Working class skills by Ian Duckett

Ian Duckett- Education correspondent for SATU – East

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The curriculum has, for me, always been concerned with three interwoven strands: the development of skills, knowledge and general education/enrichment with entitlement as its strong backbone.

When I use the term skills I am referring to the various incarnations of government sponsored generic skills initiatives from common skills to core skills to skills, the dabbling in essential skills and, most recently functional skills as they relate to mostly a narrow vocational curriculum but at a times a broader and more meaningful wider curriculum that has attended to cross the academic/vocational divide and generate a genuine learning curriculum.

While skills like problem-solving, teamwork, study skills communication have a crucial role to play in post-16 education I agree with the argument that the notion of either a knowledge-free curriculum or of a content free pedagogy is a manifest absurdity. As the basic skills only model of skills development still seems to be winning again over a fuller, more developmental version of skills comprising improving own learning, working with others and problem -solving, the need for a core module on ‘learning to learn’ is as important as ever.

These wider, survival skills that can be seen as street-wisdom or working class seem to be undervalued and undermined by those whose diktat it is to decide on what the curriculum is and is for.


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Clearly skills, be they termed common, core, key, functional or anything else need to relate to either generic learning skills or the specific learning skills relating to a subject and have a major role to play, especially, one might argue, with students from less traditional backgrounds.

The economic imperative has raised broader educational and social questions. It is not just vocational training that people should receive. They have a right to be educated more broadly. Once again that might be seen purely in economic terms. How else can people experience fulfilment as human beings?


As a young teacher reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire as a crusade for humanity it made me see dehumanization both as an historical reality and as an individual experience in the lives of many of the learners I worked with. This informed my teaching for many years. As time passed I saw the matter in greyer terms, but remain wedded to the view that barriers to learning are neither purely educational concerns to be addressed by teachers nor problems to be solved by social workers. In almost all cases they existed and continue to exist at the cusp of education and social care.

As a consequence of this I became more and more interested in the importance of learning things that can make a difference and have continued to be drawn to the idea of pursuing interests where possible and using the situation you find yourself in as your university if you are not in that fortunate position.


These questions are as vital live now as it was then and successive governments have failed to address the skills gap.

Similarly those based genuine assessment for learning that have not just been state-sponsored assessment objectives aimed at perpetuating a system that required the many to fail so that the few can succeed in the system have fostered a genuine progressive curriculum. Curriculum development and delivery and assessment methodology alike need to be matched with both the appropriate skills, and attitudes and the syllabus aims and objectives which are: see meanings beneath the surface of, say a text; understand the nature and interplay of its constituent parts; show appreciation of what impacts on it; make a well-considered personal and critical response.

Armed with the results of a ‘skill audit’ practitioners are able to produce an introductory skills based modules including an identification of skills and attitudes, the aims of a specification and demystify he hidden curriculum . A teacher can, where these conditions exist, work collaboratively with learners on something that enhances the student learning experience, impacts on teaching and learning styles and develops the curriculum in its broadest sense. Ever since I can remember there have been problems about the assessment of generic skills and general education aspects of vocational education, be it liberal education; general studies; communication skills; general and communication studies; social and life skills; people and communication and, more recently functional skills

If then, there is nothing new about the problematic nature of assessing these transferable skills, supposedly a pre-requisite for a competitive UK industrial and service workforce, why the commotion on the pages of the education press and beyond? Perhaps it is because now, these ‘core’; ‘key’; ‘transferable’ or ‘generic’ skills are, for the first time, making an impact on traditional academia as well as vocational further education.

So, what next?


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Learner engagement should determine a curriculum that is meaningful and personalised and one which will foster the development of personal, learning, thinking and employability skills in a safe environment for all 14+ learners.

This curriculum outline is based on an entitlement model and is, at the same time, developmental and aspirational.  With English and Maths at its heart and with engagement, enterprise and employability as its chief objectives, the curriculum will emphasise personal and social development and provide vocational tasters. Learning is supported by regular 1:1 coaching sessions and target-setting reviews; Personal, Social, Health Education (PSHE) and citizenship and a wide-range of enrichment activities aimed at enhancing overall learning experience.

Many will dismiss these proposals as utopian, in dismissal of the professionalism of teachers which is understandable given Britain makes no effort to present teachers as expert professionals. What the current crisis proves however is teachers are key workers. You can take away the exams and associated bureaucracy as has been done and teachers still innovate in delivering learning opportunities for students who will still progress to the next stage of their lives. Take the teachers out of this the exam boards cannot do fill their roles. Is it really utopian to suggest teachers be free to exercise the full professional agency their status deserves? After all teachers working conditions are children’s learning conditions and if this crisis can create a better understanding of how to enhance these then it will not have been wasted. At the end of it all, after post-coronavirus, re-imagining education and seizing a new initiative, as well as protecting these gains, should be a rallying call for radical educators.

Ian Duckett is Secretary of the Norfolk and Suffolk Branch of the Socialist Educational Association and Post-16 Officer for Norfolk NEU.


Ian Duckett

June 2020




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