When was the last time your knowledge of trigonometry or the Bayeux Tapestry came into play? Such topics pepper the national curriculum but they are rarely drawn upon in adulthood. While a formal education gives pupils an all-round grounding as they move from child to young adult, basic life skills are sometimes left behind.
Headteachers such as Kirsten Jowett of Wolfson Hillel Primary School realise the critical importance of this area.
“We have written our own Hillel curriculum of life skills, based on what we think an 11-year-old child should look like,” says the head of the north London school. “We don’t feel they are successful unless they have got both the outcomes and all those skills.”
Staff emphasise independent learning for children preparing for secondary school, as well as other aspects such as “manners, kindness and learning to make friends,” says Jowett. The school has introduced “family service” at lunch. “Eight children sit around every table. The food is in the middle and the older children serve. Each child has to ask for what they want and then they have a conversation.”
Cooking, healthy eating and the importance of fitness are built into both science and D&T (design and technology). Road safety is taught from nursery up, while children in year four attend swimming lessons at a local pool. Financial awareness is taught in PSHE. One project involves the pupils doing a weekly kosher shop on an average family income, while year six relish the school’s innovative chesed project, which involves raising money for charity with a small initial investment.
“Last year about £300 was turned into £2,500,” says Jowett. “The kids love the scheme, which teaches them about setting up a business, enterprise, profit and loss and the true value of the amount they have given to charity.”
Most secondary schools continue to develop these areas. At JCoSS in Barnet, healthy living is built into the PE curriculum, with every student taking it until age 16. Cooking is covered in food technology, part of the D&T curriculum. All students do a module of this each year at key stage three and the subject is popular at GCSE and as part of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. Patrick Moriarty, the head teacher, says: “One of our students has cooked for Prince Charles and another [former student] is working at the Ritz.”
Money management is a small module in year 10 kvutzah (the JCoSS name for PSHE) and is set to become a bigger across other year groups.
“We take seriously our role in preparing students for ‘the tests of life’, not just ‘the life of tests’ that a UK secondary education tends to be these days,” says Moriarty. “The school curriculum is not the solution to all society’s problems. Families and school need to share the burden of ensuring children become life-ready and the patterns of modern living mean it’s easy for them not to become so unless we plan for it.
“It’s not unheard of for students to reach sixth form without ever going on public transport — they’ve just never had to. Admittedly that’s unusual — and on the flip side some assume adult responsibility in all sorts of ways, often earlier than anyone would like. But certainly schools have a role in teaching, role-modelling and exposing students to all that living requires of them.”
Gesher is a new Jewish primary school for children with special educational needs. Learning at Gesher includes all elements of the national curriculum. Most children work extensively on communication, language and literacy, covering receptive and expressive communication. Social skills and peer interactions are a prominent part of the school experience.
Life skills classes focus on maximising individual independence. Some of Gesher’s children struggle to cope with everyday experiences such as trips to the doctor and visits to the supermarket. Working with visual communication tools, role playing, social stories and real-life experiences enables them to understand these environments better, know what to expect from them and as a result be able to cope better.
To educate is to prepare children and young adults for an independent adult life, writes Sora Kopfstein, headteacher at Kisharon School, north west London. This preparation within most schools is determined by the requirements of the national curriculum. However for many young people, like those at Kisharon School, to be empowered as an independent adult, a completely different curriculum is required, with an emphasis on fundamental life skills.
Activities we take for granted may require years of training and repetition to be acquired for those with learning disabilities.
A vital life skill is the ability to be able to make choices — it is something we do all day. Do I want tea or coffee? What clothes will I wear, or which TV show will I watch? Many of the young people we help do not have the communication tools to express their wishes.
Working with speech therapists, alternative methods of communication can be developed, such as selecting objects, using symbols on cards to make requests and, for verbal pupils, expanding vocabulary. In the same way, occupational therapy input can develop independent feeding skills. Personal hygiene routines are also key.
Our weekly shopping trips provide training, in a real-life context, in skills such as safely crossing roads, making shopping lists, finding items, communicating with shop staff and gaining the concept of money when paying.
For many young people, additional life skills are required to reflect the community they live in. Going to synagogue or a simchah can be a major hurdle. Coping with a crowd, noise and an unfamiliar environment can result in challenging behaviour, unless adequate preparation is in place. We are constantly amazed by the capacity of our students to learn new skills.