How do essential skills shape young people’s life outcomes?

23 Nov 2020, 5:00

What do we know about the impact of skills-focused interventions and what does it mean for teachers? Will Millard and Dr Elnaz Kashefpakdel review the evidence

What is it that young people really need to learn in order to thrive throughout school and later life? This question has always been hotly contested, and rightly so: the things young people learn at school set them up for further study, training or employment.

However, when it comes to the narrow question of skills, there’s less debate. You’ll likely find overlap in what a teacher, parent, politician, chief executive or young person thinks pupils should learn. The importance of skills such as working constructively in a team, communicating effectively, or setting suitable goals seems unarguable. But how do such skills actually shape outcomes for young people during school and later life?

This question was the focus of an evidence review, conducted by The Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY) for the Skills Builder Partnership. CfEY identified and reviewed studies examining how essential skills – defined by Skills Builder Universal Framework as listening, speaking, problem solving, creativity, staying positive, aiming high, teamwork, and leadership – shape outcomes in three key areas: education, employment, and social and emotional wellbeing.

What we found out is that goal setting appears to be particularly important in supporting young people’s academic attainment. For example, one longitudinal study found that setting suitably ambitious and targeted goals towards particular job roles and career trajectories led to improved academic outcomes among pupils with special educational needs (although this relationship is not as strong for young people without special needs). Evidence from smaller studies suggests that interventions supporting communication and teamwork correlate with improved academic results, for children in the Early Years as well as university undergraduates.

Goal setting appears to be particularly important in supporting young people’s academic attainment

Being able to communicate effectively and stay positive can lead to improved employment outcomes for some young people. For example, French academics used longitudinal datasets to highlight how young people’s communication skills and perseverance help to explain differences in income, in particular among young people with the highest salaries. Studies examining the performance of interns in Mexico, and another examining communication lessons on US medical trainees, found that interpersonal skills were significantly associated with improved professional performance.

The evidence is perhaps strongest in relation to the impact of skills on young people’s social and emotional wellbeing. We found a range of studies outlining how interventions targeting children’s self-esteem, decision making and communication can lead to heightened self-assurance and improved social functioning. For example, analysis of data from evaluations of a US programme targeting pre-school and elementary children’s resilience found that, on average, the intervention improved pupils’ prosocial behaviours while reducing the incidence of bullying and aggression. We also found evidence that skills-focused interventions can impact positively on young people’s social and emotional wellbeing outside mainstream settings.

Despite a large body of evidence examining the link between interventions, skills and outcomes, we encountered gaps. We also found that more studies focus on university students and recent graduates than on young children. We would like to see more research that examines the opportunity costs associated with teaching skills explicitly versus not doing so. Where evidence examines the links between interventions, skills and outcomes, it often doesn’t make causal claims.

And then there’s the million-dollar question: what does all this mean for teachers? Where studies in our review explored the features of effective delivery, they indicated that essential skills interventions tend to be more effective when they are regular, long term, explicit, embedded, structured, supported and targeted. The review highlights alignment between the evidence base and Skills Builder’s approach, and teachers, employers and practitioners working in youth organisations can view Skills Builder’s six principles of best practice on the Skills Builder website, alongside free resources for teaching essential skills. Case studies about implementing the framework are available in CfEY’s 2017 report on the teachability of essential skills.

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