An innovative approach to learning in the Isle of Man

I’m sitting down with a group of pupils who are working independently to discuss a complex question – are numbers or words more important? There are a range of views round the table but they are taking it in turns to argue the point and providing clear evidence for their positions, using a tablet computer on the table to do further research.

Meanwhile, outside the playground has been turned into a forest school, with the grounds open at weekends too to provide space for the local community. Children are working in small groups with teachers to make things with tools – one group are hammering nails into a plank and using wool to create an artwork while others saw off pieces of willow to weave into crowns.

What is most remarkable about this?

These students are in primary school – at Ballasalla School and Scoill Phurt le Moirrey on the Isle of Man. Without the constraints of the English education system, the schools, supported by the island’s Department of Education, Sport and Culture, are able to embrace innovative approaches and heads are given a high degree of autonomy to do so.

Jamie Cox, head at Ballasalla, explains to me how the school have embraced the use of the SOLE approach – Self Organised Learning Environment – to give pupils here much more freedom and self-efficacy, working in small teams to tackle complex questions.

That innovation doesn’t stop at primary school.

Two senior leaders from nearby Castle Rushen High School have also spent time in local primary schools, noticing the significant differences that young people face between the style of tuition in Year 6 and Year 7. And they are taking action to smooth the transition. Building on their own successful pilot over the last couple of years, students in Year 7 will have ten lessons a week taking part in cross-curricular ‘quests’ that help them build skills like team working and problem solving as well as subject knowledge.

Across the island at St Ninian’s High School, they are making use of their freedoms in a different way. Unconstrained by the English qualifications system, they are picking the best of English, Scottish and Welsh options to create a truly broad and balanced curriculum for pupils. Within computing, young people are able to take three different pathways around ICT, Computer Science and Digital Applications. Each is supported by a different qualification and this breadth presents a much wider range of opportunities for young people with different interests to develop their digital skills. As a result, almost a third of students take an A-Level in a computing subject.

University College Isle of Man works closely with the schools to ensure that courses complement what is on offer and their provision begins with two half-days a week from age 14. Pupils can choose to supplement their school learning with high quality vocational education in areas like engineering and media production, an opportunity lost in England with the removal of the Young Apprenticeships programme. Working innovatively with the University of Chester, the College can offer opportunities all the way from Level 1 to Level 7 for young people and adults on the island.

Just as with Jersey, the Isle of Man presents an excellent example of what can flourish when schools are released from the strictures of the rigid EBacc and academic curriculum. Head teachers with greater autonomy, a broader curriculum, inter-disciplinary learning and early access to vocational opportunities – all giving young people on the Isle of Man more opportunities to develop the skills that our research shows that employers are looking for. 

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