Learning Skills at A Level

Are ‘Learning Skills’ Important?

As a tutor I am frequently told by tutees in no uncertain terms that ‘Learning Skills’ at A Level is a waste of a timetabled lesson (this is a direct parallel with what the vast majority of students feel about PSHE/PSHCE lessons in 11-16 state schools). Students seem to view these lessons (if indeed they can be called that) as time away from them focusing on their important subjects; the ones that they actually chose for A Level. Many (A Level teaching) colleagues view these lessons as a real chore – it’s time away from planning lessons for their main subject and valuable time away from marking and giving constructive feedback to students (again this serves as a direct parallel with the views of many ‘teachers’ of PSHE/PSHCE lower down the educational ladder, as it were). It seems that many ‘Learning Skills’ lessons are delivered ad hoc and structured support and guidance is minimal.

My experience of ‘Learning Skills’:

When I was doing my A Levels in 1999, (Manchester United’s treble-winning year – my how times have changed!) ‘Learning Skills’ lessons did not exist – at least not for me. Even if they should have done I doubt that my school would have followed the guidance on them if it did not view them as integrally important in preparing me for exams or the wider World. However, we did choose ‘options’ – three in lower 6th form. These were designed to allow students to follow an interest or passion with a teacher who had a genuine interest in the ‘option’ that they were delivering. Teachers volunteered to ‘teach’ their ‘option’ for one timetabled lesson a week on a 2 week rolling timetable. I chose ‘Music of the 1960s’, ‘Community Action’, ‘Stocks and Shares’. As a result of this I spent my time at school learning about the content of my A Levels (in Biology, Chemistry and Geography) and The Mamas and the Papas, Elvis, The Beach Boys, Vietnam, J.F. Kennedy and NASA. I also spent my time working in a local primary school as part of my community action option and learning how to ‘play’ the stock market. I personally view these as great ‘Learning Skills’ to have been exposed to as they ‘taught’ me reasoning, resilience, empathy, noticing, capitalising (how to use the World around me to) and interdependence. In many ways they moulded me into the person I am today and helped to build my ‘learning power’.

Current trends:

However, times have changed and teaching is far more compartmentalised and restrictive as we all know. Regardless, the one thing that remains true is that students deserve to be as best prepared for both their exams and the World that they are a part of. It remains our collective responsibility as practitioners to ensure that this is the case whatever our personal or political viewpoints are. A Levels are changing. The Key Stage 3 National Curriculum has already changed. Key Stage 4 GCSE courses and exam board specifications are under review. Competition for university places for certain courses is intense with universities selecting students for interview based on number of A*s at GCSE, (predicted) A Level grades, UK CATS scores, variety of work experience and personal statements. Those students not going on to further and/or higher education are facing similar competition in the jobs market for apprenticeships and even for part-time work, let alone full-time employment. As a result ‘Learning Skills’ and how they are delivered are back in the limelight. Some educational publishers are looking to produce comprehensive books to accompany lessons whilst others are looking to deliver these skills through the core content of the subject-specific books that they are revamping to cater for the new A Level specifications. It is unclear what the best option is for both staff and students, or indeed if it actually matters – maybe that has been the problem all along? Maybe this became embedded in KS3/KS4? What is clear is that ‘Learning Skills’ provision (and indeed PSHE/PSHCE provision) at different educational establishments is very inconsistent. Some establishments have designated (trained) teachers who deliver specific ‘Learning Skills’ topics in specific orders as part of a whole-school strategy. Others have teachers (often form teachers) who just ‘pick up’ the lessons as and when and have limited guidance from senior staff; indeed in these cases the only support seems to be other colleagues who are in a similar boat! It follows that many other schools have arrangements encompassing the whole spectrum between these two extremes. It remains unclear what is the right way to do things but clearly an integrated approach is the best option and would be one that would allow students to develop the skills that they need to ultimately be successful.

The future of ‘Learning Skills’:

Whilst arguments remain over the delivery of ‘Learning Skills’ in terms of who should deliver them, how this should be done, how this should be monitored and if there is any need to have a timetabled lesson on them in the first place, there is general agreement amongst fellow professionals that students do need certain essential skills to allow them to perform to their optimum in their A Levels and beyond. Academic writing, research skills, wider reading, time-management, critical thinking, note-taking and interview preparation are all viewed as being of immense importance by teachers, mentors, lecturers and prospective employers alike. What I would firstly like to see would be a more proactive, holistic whole-school approach to ‘Learning Skills’ (and PSHE/PSHCE). I feel that this should actually start at KS3 in Year 7 so that students don’t see ‘Learning Skills’ as an ‘add on’ much later on in their education but something that they have been actively engaged in throughout their educational journey. To this end ‘Building Learning Power’ (BLP) as described by Professor Guy Claxton (a Co-Director of the Centre for Real-World Learning (CrL), and Professor of the Learning Sciences, at the University of Winchester) could have a profound effect:

BLP is about helping young people to become better learners, both in school and out. It is about creating a culture in classrooms – and in the school more widely – that systematically cultivates habits and attitudes that enable young people to face difficulty and uncertainty calmly, confidently and creatively. Students who are more confident of their own learning ability learn faster and learn better. They concentrate more, think harder and find learning more enjoyable. They do better in their tests and external examinations. And they are easier and more satisfying to teach. BLP prepares youngsters better for an uncertain future. Today’s schools need to be educating not just for exam results but for lifelong learning. To thrive in the 21st century, it is not enough to leave school with a clutch of examination certificates. Pupils/students need to have learnt how to be tenacious and resourceful, imaginative and logical, self disciplined and self-aware, collaborative and inquisitive.

Finally, I would like students to both value ‘Learning Skills’ lessons and actually be able to gain credit for taking part in them. There is a bit of a vicious circle here in that how can students value something that is not necessarily valued my teachers and how can the teachers value something that the students don’t value as useful? Some sort of Level 2 qualification at KS4 would greatly raise the profile and perceived importance of PSHE/PSHCE in schools for example. Indeed, a similar level of qualification in ‘Learning Skills’ would be very useful for students going on to do A Levels as it would help to bridge the gap between KS4 and KS5.

Food for thought…..


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