Primary Headship looks at those key ingredients that make the experience of school worthwhile, and asks why we don’t always seem carry through those values which make the Early Years Foundation Stage so positive for children

In the last couple of e-bulletins we have been considering what it is we do to ensure we get the most out of the adults in our schools. In this edition I want us to think about the most important people of all – the children. How do we ensure that children get the most out of school? Every school leader wants to think that the children in their care get the best possible experiences every day. Indeed, as leaders we pride ourselves on the full range of experiences we offer, the care and attention we put in to trying to provide an environment which allows every child to flourish and which recognises that each child is an individual. That’s great. It is absolutely right that we aim for this. Through the five outcomes of Every Child Matters we question what we do and its impact on keeping children healthy and safe; enjoying and achieving; making a positive contribution and achieving economic wellbeing.

Good quality research can challenge our views about what we need to do to ensure children get the most out of school. Recently I read a piece of research (Customer Voice Research: aspirations and the children and young people segmentation) which looked at the aspirations of young people, including how they are developed, shared and communicated.

Although the research is looking at secondary aged pupils it raised questions for me about primary aged children. The research put the young people in to four ‘segments’: growing and learning; happier at home; weakening links; exploring independence. When I picked up the research I thought that the young people with the highest aspirations would be in the ‘happier at home’ segment but I was wrong. The research showed that young people in this category can struggle with their self-esteem and confidence and are less likely to seek out support unless it is delivered in fun and accessible ways. Those represented within the ‘exploring independence’ segment were happy with life, had high self-esteem and made the most of opportunities that came their way. Fascinating stuff and I would urge you to download it and read it over a cup of tea – better still, take it to staff for reading and discussion. It should generate some lively professional debate.

If we want children to move with confidence into and through the year groups and phases, getting the most out of school and being ready for the next stage, there are some skills I think it is important that they have. You will have your own view but I think if children have the following skill set they experience fewer problems coping with change, are more ready to try new experiences and generally get a lot more out of opportunities open to them before, during, after and beyond school. The skills I would like to see an emphasis on developing in every year group are:

  • self-confidence
  • good communication skills
  • interpersonal skills
  • ability to take responsibility
  • resilience
  • independence.

So, let’s put our heads together and think about what needs to be done in your school to develop these skills and what more you could do. To do this, start off by putting people into task groups. Make sure they are cross-year, cross-phase groups and set them off with this task:

  • Evaluate the quality of experiences and opportunities in each key stage for children to develop the skills listed. Which skills are you better at developing than others? Why is this? Is one key stage more effective than others at skill development? What could you do differently/better to ensure that across the school there is planned development of skills and that development is not ad hoc or left to chance?

And something else to think about in the discussions: a common problem in schools is that they give with one hand and take away with the other. What do I mean? Here’s an example. When people go in to the foundation stage you often hear them say that they are overwhelmed with the confidence of the young children and the way they make choices and take responsibility for their own learning. Making mistakes and learning from these is all part of the process. If a young child pours water on to dry sand they will quickly learn that you can’t run the sand through a sieve and that it takes days to dry out. No harm done.

The Early Years Foundation Stage promotes all of the skills I have listed. Think of your school’s investment in ensuring that the principles of the foundation stage are strong. I am sure you are proud of the quality of learning and teaching in F1 and F2. So, why is it common to see all that hard earned skill development taken away by an organisation of learning and teaching in other year groups which doesn’t help children to keep building their skills? Rather, in some cases, removes them altogether. A good example to generate the discussion is the organisation of art and craft in foundation stage compared to other year groups. In the early years young children select, organise, refine and revisit their work with confidence – really important skills. What does selection, organisation, refinement and revisiting work look like in other year groups? Are there examples of giving and taking away in your school?

It’s no coincidence that the new primary curriculum places an emphasis on personal and emotional skills. Talk to employers and high on their list of skills for young employees are the personal and emotional skills we have been talking about. By placing an emphasis on their development, regularly evaluating our practice and being prepared to personalise opportunities for development depending on the needs of the child, we can be sure we are giving all children every chance to get the most out of school in every year and at each phase.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2010

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