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Learning Skills as a complex intervention: raising the bar, closing the gap

James Mannion

In 2010, my secondary school initiated a Learning to Learn (L2L) curriculum for all students in Year 7. There was a competitive selection process, and I was chosen to be one of a team of 5 teachers to design and deliver this curriculum. Remarkably, we were given 5 lessons a week to do with as we saw fit. We considered buying in an existing programme, but upon reviewing the evidence decided instead to reason from first principles, and do something different to previous approaches.

Our basic idea was to reconceptualise L2L as a ‘complex intervention’ comprised of multiple strands of effective practice, the idea being that the marginal effects arising from any single area of practice would stack up and interact to produce a large effect size overall. In particular, we were influenced by notions of oracy, metacognition, self-regulation, growth mindset, assessment for learning (AfL) and transfer.


Oracy meant explicitly teaching and developing high quality speaking and listening skills in a range of ways – through paired and group talk, philosophical enquiry, structured debates and public speaking.


Metacognition meant developing a whole-school culture in which we provided time and space for regular, purposeful reflection on the ‘how’, as well as the ‘what’ of learning.


Self-regulation meant enabling students to become the drivers of their own learning – through setting targets and co-constructing success criteria, identifying strategies, monitoring progress, overcoming obstacles, resolving conflicts, adapting behaviours and so on; this was done mainly through half-termly project-based learning opportunities.

Growth mindset

Growth mindset meant embedding and reinforcing the notion of expandable intelligence, preferably without ever mentioning the words ‘growth mindset’ to the students.

Assessment for learning

Harking back to the original ‘Black Box’ study of formative assessment, this meant providing plenty of rich, comment-based feedback for the students to reflect upon and respond to.


Recognising the critical importance of transfer meant developing a whole-school, shared language of learning – as well as common pedagogical approaches, developed through a whole-school CPD action research programme.

And ‘what makes for good teaching’ meant that what some might view as a ‘progressive’ ends were to be delivered through fairly traditional means: modelling, explaining, purposeful practice and plenty of rich feedback. 

Raising the bar, closing the gap

When the first L2L cohort reached the end of Year 7, the curriculum expanded into Year 8, for 3 lessons a week. A year later it expanded again into Year 9, this time for 5 lessons a fortnight. Over the course of three years, the first L2L cohort received more than 400 lessons of L2L.

The impact of the L2L curriculum has been evaluated over 5 years as the focus of my PhD, which is ongoing (I am in the 5th year of a 5-year part-time course). It’s a mixed methods case study which incorporates data analysis (attainment across all subject areas), observation data, student and teacher interviews, questionnaires, and the students’ work.

Earlier this year, I published an article in the Curriculum Journal – co-authored with my PhD supervisor, Professor Neil Mercer – which presents the interim findings of this 5-year longitudinal evaluation of the Learning Skills Curriculum.

Compared with the previous year group – who were comparable at entry to the school, and so served as a kind of control or comparison group – by the end of Year 9, a significantly higher proportion of students in the L2L hit or exceeded their target grade.

All students benefited from this approach – for example, non-pupil premium students fared better than their control cohort counterparts. But the gains were especially pronounced among pupil premium students: in the pre-L2L control cohort, at the end of Year 9 there was a 25% gap between the proportion of pupil premium and non-pupil premium students hitting or exceeding target; in the L2L cohort, the gap was just 2%.

The first L2L cohort sat their GCSEs in 2015. They achieved the best set of results in the school’s history, by some margin. They also had by far the biggest reduction in the Pupil Premium gap of any school in the city, in a year when the gap increased across the city as a whole.

We are currently beginning to work with other schools – primary and secondary – to see if whether we can replicate these remarkable findings more widely. If you work in a school or know of one that might be interested, please drop me a line –


Mannion, J. & Mercer, N. (2016): Learning to learn: improving attainment, closing the gap at Key Stage 3. The Curriculum Journal.