaptable and flexible as it is highly likely that our current Year 5 children will have at least three or four changes of career direction during their working life.

Impact of the environment
Those of you who teach in the Foundation Stage will be confidently saying that developing life skills are the bread and butter of your work. The Early Years Foundation Stage places an emphasis on learners having ‘real’ opportunities to practise and acquire skills in a supportive indoor and outdoor environment. But, if we jump a couple of years to Year 3 what are the outdoor experiences seven-year-olds will have to, for example, develop adaptability? The only outdoor daily experience that many seven-year-olds have at school is playtime. Two 15-minutes sessions, sometimes only one, and a lunch-break may contribute to the development of social skills but is this enough? How often do we pause and evaluate the impact and contribution of the environment to the development of very important life skills?

It was from this perspective I read the Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum: Final Report. Each of the proposed six areas of learning will have certain essential skills running through them. These include personal and emotional skills and social skills. Now is the time to be thinking ahead about effective delivery of the essential skills. Could you do more to support the delivery of the proposed areas of learning and essential skills through the indoor and outdoor environment for all age groups?

I am reassured to see an increasing number of newspaper articles about the outdoor curriculum experiences that children are engaged in when they are gardening, digging the allotment and participating in community projects. These schools are absolutely on the right track. They are giving children opportunities way beyond the indoor classroom to practise skills including learning from their mistakes and building resilience. I think all schools need to understand their responsibilities for life skill development and approach it with the same vigour and attention that is given to subjects of the national curriculum. And the best way to do this is through looking at the opportunities we provide every day in the internal and external environments. If they aren’t giving you what you want for your children it is time for a thorough spring clean.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2009

About the author: Jane Golightly has written extensively on school improvement and has more than 30 years experience in primary education