27 January 2023

How do we prepare kids for the real world? Applied learning is a great place to start


What should schools teach?

We obviously want kids to be literate and numerate, and to have at least some knowledge of how the world works. And we often encourage them to demonstrate some capacity for analysing and evaluating arguments. But very often it can seem like our ambitions for schools have narrowed, with more and more effort going into teaching less and less. 

Kids should have the basics, certainly. Schools are rightly held accountable to parents and politicians – exam results provide one easily grasped and graphed measure of how well they’re doing. But it can often feel like there’s little room to nurture attributes like confidence, initiative, character, and more general attitudes to learning. Teachers often feel overloaded by preparing pupils for the next exam, year after year, so the things that aren’t easily counted or don’t contribute directly to pupils’ results can fall by the wayside. For all that there might be a nod or two toward things like confidence and character in how schools are assessed, they’re ultimately a nice-to-have – the icing on the cake. And so they become the reserve of schools that are blessed with plentiful resources or especially proactive and talented teachers.

All of which is a problem. Because when you speak to employers and ask what they want, they don’t care so much about what quadratic equations you can solve as whether you can turn up on time, work well in a team, show initiative, and be organised, presentable, curious, articulate, reliable, resilient, and responsible. The awkward fact is that these difficult to measure characteristics, which are almost totally ignored and even discouraged by the way schools are assessed, make all the difference in how pupils fare in the wider world. They thus become the attributes that – by being so patchily and sporadically taught – then shape a country’s inequality, social mobility, and likely productivity too. These personal qualities are, after all, what you need for successful entrepreneurship, innovation and the pursuit of improvement in any walk of life.

Fortunately, some schools do focus on these sorts of traits, and have found that one of the best ways to do this is to get young people to actually do the things they’re preparing for – to apply their learning. In my new report for The Entrepreneurs Network in partnership with Young Enterprise, called ‘What Applied Learning Really Looks Like’, I’ve put a spotlight on a few of the inspiring initiatives by teachers to really prepare their pupils for the world beyond school  – and not just in the schools with more funds. 

Take Queensmead Primary Academy, in Leicester, which serves one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country. Its an area often written off for having low aspirations, but in 2018 Queensmead’s teachers developed a highly sophisticated applied learning programme for its Year 6 students: the Purple Pound, an entire internal market economy, with pupils aged just 10-11 earning, spending, selling, saving, borrowing, managing, and even banking.

Pupils apply for and do real jobs a couple of times a week during their playtimes and lunchtimes, adding value to other children at the school by acting as library monitors, overseeing and organising team sports in the playground, reading to the younger pupils, and even offering translation services for younger pupils when they share a first language. Pupils receive their pay in Purple Pounds from the school’s internal bank – itself run and managed by other pupils – and decide whether to save it or spend it at the school’s emporium – which, again, is run by other pupils, who do the selling, stock-taking, pricing, and even buying of the stock to sell. 

The programme has developed over the years, growing in complexity and becoming entirely self-financing. Having started with a budget of £300 to stock the original emporium, the pupils quickly showed how capable and responsible they could be, with some of them taking on the jobs of running after-school events for pupils and parents – such as ‘Pizza Parties’, ‘Popcorn Playtimes’, film screenings and discos – which raise the real money to keep the rest of the scheme going. Naturally, the pupils organise the events entirely themselves, coming up with the concepts, designing the advertisements, drafting the letters to the parents about the events, preparing the budgets, pricing the tickets, greeting people at the doors, taking coats, and of course cleaning up afterwards too.

The pupils at Queensmead thus take on real responsibilities and develop their confidence and character. Those who take on management roles gain very real experiences of leadership. And above all, they love it. It’s fun. Although participating in the scheme is entirely voluntary, it is overwhelmingly popular with pupils, as well as with teachers and parents too. The tasks that the pupils do free up teacher time and resources, as well as boosting pupils’ confidence, reducing misbehaviour, and improving general levels of maturity. It thus pays dividends to the entire school, including in the classroom.

The Purple Pound is just one of many ways that applied learning can be implemented in schools. While Queensmead’s programme takes place in playtimes and lunchtimes, some of the other case studies show how applied learning can also be used directly in the classroom, emphasising to pupils the relevance of what they’re being taught and instilling a genuine passion for learning. There are also, of course, a wide range of programmes – such as those Young Enterprise has been delivering for decades – in which pupils gain direct experience of running a business and being entrepreneurs. So there are plenty of tried and tested models of applied learning in action.

The challenge, however, is to scale them so as many pupils as possible around the country can benefit from the essential character-building traits they help build. Highlighting case studies of applied learning in action will hopefully inspire teachers by showing them what can and has been done, even in very difficult circumstances. But successfully spreading applied learning will also need some encouragement from the top. Schools need to know that they are not only permitted, but actively encouraged to think and act creatively in preparing their young people for the world beyond school.

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Anton Howes is the Head of Innovation Research at The Entrepreneurs Network, and the author of 'What Applied Learning Really Looks Like'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.